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Ready for VoIP? Here's how to tell.

Voice-over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is one of the fastest-growing technologies being deployed at colleges and universities.

Bruce Grant, NEC’s assistant general manager for product management and an expert on VoIP, explains this technology and how to prepare for it.

A: Voice-over IP is the ability to transmit voice over your data network. In its simplest form, it’s moving voice from traditional telephony standards into an IP environment.

A: First and foremost is providing faculty and staff with the right software applications on their PC or laptop. VoIP applications provide a multitude of communication tools ranging from presence management to inbound and outbound call logging to unified communications. Take for instance presence management; it provides faculty and staff with the ability to prioritize their communications by status, availability and caller. It provides them with control over their own communications?all calls and messages are simply and easily managed from a single application ? reducing the complexity of dealing with multiple communication types and increasing personal productivity. With the addition of unified communications, they also have easy and quick access to voice, fax and email messages from a PC, telephone or the Internet -- whichever is most convenient.

Another example is inbound and outbound call logging. This application provides faculty and staff with single-click call return so that if somebody calls and the call is missed the user can access the log, click the entry, and return the call. The same application also integrates with Outlook so that contacts are readily accessible for one-click dialing. It’s one of NEC’s many innovative call handling solutions that’s currently available.

Another great application of Voice-over IP technology is the soft phone, which is turning your PC or laptop into a device that has the ability to operate as a desk phone. You could use the microphone and speakers of the PC if you wanted to, or a headset or a handset. Then you would communicate just as if you were talking on a normal phone. A soft phone gives you the ability to carry your phone anywhere you want. So if you have faculty visiting other campuses, even internationally, if they have broadband access back to the main campus, they could have telephone capability directly from their notebook computers. For all intents and purposes, to people calling them even though they may be in locales as distant as Egypt or Singapore, it would appear that they’re actually back in their office on campus. Plus they’ll have the full set of communications capabilities so that, should they need to check in with home or with the dean or a student, they can do that.

A: First, are you ready for it? Can your network infrastructure support it? Second, is there really an ROI benefit? Are you going to be able to reduce some of the costs of the traditional telephony infrastructure? Third, are you looking to have savings from a personnel standpoint? Are you going to be able to take some of your current cost structure and move those people into other departments? Fourth, do you have a need for disaster recovery, fail-over, and survivability? Fifth, do you have a desire or need to provide soft phones to faculty or administration so they can work virtually anywhere on campus or from any location with high-speed Internet access?

A: With Voice-over IP, we can make the switching system as reliable as the current traditional telephone system today. Where it differs is with the reliability of the network infrastructure, which is under control of the university. So if the network designers architect it and put in redundancies within the network, then, you know what, we can actually make it more reliable than traditional telephony because we can do what’s called fail-over. This is the ability for a phone to look for a back-up controller if its primary controller is not available, for instance in the event of a natural disaster.

A: Assuming that we’re not using compression, I can meet and exceed traditional telephony voice quality as long as we’re operating on a managed network. As soon as we get off of that managed data network, things change because now we no longer have control. So the quality essentially is going to be dependent upon the network that I’m transmitting over.

A: Assuming the data network’s ready, we could walk into someone’s office and simply put in an IP adapter onto their existing phone, and no disruption would be noticed at all. Or we’d give them a new telephone set if they had a device of a vintage that couldn’t be upgraded. They might want to learn the new features that are enabled on the phone, or we could actually mirror the existing feature set that they had on their previous device to minimize the learning curve. Then, once we’ve got that basic level implemented, we can start bringing out the desktop productivity tools, showing them soft phones and things of that nature so that now they can really start taking advantage of unified communications via Voice-over IP.

A: First, you’ve got your data infrastructure that would need to be evaluated and may well need to be updated in order to be able to actually do Voice-over IP, and then part of that update would be to provide a power source for the phones. The next thing would be taking a look at your telephone system and determining if it makes sense broadly across the enterprise to rip everything out and put in a new Voice-over IP architecture, or to migrate to some kind of hybrid system. Finally we go out to the handsets. Are we replacing every handset with a Voiceover IP device, or are we putting in soft phones and taking out the hard phones? When we put in a hard IP phone, generally speaking, that is going to be 30 to 50 percent of the total cost of deployment. Using soft phones will reduce that to a degree.

A: What NEC has really evolved to is a total solutions provider for colleges and universities. We gather the information, analyze it and identify the best possible solution to fix the problem. It’s a wide gamut of capabilities that we bring to the table that, quite honestly, most of our competitors don’t.

A: Don’t be afraid of it. It’s a great starting point. After doing initial deployments, you will be able to see a return on investment, a reduction in recurring costs, improved desktop productivity or a combination of the three. When we achieve that, we’ve done the right job.