Convergence has been spoken of for years and vendors have released very trendy products and solutions to make it work. But using a telephone or an IP phone is irrelevant to someone making a call, except when the IP system can not guarantee the quality of the call. And who actually cares if his/her data and voice communications travels over the same cable or multiple transportation vehicles, as long as it gets there?
What is the point of convergence? Is it another IT vendor-driven sales pitch designed to convince companies to adopt another red herring that will force them to keep coming back for upgrades, cross-grades and bug fixes for years? Or does it have real value and usefulness for the enterprise?
And never mind about if it works and what value it may or may not add to a company, the real issue in South Africa is: is it legal? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is yes and no and who knows.
It is early days yet, but the convergence bill is a bit of a downer for VANS and providers of bandwidth. Currently, it is illegal for anyone to offer voice over IP (VoIP) services external to a corporate network. Fortunately, larger corporates with wide-area networks (WANs) are able to use IP communications within branches, but are not able to make use of the cost-effective alternatives to Telkom's high call charges.
The whole issue of convergence is confusing since one would expect Telkom is able to offer any service it likes, but the question of IP services may even prevent Telkom from doing anything - although who is going to enforce that is a question one could ask.
Edwin Thompson, regulatory director at UUNET SA, says that the regulations in SA not only affect the uptake of VoIP and convergent technologies in local companies, but may also be responsible for the DTI losing some new business deals it is trying to attract to the country.
He explains that one of the DTI's goals is to attract outsourced call centre projects to the country. Our rates are favourable and the local accent is easier to understand to the European ear than some of our competitors' accents. And we are in the right time zone.
Many potential outsourcees come here and realise that because of the telecoms environment, they are forced to use one supplier and can not use VoIP as they may want to, perhaps as a realtime link between South Africa and a London office - for example. This lack of choice is a large negative in their decision-making process. That is not to say this one issue chases all comers away - there are many elements involved in such a decision - but if the telecoms environment was more open, it could bolster the DTI's efforts.
Thompson adds that a freer VoIP environment would also benefit consumers and small businesses with lower cost services. "The quality of an Internet call may not be equal to that of a telephone call, but in many instances it will not be necessary to have such high quality."
Productivity and costs
The desire to be able to offer IP services without restriction is obviously a potential source of income for many of today's service providers - a source that is being strangled. However, the reason they want to offer these services is simply because corporations want them. Customers educated in the benefits of converged IP services can see tremendous potential and returns.
Intervate's Migal van As believes productivity and collaboration is key to the drive to convergence, but the full potential of technology can't be reached when companies are restricted in who and how they can communicate and collaborate.
A simple example is the ability of designers on different continents to work together as a team while building a new product. Technology exists to support this via normal Internet connections, but for more complex and perhaps sensitive collaboration, privacy may be needed via corporate WANs, for example.
Van As says that in developed countries WANs are almost transparent to users, as LANs are in South Africa, allowing them to implement collaboration projects almost without thinking about trivialities such as bandwidth. Costs and restrictions in South Africa make this more difficult.
However, he believes the second network operator, whenever it starts business, will be in a position to force changes to this state of affairs. The convergence bill, or some follow-on may also clarify matters.
Getting back to what matters to management, Van As adds that supporting VoIP, for example, does not add very much to the overall infrastructure maintenance bill. IP can, however, make a large productivity difference and this is the starting point to answer the questions posed above.
Getting positive on convergence
While the restrictions on convergence are a serious hindrance to the full potential of the technologies involved, there is little we can do until the status quo changes. Dimension Data's Gavin Hill suggests companies go ahead and take advantage of what is available right now. And savings are measurable.
Companies with branches in Johannesburg and Cape Town, for instance, can cut the toll charges out of their phone bills by using a VoIP solution to transfer calls between branches on their WAN. With the ability to compress voice data, a leased line can go a long way to reducing phone bills. And these solutions are not restricted to enterprise-class companies. Small to mid-sized concerns with dedicated bandwidth will also be able to implement VoIP with a little effort.
Call centres can also make use of IP services to route calls to the appropriate people within a company without increasing their call charges, for example. In this area the question of IP phones on employees' or call centre agent's desks comes into focus as well.
IP devices are more expensive than traditional telephones, although many vendors say they have come down in price to the level of digital handsets. Nonetheless, it would be a waste to use IP phones simply as phones when the whole converged network is at your door.
Hill provides the following two international examples:
* A soft drink manufacturer has installed IP phones to assist in customer service. When a client calls in to ask where their shipment of drinks is, the information appears directly on the agent's IP phone screen. There is no need to log into an application on the user's PC or go through any other hassles.
* A bank in Switzerland is also using IP services to deliver better services to its clients. When a call reaches an employee (using an IP phone), the client's information is displayed on the phone's screen along with a happy or angry face to indicate the type of call the bank employee is going to have to deal with.
These are two simple examples of how convergence and the broadening of IP services can directly impact the productivity of organisations and directly impact costs.
IP as the great integrator
Integrating telephony with applications as described above can forgo many of the inconveniences of dealing with customers.
A simple program can, for example, determine if a person is logged into his/her PC when a call comes in. If not, there is little point putting the call through to the staff member's desk. An IP system can automatically route it to a cellphone. If that is engaged or goes to voicemail, the call can be sent back to the desktop voicemail solution. The network can make intelligent decisions in trying to get calls answered the first time and not to have clients continually getting voicemail.
Using an instant messenger application within a phone can deliver the same services - if a person is not logged in, or notifies interested parties that he/she is on lunch or working at home, calls can be routed to another number.
The value of convergent technologies, whether they be VoIP, IP services or integration capabilities is only starting to be seen now that applications such as the ones described above are being developed and distributed. Convergence is not simply combining voice and data on a single network or being able to make calls over LANs and WANs, but opens the door to a host of new applications and integration possibilities that not only reduce costs, but make users significantly more productive - and that makes bottom-line sense.
ProCurve VoIP solutions praised in Tolly Group tests
HP ProCurve Networking announced independent test results indicating that the HP ProCurve enterprise local area network (LAN) switching infrastructure is truly interoperable with industry voice-over-IP (VoIP) solutions and at the same time offers better networking performance.
Two recent performance studies commissioned by HP and conducted by The Tolly Group, confirm that HP ProCurve products are a more efficient VoIP alternative to competing offerings from other industry players, including Cisco and 3Com.
In a separate study, also commissioned by HP, The Tolly Group evaluated the HP ProCurve switching infrastructure capability to provide a suitable transport for VoIP traffic at high call-quality levels from a variety of IP PBX vendors. This second interoperability test determined that HP ProCurve Networking infrastructure effectively supports popular VoIP solutions from 3Com, Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, NEC and Nortel Networks, while maintaining exceptionally high-quality voice traffic.
"There is a misperception in the marketplace that voice quality will be improved if the VoIP gear is from the same manufacturer as the infrastructure," said Louis Helmbold, HP ProCurve sales manager, HP South Africa. "Other vendors use this market confusion to try to force customers into a homogeneous proprietary environment that cannot meet the needs of individual customers. These test results reaffirm that HP ProCurve products are interoperable with the offerings from other vendors, delivering the highest quality solutions while ensuring customer choice and flexibility."