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The evolution of office communications

Broad IP adoption leads to an office communications sea change.
Read time 4min 20sec

Since the telecoms industry's broad adoption of the Internet Protocol (or IP, the computer communication 'standard'), office communication has evolved rapidly, benefiting business productivity and efficiency.

At the same time, cutting-edge communications has become much more affordable to companies of all sizes.

The advantages of IP-based communications fall into several evolutionary categories, each one paving the way for the next.

Network convergence

Convergence, or the merging of voice, video and data networks, is perhaps the most well understood result of IP in telephony (IPT). Whereas computers and telephones previously ran on separate networks, today they use the same standard IP network, which saves huge amounts on infrastructure.

Telecoms vendors like Avaya and Nortel have responded with a choice between 'hybrid' voice equipment (combining old circuit-switched voice technology and IP-based voice switching), or pure IP technology systems. The former allows companies to test the IP waters before they jump in.

Voice has become just another application on the data network, with many positive spin-offs.

Roman Hogh is head of technology and product strategy at MWEB Business.

The latter is suited to 'greenfields' installations, namely new companies or contact centres, which can implement IP technology throughout their premises from the outset, to benefit from the many new applications and 'manageability' of computer-centric voice. Manageability is especially useful in call centre settings, supervisors can check the activities of agents, track their productivity, monitor calls waiting, and direct calls to specialists.

Today the IPT evolution continues unabated, with the maturation of technologies like dual-mode WiFi cellphones, which enable cost-effective calls to be made from various out-of-office locations such as hotspots or the home wireless network.

Fixed-mobile integration allows mobile phones to be fully-fledged remote switchboard extensions, with implications for unified communications (further down). It's not only happening at the edge. Telcos (Telkom, Neotel and the mobile networks) are also rapidly upgrading parts of their national cores to IP-based packet infrastructure.

In short, voice has become just another application on the data network, with many positive spin-offs.

Integration

Voice over IP, an invention of the late nineties, was adopted early on by a few companies as a cost-saving alternative. While it eventually became a mature and reliable technology, it didn't really make its mark until other computer applications, with which it could be integrated, started appearing.

One 'happening' field of IP communication integration is the area of unified communications (UC), which entails the bundling of an employee's many 'inboxes' within one application - e-mail, fax, instant messaging, voice, and so forth.

An employee needing to contact another need not make a few hit-and-miss calls to different phones, or send an e-mail hoping to find them at their desk. The UC application, often operating from within the familiar Microsoft Outlook interface, shows their status (online, busy or available), as well as their preferred method of contact (e-mail, IM, cellphone or whatever).

The beauty of UC, when coupled with 'presence awareness', is that employees' business cards need only list one contact number, and this number will 'follow and find' them wherever they are, on whichever telephone instrument they're using. Workgroups, such as hunting groups in a contact centre setting, can also use presence to route calls, based on the availability of specialist colleagues.

UC further allows the integration of collaboration applications, such as e-mail, IM, voice, video conferencing and file-sharing applications (white-boarding and knowledge management portals like Microsoft SharePoint).

Another example of communications integration is the embedding of IP comms into enterprise applications like ERP and CRM, called CEBP or communications-enabled business processes. Using CEBP, an employee working on a procurement task can request further information from a supplier by checking an order clerk's presence and preferred means of contact within a browser-interfaced partner extranet.

Hosting

The advent of IP-based voice (voice over a broadband connection like ADSL), and the development and integration of comms applications and infrastructures, lastly allow for 'hosted communications'. Such communication services include virtual call centres, fax solutions, messaging and much more. A hosted solution featuring application integration, advanced collaboration and business process integration allows a small business to punch far above its weight, as this gives them advanced communications without the upfront investment or maintenance headache.

It also removes the admin of dealing with many different providers (telephony, Internet and several applications). The only trick is to find a reputable provider.

Or they could take advantage of the IP-ready, all-in-one small business communications platforms already making their way into the market, featuring such advances as full PBX functionality (automated call distribution, voice-mail and more), broadband connectivity, IP voice, least-cost GSM routing, WiFi or cordless telephony, networking, analogue telephone extensions, built-in firewall, and much more.

With the ubiquitous Internet Protocol, innovation abounds and prices are plummeting. For businesses of all sizes and budgets, the sky is the limit.

* Roman Hogh is head of technology and product strategy at MWEB Business.

Roman Hogh

Manager of product development, MWEB Business.

Roman Hogh has been in the IT industry for 15 years, predominantly in the field of technology strategy, architecture and design. In his current position as manager of product development at MWEB Business, Hogh is responsible for spearheading strategy and design for MWEB Business' various product sets, including Internet access, VPNs, DSL, e-commerce, e-billing and financial content distribution.

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