Voicing My Difficulties

The lure of free phone calls might be enticing, but configuring commercial VoIP systems is still a black art

I recently had the not-rare-enough privilege of a visit from the finance director. He strode into my office tossing the latest company phone bill onto my desk with an exaggerated flourish, announcing it was now part of my budget since phone systems are just bits of technology. I decided I need to do two things: Hasten my plans to implement a VoIP system, and schedule an unplanned outage on the finance server at end of month.

I've been considering VoIP for a few years. I even included it in my last two strategic plans to fill in space where the ideas were meant to go. The lure of free phone calls is not only financially attractive, it's also nostalgic. The last time I had free phone calls was as a teenager when I learned to "flick" the public telephones to enjoy zero-coin telephony.

Although I'm a bit worried about the lack of industry standards — no one can agree if it should be VoIP or VOIP — I figured it can't be too hard to implement as it seemed pretty easy when I used Skype at home. I've only used it to call the Skype Test Call lady, but her voice was very clear, if somewhat repetitive.

Smart Phones, Dumb Cables

First, I checked to see what other companies are doing. In the US, two thirds of businesses have either installed or are considering VoIP. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is spending $7 million to roll out IP telephony. Their system features a universal directory allowing users to contact anyone on the system. (A more useful feature for Foreign Affairs would be a universal translator to allow them to talk to their foreign people.) DFAT says it will improve productivity by making it easier for users to keep in contact and work with their colleagues. They obviously have a different environment to my office. I can only improve my productivity by shutting myself in an office or working from home — away from my colleagues, whose communication to me largely consists of complaints, jokes, gossip and work they want to handball.

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The stated benefit of a full VoIP network, covering office and mobile phones, is being able to keep a single number for all contacts, and not having to worry about diverting numbers or paying telecom providers twice for the one phone call. The unstated benefit is our employees will always be in reach, whether at night, on the weekend or on leave. They could turn their phone off, but who can resist the temptation of checking mail and missed calls every couple of hours when they've got themselves a new smartphone?

Business is not the only group making the move to VoIP. Hackers have been quick to port their instant messaging-based attacks to VoIP software. So far, VoIP systems have been attacked by worms, viruses and floods. It only needs to suffer from boils and death of the first-born, and we're revisiting the Plagues of Egypt. Cisco has responded with software patches for its VoIP servers to prevent flood attacks through its ports, as floods in ports can lead to storms in T-Cups (The Cisco Unified Presence Server).

Since anything to do with communications inevitably gets back to cabling, it shouldn't have come as any surprise that our Cat 3 cables needed upgrading. Apparently Cat 3 is so named because voice calls over it generate so much hiss it sounds like three cats fighting. My team told me we need Cat 5e or 6. When I suggested we should skip ahead to Cat 8 and future-proof the installation, everyone just stared at me. I may have pre-empted the standards bodies.

The Price of Acronyms

After the VoIP PBX arrived to replace our old PABX, I realized why the middle A has been made redundant. It stood for Automatic, which a VoIP PBX most definitely isn't. Configuring commercial VoIP systems is still a black art, and the company from whom I bought my VoIP service offered no help at all. I complained to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, only to discover my VoIP provider, like around a third of all providers, hadn't signed up to the industry's regulatory framework.

I tried to call in experts to fix my phone system, but my phone wasn't working to call them. After a lot of trial and error, experimentation and error, and just errors, I took the unprecedented step of reading the manual. That fixed the phones but I still couldn't get the fax machines working. I just left them on the analog lines and hoped no one would notice, which I discovered later at a VoIP conference is what everyone else had done.

Since implementation, users have complained that the new phone system suffers long latencies and frequently drops out, so they're resorting to using their mobile phones in the office instead. Although that means my costs will reduce, since mobile calls don't come from my budget, I still feel the need to offer a solution.

I've promised them that, in our second phase of roll-out, we'll implement a new technology called QoS. I'm not sure how it works, but I've read that companies who delivered QoS with their VoIP network have much better service. Apparently, I can "improve the QoS with MOS SLA from ITU". What a triumph for TLAs. Translating that sentence into English; Quality of Service is improved with a Mean Opinion Score (why not have a Kind Opinion Score) of a Service Level Agreement from the International Telecommunications Union. Nope, no clearer.

The current development in this technology is VoIPOMN (Voice Over Internet Protocol Over Mobile Networks). Adding those extra acronyms comes at a cost. Currently, the key benefit of VoIP calls is they're free. A key feature of mobile phones is they're expensive and the cost of an always-on mobile phone call will test any provider's monthly caps.

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Zero dollar calls currently also means zero revenue VoIP providers, as most of them aren't making any money from their services at the moment. Could offering a free service on an expensive service be commercially viable? It's happened before. Pay-per-month TV is starting to claw some market share from free-to-air TV, proportional to an increase in quality programming, but it's taken 10 years. Callers are starting to use pay-per-minute mobile phones in preference to un-timed landline phones due to features like address book and caller ID. That's taken 20 years. So perhaps mobile VoIP will dominate over time provided it can offer benefits other than just cost reduction.

Before this can occur, the mobile network, which took years to solve drop-outs when handing calls from one mobile phone to another, has to work out how to hand off IP addresses. I can see two reasons why mobile vendors will solve this problem. FOLOMS (fear of loss of market share) is a powerful business motivator, and already Hutchinson and Optus have announced plans for VoIPOMN. Secondly there's FOLOF (fear of loss of face) as network providers desperately try to fill up their 3G networks to justify the billion dollars they spent on it six years ago.

No FOLOF for me, as I sauntered into the finance director's office, flaunting the much lower phone bill as proof of my management skills. I didn't show him the rather expensive VoIP purchase orders which further illustrated my management skills. Annoyingly, he reads the technology magazines, and smugly asked why I wasn't integrating VoIP, messaging applications and desktop software to demonstrate Unified Communication.

The only reason I didn't demonstrate a Unified Digit was I heard my phone ringing from the other end of the office. I still haven't worked out how to configure volume settings.

Bruce Kirkham is a veteran IT satirist and professional speaker ­specializing in leading edge technologies and scepticism, who views the IT industry not so much as "dot com" as "dot comedy"