Convergence — The "Triple Play"

The phone rings. You pick it up. Your computer screen opens a window showing the caller’s face – live. Another window appears, listing a file on the caller that you keep in your customer relationship management (CRM) system.

And all you did was pick up the phone. Sound too easy to be true? If people like David Komaromi have their way, IP telephony and its attendant benefits – mixing voice, video and data – will be second nature before long.

For Komaromi, Manager of Technical Services for Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, it all started when his firm’s existing PBX-based phone system reached the end of its useful life. Komaromi sought replacement options that would last. His approach was to ask vendors, “Take a traditional telephone and give me three ways you can make it better.”

He chose a voice over Internet protocol phone system, more commonly known as VoIP. This technoloy is making inroads in both business and consumer markets via firms such as Vonage. The early arguments were mostly about lower costs – vendors hyped lower long-distance charges and savings on infrastructure. Also, adoption proved no problem since VoIP phones look and behave like typical business phones.

The key difference lies behind the scenes: VoIP calls travel over the same wires that carry data, and not a traditionally separate network. Forward thinkers quickly realized that VoIP would let firms integrate previously siloed functions more easily.

Marc Seeman, Practice Leader in Network Convergence for IBM Global Services, notes many adopters took a step-by-step approach to unified communications. “Five years ago, this was just another way to get a dial tone,” he said. “Now it’s the first step to other stuff.”

One of the first projects Komaromi explored was outfitting staff with home offices. “One lawyer was already working at home once a week to make phone calls,” Komaromi recalled. “He had put in a separate line.”

Komaromi outfitted that lawyer and others with VPN appliances and office phones for their home offices. This setup allows associates who work from home to augment their workdays, avoid rush hour when they travel to and from the office and communicate with clients in different time zones whenever it’s most convenient to do so. “Staff can continue working transparently to the client,” said Komaromi.

In late 2005, Komaromi presided over a videophone pilot. The firm handpicked 25 lawyers to try videophone technology. “We looked at statistics about phone usage and travel within the firm,” Komaromi explained. “We asked who collaborated with who, who were the rainmakers in the business.”

From those early adopters, Komaromi learned how video affects legal business communications. “Having video present locked people into conversations,” he said. “Lawyers turned off typical distractions. People did not hover by the door. They would wander by and graciously exit when they saw you were on a call.”

Today’s technology has smoothed out the “video bumps” common to bulky conference-room-based videoconferencing systems of yesteryear. Throughout 2007, new lawyers and administrative staff at Fraser Milner Casgrain receive video phones on day one. “As they interact with colleagues, they can put a face to a voice,” Komaromi said. “They feel they’re part of the team much sooner.” The incremental cost of each videophone setup: about $100.00 per computer.

Seeman noted the importance of unified communications for people who work together on non-routine cognitive projects. “It reduces ‘human latency’,” he said, adding, “It affords flexibility when a firm assembles or disassembles virtual teams.”

There remain several inhibitors to VoIP. Many firms balk at the capital investment, and they often remind vendors of the old saw “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Other concerns include voice quality and interoperability with current systems.

Interoperability is the key to Komaromi’s plans to help staff work more effectively. “The possibilities are limitless,” he said, though he does temper his enthusiasm with real-world concerns. The network must be ready to handle streaming audio and video, and it must allow for quality of service (QoS) so that the network can give right-of-way to audio and video, ensuring minimal latency by delaying delivery of pure data when necessary.

Unified communications are not only the domain of large firms. Major service providers, including Canadian telcos, are actively chasing the SMB market with triple-play offerings tailored to SMB budgets.

On the client end, future generations of associates may not use devices that actually look like phones – they could simply use their computers to call people, much as many already do using existing “soft phone” services such as Skype. “They’re quicker to adopt technology and quicker to adapt to it,” Komaromi explained. “The technology really is second nature to them.”

The one question Komaromi can’t definitively answer deals with the return on his firm’s investment. “It’s hard to put a dollar value on effective communication,” he said.

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