The telephone business used to be simple. There were devices that carried voice communication and they all did the same thing. The facilities people ran the phone system; the IT people had the computer stuff. And the twain did not meet. It's all different now as phones carry data, data devices handle telephone calls, and the telephony devices and services are increasingly being put on the technology department's budget. Then there are questions such as "Who pays for cell phone service?" And which devices and how many communications devices should mobile workers carry?
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"The technology is outstripping the firm's policies," notes Matt Camden, CIO of Chicago-based UHY Advisors.
The issues are complex and reflect the rapidly changing environment that seems like it's up for grabs in terms of which technologies win. But there's no doubt that the difference been voice and data communications are rapidly diminishing.
Corporately, communications has moved onto the IT budget in places like UHY, where voice now represents 20 percent of spending.
And the discussion of what to buy has moved from replacing the telephone system, which has often meant replacing PBXes with VoIP systems, to tying in the cell phones and PDAs carried by an increasingly mobile workforce.
One of the big benefits of VoIP is that it reduces long-distance charges. But with the spread of cell phones, UHY now spends more on cell phone minutes than it does on long-distance services since half of its staff works remotely, and that number is going to grow substantially over the next three years, reducing the need for on-premise telephones.
"We may have 1,500 handsets in the firm now," says Camden. "Three years from now, will we have 800 handsets."
There's no doubt of the advantages of VoIP, says Jeff Hapeman, CIO at Peoria, Ill.-based Clifton Gunderson. Not only does it provide substantial savings in long-distance costs, it improves communication between offices. That's because VoIP gives workers the ability to dial five digits to reach any other CG office as a local call. Without having to punch so many numbers- in the area code and seven-digit phone number:-inter-office calls have skyrocketed. And it makes a huge difference in how people are deployed.
"If you want to be specialized and have staff that is expert in various areas, they need to be available to people in other offices," says Hapeman. Not only does five-digit dialing encourage calling, but the VoIP systems let a person's extension follow them regardless of location.
Hapeman's firm has almost completed rolling out the new phone system to its 60 offices in 15 states. And although the Cisco-based VoIP network is expensive to implement, it will simplify the hodge-podge of PBXes and make administration simpler.
"At CG, we had 57 offices and about 40 different systems that had been purchased at different times," says Hapeman. For remote offices, repair and maintenance usually meant a call to an outside service person.
"You had places where it was very expensive if you just wanted to add a telephone," he says. Remote offices also benefit from the ability to provide improved client service through a virtual receptionist in which a person in another office "can transfer calls, and the person calling never knows."
Another benefit is that with the demand for unified messaging-a system in which voice, data, fax, and email are all handled by the same technology-installing the VoIP system provides an instant upgrade to the data system.
"For the same amount we were paying for individual phones, we had our network infrastructure upgraded to brand new," says Hapeman. "The VoIP network is the network we are already paying for and the routers and switches we already own."
Hapeman expects that the project will be completed next summer. While it's a completed project for any organization the size of Clifton Gunderson, the realities of the business of an accounting firm means that it has stretched well beyond what it would have taken if installation and implementation were the only concerns.
"It would have taken us less than 17 months, but it's taking two and a half years, because of the interruption from tax season," Hapeman says.
Like Hapeman, David Hirschkorn, chief information officer for Fargo, N.D.-based Eide Bailly, has found that seven-digit dialing with his firm's VoIP has encouraged communication between offices.
"It gives you a one-firm concept," he says, since the voice system can support conference calls between the Phoenix and Fargo offices, for example. Also, "they can pick up the phone more easily and can transfer voice mail."
David Cieslak's firm doesn't have to grapple with the issue of so many far-flung offices. But with last year's merger with Xcelerate, which has offices in Indiana and Illinois, it now has four offices spread across a great territory.
"We're on VoIP for remote offices in Orange County [California] and Chicago," says Cieslak, a principal with Arxis Technologies of Simi Valley, Calif., formerly known as the Information Technology Group.
VoIP also expands the number of voice devices because "It is going to allow us to turn laptops into cellphones," he says. With the use of headsets that connect to the computers' USB ports, the systems can work as extensions of the office PBX.
"They can dial directly into our switchboard and dial out and connect with other people in the office," he says.
The other benefit of VoIP, which is useful for those using the laptops as telephones, is that the call will follow the user's number, regardless of where the user is.
"If you were to call my office they would put it right through, even if I happen to be working at home," he says. "It will have the same effect when you have your laptop in front of you."
There is also the issue of the proliferation of cell phones and handheld devices.
"Most companies have more cell phone accounts than they have employees, says Jeff McDowell, vice president of global alliances, for Research in Motion, the Waterloo, Ontario-based company that markets the Blackberry line of handheld devices. McDowell continues that it's not unusual for companies to have twice as many cell phone accounts as people.
Reasons for that explosion in the number of cellular accounts include the use of temporary employees, as well as having employees leave, and then not being able to get them off the plan, notes Randy Johnston, a partner with K2 Enterprises, which provides consulting services to firms and vendors.
"Microsoft has 67,000 employees and another 120,00 contractors, and most have cell phones supplied as part of a contract," he says.
Paying the Bill
The proliferation of devices raises questions about who pays for such services. Does the firm buy the devices? Or does it reimburse employees who use their own equipment?
"We keep an eye on whenever we cross the divide," says Arxis' Cieslak. Cieslak says the decision is a matter of monitoring "when it costs more to reimburse them, than it does to buy cell phones. More times than not, we do end up providing cell phones to our consulting staff."
Clifton Gunderson pays for the devices used by its staff. But it gives them a wide range of products to choose from. However, Hapeman notes that employees are limited to using Verizon Wireless or Cingular for cellular communication, a choice founded on vendors' calling area and transmission quality.
The firm also pays about $75 a month per person for unlimited data and 1,000 minutes of voice communication, "and that's more than enough for everyone that has signed up," says Hapeman.
A major decision was to go with a Microsoft, instead of the Blackberry environment, which, at present, is primarily a data communication system with voice capabilities. Right now, the firm requires use of the Windows Mobile V operating system, although that may change.
It also uses GoodLink, a line of products marketed jointly by Sprint Nextel, which synchronize with Microsoft applications, such as Outlook. Operating from a GoodLink Server, the system also enables users of remote devices to access Web-enabled applications, such as financial, customer relationship management, and supply chain management software. That capability costs the firm about $50 per person per year, Hapeman says.
The firm's policy also means that someone who wants personal digital assistant, that handles only data communications, cannot get one.
"If you want a PDA, you don't get a PDA," says Hapeman. "You get a mobile phone with PDA capabilities."
Unifying the telephone system across the firm has also made it more reliable in the event of disaster, with a special eye on tornados, an annual occurrence in much of Clifton Gunderson's service area.