The telephone and networked personal computer (PC) have become indispensable tools in today’s fast-paced business environment. Together, these two information appliances allow firms to stay connected with their customers and suppliers as well as gather and share information internally to improve customer service, productivity and profitability. Traditionally, these two systems have been installed separately and worked independently of one another even though the need to use both devices simultaneously to get the job done has become increasingly common.

The advantages of combining voice and data on the same network infrastructure coupled with advances in network technology is making integrated voice and data systems feasible for even the smallest firm. The convergence of voice and data systems is happening and the electrical contracting firm needs to be aware of this movement and be prepared to help its customers take advantage of it as it occurs.

What is VoIP?

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) works just like e-mail by using packet switching to transmit voice between the two parties involved in a telephone conversation. The speaker’s voice is first digitized and then routed over the data network as a “packet” or a short burst of digitized information. At the receiving end, the digitized voice packets are received, reassembled in chronological order, and converted from digital data to analog sound that can be heard and understood by the listener.

VoIP is different from traditional telephone systems that use line switching instead of packet switching to connect the two parties during a telephone call. With line switching, each call essentially has its own communication channel that connects the two parties during the call. While VoIP offers a lot of operational advantages, there are a number of technical challenges associated with using a single network for voice, data, and possibly video simultaneously. Manufacturers and industry groups are currently working to solve these challenges and standardize protocols, which will rapidly move VoIP into the mainstream.

VoIP can be implemented by a firm either locally or globally. Local implementation involves the use of VoIP over the firm’s local area network (LAN) and then connecting to the outside world through a private branch exchange (PBX) via a VoIP gateway. Globally, a firm can connect to the outside world through an Internet provider and bypass the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Due to quality of service (QoS), security, and other concerns, firms today are implementing VoIP locally.

Plug and play

Moves, adds and changes (MACs) become much easier, less expensive, and less disruptive for the customer with VoIP. With VoIP, telephone sets are essentially special purpose computers that connect directly to the network and have their own network address. Employees that move simply plug their telephone set into the network at their new location and log onto the system to initiate telephone service. There is no need to wait until a telephone technician is available to assign numbers or make other hardwire changes needed to accommodate an employee move. In addition, needed adds and changes associated with new or departing employees can be accomplished by a network administrator by logging onto the network from a personal computer without ever going near a telephone wiring closet.

Integrating the telephone and personal computer into one network device is the next step in this evolution. Why do employees need two computers on their desk when the telephone and computer can be combined into a single communication device consisting of a personal computer and a telephone handset? Besides the advantage of eliminating redundant equipment and investment, integrating voice and data capabilities into a single network appliance will allow firms to provide better customer service. For example, service centers with integrated voice and data systems can have customer history and other data pop up automatically when the customer calls in.

Wireless local area networks (WLAN) are no longer just for data. WLANs are being developed that support voice communications using VoIP. These WLANs are being referred to by the acronym VoWLAN and will be compatible with the customer’s existing WiFi or Wireless Fidelity data network. With VoWLAN, employees can carry a portable telephone with them and initiate and receive telephone calls whenever they are within range of a facility access point (AP). In addition, with WiFi connectability becoming a standard feature on new laptops, handheld personal computers (HPC), and personal digital assistants (PDA), software is being developed that will turn these digital devices into “softphones.” Employees will not have to carry a portable telephone with them to stay connected if they have a portable digital device with WiFi capability. Similarly, cellular telephone manufacturers are developing models with dual capabilities that can operate either on the cellular network or on a WLAN using WiFi technology. EC

GLAVINICH is an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas and is a frequent instructor for NECA’s Management Education Institute. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 or tglavinich@ku.edu.