Avaya and ObjectTel create massive IP-based voice network

Avaya and ObjectTel recently announced they are working with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway Company on perhaps the largest IP-based converged voice, data and radio network in the world. The network is built to integrate more than 1,100 radios used by workers in 28 states and two Canadian provinces (BC and Manitoba).

The innovation comes primarily from ObjectTel’s ClassOne Dispatch product. ObjectTel, a member of Avaya’s DeveloperConnection program, has developed ClassOne to work in an Avaya environment that allows for multiple voice systems to be put on a single infrastructure.

John Hicks, director of technology services for BNSF, says that for any railroad one of the biggest challenges is being able to stay in touch at all times.

“ClassOne Dispatch is being primarily used by our train dispatchers,” says Hicks. “This person performs a function similar to that of an air traffic controller. The first priority is safety. This is augmented by cellular networks and can be used to authorize crews for track access, to talk to trains and operators, as well as the track maintenance folks.”

Tracy Fleming, IP telephony leader for Avaya Canada, sees the ObjectTel solution and the deal with BNSF as fitting nicely into Avaya’s overall vision of intelligent convergence, wherein TDM phones are tossed and all the traffic is put on one network.

“Our customers want to find the resources they need regardless of device. In this instance it’s an RF walkie-talkie. Whether it is linemen, crew chiefs, police officers, or fire fighters, ClassOne can control radio assets. Avaya then brings it into Communication Manager, where the analog signal is converted to an IP network and the traffic can be seen.”

Avaya Meeting Exchange handles all communication for conferencing and messaging, and BNSF’s single contact centre consolidates help desk support and communication to crews for maintenance and dispatch. From BNSF’s point of view, the visibility that the system offers is a big selling point.

Says Hicks, “This is one of the things that impressed us. We used to take calls as they came in. It was first in, first out. Now there is visibility to jump the queue. In some cases we have released calls just to get to the ones we wanted. Now we can manage inbound calls. We also support our own 911 system.”

One of the interesting aspects of such a large, connected IP network — this is the largest railroad in North America, with 32,000 route miles — is the opportunity that it provides for future innovation.

Allen Nemer, owner of ObjectTel, and a software specialist, sees opportunities in areas such as GPS.

“You can do a lot once you open the architecture. Our application is based on JAVA, J2SE, and CORBA — this is an excellent application development platform. We can easily integrate with mapping.”

Another obvious use of the network is video. As an application ClassOne could handle it, but the network would have to rely on local buffering and activation sensors to make the best use of the technology.

“BNSF is looking into this,” Hicks says. “We’d like to have additional eyes on the rail network for surveillance, to monitor tunnels, bridges and rail crossings. We don’t have the people to be looking at monitors all day, but proximity monitors and sensors might make sense.”

Twelve years ago, BNSF was formed out of the merger of two railroads. At the time, each had its own radio network — it was neither scalable nor interoperable. Now there is a converged system that can link multiple thousands of employees on a variety of devices. Next up: rolling out ClassOne to BNSF’s 140 ground operation yards.