Nortel extends VoIP to teleworkers

Nortel Networks Corp. recently unveiled two new voice-over-IP products built specifically for enterprise teleworkers and call centre environments. Remote Office 9110 and 9115 extend the features of Nortel’s Meridian PBX and Succession IP-PBX systems, and round out the line that includes Nortel’s 9150 Branch Office product.

The products work with Nortel Meridian digital phones. The 9110 is a circuit card that snaps onto the bottom of Meridian 2000 phones; the 9115 is a PDA-sized adapter that attaches to Meridian 2000 and 3900 series phones. The phone then plugs into any IP broadband connection – DSL, cable or satellite. The phones let teleworkers use the same functionality they have in the office: conferencing, caller ID, call transfer and dialing plans.

On the network side, Nortel’s Reach Line Card is needed. The cards can work with a mix of Remote Office 9110 and 9115 Office and 9150 Branch Office users. One card supports 16 to 20 teleworkers, or up to eight branch offices.

The phones can connect to the system via IP broadband only, analogue only, or both, which allows for flexible applications. Because the system isn’t dependent on a high-speed connection, firms can roll it out to teleworkers en masse. Those who don’t yet have high-speed service use the analogue connection until it becomes available.

More importantly, when using both, the analogue connection serves as a back-up to the IP connection, providing quality of service (QoS). Specifically, a QoS feature lets users set a threshold between one and 10. If call quality falls below the threshold for a preset period of time, the system automatically dials the analogue line, confirms a good connection, then moves over the call. Concurrently, it continues to monitor the IP network, and if that connection is restored it will move the call back to IP.

Other voice-over-IP vendors such as MCK Communications offer similar voice-over-IP products that allow dual connections over analogue and IP broadband, but the ability to transition live calls from IP to public switched telephone network to maintain QoS is unique, said Meta Group Inc. analyst Elizabeth Ussher.

“Good voice quality is the biggest challenge to [voice over IP], especially in the remote environment. If I’m at home on an IP broadband connection, there are no performance guarantees,” said Tom Gilhaney, Nortel’s product manager for Remote Office products.

Nortel is banking on the QoS feature to be a big hit with call centre customers who are considering building a virtual component into their operations. For instance, the product would let a travel agency bring remote agents into its call centre queues, whether they’re 500 or 1,000 miles away, and across time zones. Of course, they’d need to give serious thought to security, and run the connections over a VPN.

“Quality of service is critical for call centres. If you lose a few packets, you could mess up a credit card number,” said Ann Swenson, team leader for Nortel’s IP Telephony for Enterprise group.

Other features of the Remote Office 9110 and 9115 consider home-office workers’ needs. When a teleworker dials 911, for instance, the call is automatically routed over the analogue line so emergency services can locate the office. An optional button lets teleworkers route local calls over the analogue line, rather than routing them to the network and back again. And a call-cloning feature lets a worker’s phone simultaneously ring in corporate and home offices, obviating the need to forward calls or give out multiple contact numbers.

The total cost per user will be about US$1,200, including the cost of phones (about $175). While this is a relatively expensive purchase for network executives supporting casual teleworkers, the one-time expense could be palatable to firms using telework to reduce real estate costs. “The cost of renting an 8-by-10 office space is a lot more,” Swenson said.