Three Rivers converging with Mitel IP equipment

It’s rare for an IT manager to say an app proved useful even before it was completely installed, but Dick Keifer claims it happened to him.

Technology manager at Three Rivers Park District, headquartered in Plymouth, Minn., Keifer says the new Mitel Networks Corp. phone call accounting system his organization installed to track long-distance usage and to aid network planning made its worth known early.

As Mitel’s technicians installed the utility, Three Rivers ran into some phone issues. Calls traversing the organization’s voice over IP (VoIP) network connecting multiple sites started to break up. Sound quality dipped.

Keifer says he and the Mitel reps used the partially installed call accounting system to suss out the culprit: an over-subscribed T-1 line. “We found some of the Frames (Frame Relay connections) needed to be split out further into some point-to-points to remedy the problem.”

Ottawa-based communications system provider Mitel unveiled its IP Telephony Accounting Solution in August. Three Rivers, which develops nature reserves and has over 300 IP phones, is one of the product’s early adopters.

Mitel claims the IP Telephony Accounting Solution provides a way for enterprises to validate bills from service providers, forecast call flow and detect phone fraud on corporate IP phone systems.

While Mitel says the utility works with traditional, circuit-switched phone systems as well as any newer IP phone infrastructure, communications industry observers have said call accounting can be difficult in IP environments.

Many VoIP calls piggyback on data networks. In such “converged” systems it can be tough to distinguish between voice traffic and data traffic, making call audits and phone fraud detection a tricky task.

“In a voice over IP world, unless you have the right equipment, you lose that granularity,” said Alan Gold of Avotus Corp., a Mississauga, Ont.-based company that makes call accounting systems.

Mitel says its IP Telephony Accounting Solution “makes it easier…for managers to monitor, analyze and proactively streamline their network resources,” according to a statement from the vendor.

Keifer from Three Rivers says his company wanted an IP-friendly call accounting system for the VoIP network, built on Cisco Systems Inc. data hardware and Mitel IP PBXs (the 3300 Integrated Communications Platform).

While Mitel touts the call accounting system as a way to create “charge back” scenarios in the enterprise (each department responsible for its own telephone usage), Keifer says Three Rivers prefers to consolidate calling costs, rather than distribute them.

“If you charge for technology, people are not going to move forward,” Keifer says. “My concern in the early days of computers was only the departments that can afford it will have it. It should be for everyone, just like typewriters and adding machines should be for everyone… Why are we trying to limit access to data? Make it an overhead charge of doing business, and do it for everyone.”

But as telephone costs were IT’s sphere, Three Rivers discovered a problem with the VoIP platform. Keifer’s group had no way of knowing who was making calls on the this packet-switched system — no way to track down improper usage, and no network planning utility.

“How do I know that the call that was made at 2 a.m. to Australia was even valid, and who made that call?” Keifer says. “The long-distance carrier said they could tell us what went on on the T-1, but [the service provider] can’t tell you who made the call.”

Network planning was a big bugbear. When sound quality and general reliability became issues on the VoIP network late last year, it took Three Rivers some time to figure out it had over-subscribed some of its data lines.

“We were making seat-of-the-pants decisions, but they were taking days and weeks of analysis,” Keifer says, adding that the call accounting system has done away with blind network planning.

Keifer says the VoIP network saves his company US$66,000 per year by getting rid of circuit-switched phone lines. The network cost US$550,000, including data gear upgrades. Meanwhile the Mitel IP Telephony Accounting Solution hasn’t caught any fraudulent long-distance usage yet, but “it looms out there as a possibility,” Keifer says.

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