VoIP without the wires: a VoWLAN primer

At Jewish General Hospital, you won’t hear the buzzers triggered by patients’ call buttons, and you won’t hear the public address system paging doctors.

Research note from Info-Tech Research Inc.

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Physicians and nurses at the Montreal hospital now carry wireless telephones that work over the hospital’s IP network. Call buttons with voice capabilities are linked to the phone system, so a patient in need can let an assigned nurse know what the problem is right away rather than just ringing a buzzer at the nursing station.

It means better response to patients’ needs and it mean doctors waste less time, says Stephen Rosenthal, the hospital’s associate director of medical informatics.

In the past, Dr. Rosenthal explains, the usual way to reach a doctor was to page him or her via the public address system. This added noise in an already busy environment where patients need quiet. The doctor being paged had to find a telephone to call back, and by that time the person at the other end might be unavailable.

Cellphones weren’t an option because of potential interference with some sensitive medical equipment, Dr. Rosenthal says. But the wireless IP phones serve the same purpose: Calls can now go directly to the doctor, eliminating the paging and telephone tag.

Jewish General first tried a wireless phone system in its emergency room, using older technology, then switched to a voice over IP network and expanded throughout inpatient areas about a year ago. This past summer it was extended into outpatient clinics as well. Put together by IBM Canada Ltd. and Symbol Technologies Inc., the system now supports about 100 phones for physicians, nurses and administrators.

Jewish General’s system is one example of wireless VOIP – also sometimes called voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN) or voice over Wi-Fi – producing real benefits in the health-care sector. It’s not the only one. Health care is one of the vertical markets that has been quickest to adopt wireless VOIP, says Sean Forkan, vice-president of the solutions group at Cisco Systems Canada Co.

The other is the retail sector, Forkan says. As in hospitals, employees in stores are constantly moving around within the building, so wireline phones don’t work well for them.

But while wireless VOIP has made significant inroads in those two sectors, it isn’t taking the world by storm.

“I think the interest and acceptance is pretty low,” says Tony Olvet, vice-president of the communications practice at International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd., “largely because it’s not clear to the average business user what this entails, how it benefits them and how easy it is to be implemented over existing infrastructure.”

Olvet is also skeptical about the idea, which VOIP technology vendors have promoted for the past year or two, that it’s the applications VOIP makes possible that bring the big payoffs.

“We still see the chief benefit being the over-all reduction in management costs,” he says. That reduction comes from the efficiency of combining voice and data – and sometimes video – on a single enterprise network and from the reduced cost of network moves, adds and changes.

Yet Forkan says there has been a transition in the last two years. While he admits many customers still buy VOIP for the cost benefits, he says Cisco is seeing more buying because of what they expect to be able to do with a unified IP platform.

The phrase “unified communications” has been often repeated this fall, due largely to Microsoft Corp.’s announcement of Office Communications Server 2007. IDC defines it as consolidating the directory, routing and management of communications across a growing set of applications. Olvet says it’s broader than unified messaging, a term that was popular a few years ago and could mean something as simple as getting audio files of your voice messages sent to your e-mail inbox. Nonetheless, the elements of unified communications have been around for a while.

Where it’s going, according to Mario Belanger, president of Avaya Canada Inc., is communications-enabled business processes, or CEBP. That means using unified communications to optimize processes.

Belanger has an example. A company has a supply-chain problem that needs to be resolved right now to avoid production delays. In the past, supply-chain software might have generated an alert that would go by e-mail to one or more people. By the time one of them read and acted on the alert, an hour or more might have passed.

A better way would be for that system to track down the key people needed to resolve the problem, using information in the system on where they can be reached at that moment and their availability, and patch them together in a conference call within minutes of the problem arising.

A futuristic fantasy? Well, for many organizations today, yes. Avaya says it has customers developing CEBP applications but not ready to talk publicly about them. Olvet says there is a lot of interest in a “utopian vision” of how workers can be more productive, but there are obstacles, including cultural change. For instance, he notes, employees aren’t necessarily convinced that a system that always knows where they are and whether they are available is a good thing.

For Jewish General Hospital, though, VOIP is certainly about more than saving money. It can be so for others, though getting there could take some time.

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