Phone system downtime? You

It was supposed to be the one thing we could count on, but today our office phone system failed us.

The outage began, naturally, just before a 9:00 a.m. conference callI was supposed to have. Since I don’t have a cell phone of my own (Iknow, I know), I was forced to borrow one for a colleague to dial in.Similar emergency measures went into place all morning, until thesituation was resolved in the early afternoon. The incident was blamedon a power surge (which I attribute to construction that’s been goingon nearby; curse those condo developers!) but that’s not what buggedme. It was the longstanding reliability of telecommunications at stake.Our firm doesn’t even use IP phones. We’re talking POTS here!

Of course we had e-mail, and many people do, in fact, bring theirown devices into work, which made me wonder whether we really shouldhave seen this as a serious downtime issue. Apart from reception, whereall incoming calls get routed, are landline desk phones stillnecessary? There are plenty of companies that issue employee laptops,BlackBerry devices or allow users to bring in their own and adopt astandard image or network access configuration. Why not do the samething with other cell phones, and do away with the hassle and supportissues of an average PBX network?

I realize there would be some issues. You’d have a lot of peoplewith wildly different phone choices, some of which might be more proneto breakdown than another. It would have to be determined whether theIT or network admin group would be responsible for supporting andtroubleshooting personal devices; if they didn’t, you’d have someworkers every day who would be offline from a telecommunicationsperspective. HR would have to start asking about what kind of phonesnew hires would bring with them, and perhaps make it a standardrequirement of employment (or would that be some kind of weird humanrights violiation?).

Companies that are sophisticated enough to have embarked on aunified communications initiative, usually seem to focus on the datathat’s coming in through office equipment such as office phones, notthe cell phones owned and operated by the users themselves. I wouldimagine most of them would be able to accommodate multiple kinds ofdevices, but it could be some enterprises would want the ability tomonitor the activity on personal cell phones if that’s the primarilycommunications tool an employee is using. This in turn could make a lotof users feel like their phone isn’t really theirs anymore.

Office phone systems will probably last a while yet, if only becausetheir refresh cycles are often much longer than the PC side of thehouse. As networks age and performance issues arise, though, we mayneed to figure out how to best keep operations fluid in the event oftelephone downtime. “Best to reach us through e-mail or carrierpidgeon,” one of my colleagues joked over Twitter today. My response?Don’t forget about smoke signals – they’re probably the lastcommunications medium with 99.999 per cent reliability.