Easier to make hardware communicate than people: VoIP tester

In testing voice over IP (VoIP) for Scott Paper, Rick Lett said the hard part was co-ordinating the people side of the project.

“Everybody tells you that (VoIP) won’t work and I think that’s because of fear of the unknown…but I think it can work. My biggest complaint so far is that the co-ordination has been frustrating, trying to get all the parties to talk to everybody,” said Lett, a consulting analyst with ISM BC in New Westminster, B.C.

Lett said he worked for Scott Paper for 13 years, but three years ago Scott outsourced its data processing department to ISM and he was transferred in the shuffle.

In November 1998, Lett approached Scott’s various network suppliers and asked them how to go about putting in VoIP between the company’s New Westminster office and its Toronto headquarters.

“One group would say, ‘Do it this way.’ Another group would say, ‘Do it that way.’ So we sort of combined everybody,” Lett said.

At the end of December 1998, Lett said, the communication problems had been worked out by essentially locking the people involved in a room until they came up with a workable plan. Then they went ahead with it.

“We just threw some cards into both routers at either end, because we’re using frame relay as the transport mechanism, and got the right cards on the switchboards and plugged them in with telephone cables and away we went,” Lett said.

“It has gone extremely well so far, other than the co-ordination issues. People haven’t experienced any hiccups or problems making long-distance calls. They haven’t wondered why the quality is so bad, so we’re going to roll it out to a group of another 20 at the same sites and see if we’re still getting the same comments, and then just flip the switch and give it to everybody.”

Lett said this phased testing is designed to cause a minimum of interruption to users.

“We have some people where they have no choice — when they dial a long-distance number, because they’re in the test group, it tries to go out over voice over IP first. If that line is unavailable, it will go out through the public switched telephone network, and that’s transparent to the user,” Lett said.

He said the voice quality has been quite good, and the only users’ comments came after they had been told they were using VoIP.

“Since then I’ve listened for a difference, and you can tell it is a digitized voice. If you’re really listening for it and you know what to look for, you can tell,” Lett said.

He said he hopes to know sometime in March whether or not Scott Paper likes VoIP enough to actually implement it. At that point, he said, business cases would have to be made for where links should be set up between the company’s main offices in New Westminster, Toronto, Ottawa/Hull and just outside Montreal. The company will have to examine where cost savings justify the cost of setting up VoIP.

What Lett said he also needs to determine is what happens if the frame relay network goes down.

“Do people just get dead air? If so, that’s not acceptable…I could maybe tolerate losing the call in process, or maybe the first two people that try (to make calls) get dead air and after that the switchboard realizes and cuts it over. I need to know this.”

He said the company will shut the network down on a Friday night and see if calls can be made.

Lett’s advice for others considering VoIP is to have regular meetings between all involved parties.

“If I had it to do it again, I’d be keeping everyone really well informed with e-mails on what’s coming up, but I think maybe a more personal touch (is needed). Have meetings where maybe you waste a couple of hours but get people in the same room. People seem to be getting so inundated with e-mail these days that they just ignore it,” he said.

“But I think [VoIP is] doable. I’d say try it.”

Kimberly Chapman is a staff writer for Network World Canada.

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