PBX Plan B

North Americans have become accustomed to telephone service that survives practically anything. When catastrophe closes roads and cuts electrical power, often the telephones are still working. And getting a dial tone means a lot more than reassurance – reliable voice communications during an emergency can also mean the difference between life and death.

That’s why the vulnerability of the telephone system ranked high among the many shocks of the terrorist attacks in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. For the first time, many managers realized that what they thought were redundant telephone lines out of Manhattan were anything but, because the corporate churn of mergers and acquisitions had reduced them to a single cable – a link that was suddenly severed.

There’s a similar vulnerability in most buildings today, albeit on a smaller scale. Offices with more than a few telephone lines have typically built their voice systems around a PBX, or Private Branch Exchange. These are boxes that remain on their premises and connect employees’ telephones with each other and with the outside world. Callers from outside the system connect with individuals by dialing the main number followed by an extension. The PBX makes good economic sense; it puts the responsibility for internal telephone service directly on the organization itself. The drawback is that most rely on the host building’s electrical system and battery power in the event of failure. When there is a prolonged outage, the batteries eventually die and, to all intents and purposes, the organization has no telephone service. The same situation can arise when a building is hastily emptied or employees are told to stay home.

Many organizations are looking to cellular telephones – by definition, they are portable, with sturdy, well-distributed links to the main telephone network. However, most cell phones correspond to individuals, not institutional roles. Even then, numbers are often not widely released. Emergency use can be limited to existing contacts. And institutions are sometimes forced to duplicate essential services in different locations, an expense few can afford. Against that backdrop, there is an obvious public sector market for solutions that allow people to be “there” by telephone, regardless of their physical location.

Delphi Solutions of Toronto, a veteran provider of telecommunications systems and services, has responded with a system – unique to this point – designed to maintain any organization’s voice communications through almost any crisis. Delphi CEO Ed Lavin says the solution, Emergency Connect, takes advantage of the fact that a telephone company’s central office can serve as an organization’s “virtual PBX.” (The central office, or CO, is a building or office that manages all the local and long distance telephone traffic in a given locality and is “hardened” to survive most eventualities).

Emergency Connect instantly recognizes when a PBX has failed and redirects calls to other numbers. The system, says Lavin, sends calls to users in whatever sequence they wish. “It can ring their cell phone, their home phone, a PDA. It will hunt to find the individual. In the absence of an answer at any of these locations, voice mail will kick in, in the same image and likeness that the other voice mail was.”

Mark Sher, director of marketing for AccessLine Communications, the system’s designer, said, “Rather than taking a PBX and remotely locating it, which we did not think would help the users, we looked at what would really happen in the event of a disaster when you couldn’t get into your building.” The solution envisions employees using their cell phones, working from home and operating in temporary workspaces. As long as the recipient has some kind of telephone service, Emergency Connect will deliver calls.

“The beauty of this solution is that it’s off premises,” Sher said. “It’s on the network, and it is geographically removed. When you’re doing disaster recovery, continuity type services, you definitely want to host the application that is going to help you in the event of a disaster away from wherever you are. “When we install this service for a client, it’s installed – it’s there 24 hours a day. It’s there all the time, waiting for its opportunity to trigger.” According to Lavin, the service is not only more affordable than duplicating a physical PBX in another location; it also offers more flexibility.

“It answers the big questions that users have: How much is it going to cost? The other solutions are brutal for them. They have to make major capital expenditures to make it happen, both in equipment and premises, and there’s no guarantee that is going to work,” he said. “It certainly wouldn’t have worked in the last blackouts we had in Ottawa and Ontario, because whole towns are out. Adjacent, standby sites are not going to work.”

Richard Bray ([email protected]) is an Ottawa-based writer specializing in high technology issues.

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