The space-time problem in getting a new VoIP system

Switching equipment suppliers and building a new voice network is no small task.

But when you’re a publicly funded hospital, with taxpayer dollars at stake, there are complications.

Time is one – you may not be able to afford to do everything in one year. In the case of London Health Sciences Centre, which oversees four hospitals and several clinics in the London, Ont. Area, it’s taken seven years to complete a VoIP system across all buildings.

Space is another.


Let Derek Motloch, technical analyst for the voice and wireless networks at LHSC, explain.

At the beginning of the decade the institution had 11 Nortel Networks Meridian PBXs with 16,000 phones across all of its sites, he said. It was fine for time, but a new technology called VoIP emerged, pushed by Nortel and Cisco Systems Inc., LHSC’s data network equipment provider.

“We started looking to switch in 2004 when we were learning about Cisco voice over IP,” Motloch recalled.

“One of the key reasons we settled on Cisco was because our data network was all Cisco, and we were looking for a single vendor platform” for both voice and data. That way, he said, if there was a problem with the IP network there’d only be one supplier to chase.

At the time, the institution’s purchasing policy didn’t require a competitive bid for the new network, but a pricing analysis was done before the decision was made.

Originally, the plan was to buy all of the hardware and software – phones and unified communications system – direct from Cisco. Instead, it was largely bought through its partners, particularly the phones, including BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, Dimension Data, IBM Canada and others.

And this is where time comes in. The migration began in late 2005 and will finish this year. “One of the things that was very important was not to remove a good working phone on the legacy environment and replace it with a new phone if we could avoid it,” Motloch said in explaining the project’s time span.

“We were trying to be responsible with taxpayers’ money.”

So installing the new VoIP network depended on renovation and construction projects.

That created the space problem – storing large numbers of new phones until they can be installed. LHSC coped, but in hindsight Motloch says organizations facing long project times should consider asking partners to store the phones themselves, or buy them in small quantities.

Whatever the solution, he said, keep an eye on the phones’ warranty. A phone with a 90-day guarantee shouldn’t sit in a cupboard for long.

What LHSC chose was a Cisco Unity Connection unified communications system, Cisco’s contact centre suite, and an auto voice answering system from Nuance Communications. Initial handsets were Cisco’s large monochrome display 7960 models with a 10/100 switch, but more recently the less expensive 8945s with colour screens and a Gigabit switch were added. The network can be used for video teleconferencing.

Motloch said he couldn’t divulge the price of the new network because LHSC negotiated significant discounts with its suppliers.

However, large deployments didn’t start until early 2006 because the Cisco and Nortel systems didn’t communicate well to each other. The initial problem was the lack of a compatible PRI communications protocol, which didn’t allow for message waiting, caller ID and other functions on the Cisco phones. It wasn’t until both manufacturers added connectivity to the QSIG protocol that their equipment played nice together.

Another serious glitch was getting Cisco’s voice mail system to work with the Nortel PBX, which Cisco [Nasdaq: CSCO] had to find a solution for.

“People today deploying these phones are much more fortunate,” Motloch says, “because when we started there wasn’t the knowledge of the [VoIP]technology.”

But with the project to be completed this year, LHSC has already begun to see benefits. The new voice network can be administered internally, he said, instead of having to hire external programmers. LHSC’s software developers have built scripts into the contact centre application to route calls. One new capability gives ambulance paramedics the ability to directly dial an on-call doctor for cardiac cases. They even wrote an application controlling the rental phones in patients’ rooms.

Among the lessons learned from the project, Motloch said, is to thoroughly test any phone system under consideration, train staff on the new product as soon as possible, consider making a new phone system a corporate – not IT – project to get more buy-in from staff (although, he said, that wasn’t a problem at LHSC).

And think about that space problem if the project is going to last years.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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