In extending the corporate office to the home -- whether as part of a formal telework program or to satisfy top executives clamoring for 'round-the-clock connectivity -- the PBX invariably becomes a brick wall.
When remote workers ask for the same seamless access to their office voice systems as they enjoy for data, they find it can't be done -- at least not without a lot of time, trouble and expense.
As a whole, traditional PBXs are difficult to manage and costly to support. Worse is their inflexibility. Circuit-switched PBX systems were never meant to be pushed to the home, let alone serve occasional teleworkers who work at home as it suits their schedules.
As companies look to their next-generation phone system, IP-based PBXs are looking increasingly attractive, especially to organizations in which workers are fanning out under a variety of scenarios. A combined voice and data infrastructure means simplified management and a single support staff, plus the ability to provide remote and roving workers features such as teleconferencing, call forwarding, caller ID and voice mail -- all on a standard analog phone. Because the telephone and PC are integrated, users can manage voice mail the same way they do e-mail.
While voice-over-IP technologies have been slow to take off, momentum is beginning to build due in part to workers' changing work styles, coupled with the high availability of residential broadband services.
A recent Yankee Group report predicts shipments of IP-PBX phone systems will eclipse traditional PBX systems by 2005. Companies vying for this emerging market include Cisco, 3Com and small players Sphere and Shoreline Communications, among others.
A year ago, Ken Denman banked on the future of IP voice services. Denman, a former US West and MediaOne executive, launched AuraServ, a Denver start-up that sells hosted voice services to small and midsize businesses. For its hardware platform, AuraServ partnered with Shoreline of Sunnyvale, Calif.
"We both saw that packet voice was going to become part of the corporate IT backbone," Denman says. "Shoreline's vision best fit our own."
AuraServ first rolled out service in April. Subscribers range from single-site companies to a company with 26 sites. AuraServ also uses Shoreline's system for its own corporate voice network, linking the main office in Denver with offices in Seattle and Dallas. A link to the Boston office is in the works.
Shoreline's IP Voice Communication System includes stackable voice switches in 12- and 24-port configurations. Applications on a Windows NT server provide call management and integrated messaging functionality for single users, workgroups and call center environments.
"Any standard phone plugged in to the Shoreline system can take advantage of all the advanced enterprise applications," says Barry Castle, Shoreline's vice president of product marketing.
Another benefit of an IP voice network is toll bypass, or the ability to transmit long-distance calls over the Internet then hop onto the public switched network to complete the call. Of course the long-distance portion of that call is virtually free. However, Castle points out that cost shouldn't be the driving factor in looking at a voice-over-IP system. Companies are negotiating 2- and 3-cent per minute long-distance plans, hhe says, and wonders, "How much lower can they go than 2 cents?"
Gunning for home workers
Just recently, Shoreline extended its voice platform to remote workers with the announcement of the ShoreGear-Teleworker, a four-port voice switch. The box connects standard analog telephones and fax machines to the corporate IP voice network using DSL, extending all features of the enterprise product to the home. Calls are automatically routed to the home office, complete with personal greetings, voice mail settings and call handling options. All features are managed from a user's desktop PC.
The product is aimed primarily at two segments: business executives who need anytime access to corporate communications systems, and call centers and customer relationship management-type environments looking to expand beyond their office boundaries.
"We haven't publicly announced the Teleworker box yet, but demand is very high already," AuraServ's Denman says. "Our customers -- corporate executives -- are saying 'I need it now, I want it. I understand it's a beta [version]. When can you get it here?' "
AuraServ is testing ShoreGear-Teleworker in a handful of customer and employee sites, including Denman's home.
"I am the test bed for our company," Denman laughs. "Before we try things with companies, I like to try them myself. I'm testing it with DSL now, and plan to test it with ISDN and my T-1 line soon, too."
Denman admits the ShoreGear-Teleworker has changed the way he works. "I spend less time telling people where they can reach me. Instead, I just use my office number as a primary reach-me point. Even when people call me early or late, I don't have to give out my home number. That's another layer of privacy you don't have to peel back."
For better or worse, voice over IP has helped extend Denman's work day.
"First thing in the morning I can check my voice mail and e-mail. East Coast people can call the office first thing and get me," he says. "Since I'm in the office 70 to 80 hours a week normally, now I can get that up to 100 hours a week. It might not be perfectly healthy, but it's important for me. It's not a balanced life, but it's the way I need to live as a start-up."
This story, "Shoreline makes VoIP for the home" was originally published by Network World.