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Audio Now Visual

The venerable office telephone finally joins the digital age.

When it comes to rating the technological progress of office equipment, the telephone probably runs a close second to the stapler. Walk in to almost any place of business and you’ll see the same rectangular boxes companies have been using for years. The only change has been a proliferation of blinking lights. If this qualifies as advanced technology, then the inventor of Lite-Brite deserves a Fields Medal.

The truth is, most business telephones don’t do a whole lot more than they did decades ago. Private branch exchange (PBX) switches are better, yes, and reliability is much improved. Functionality, though, is little changed. Call forwarding? They had that in 1965.

Now, though, it appears the office telephone is finally undergoing a real transformation. This has less to do with the phone itself and more to do with the network to which it is tethered. Over the past 10 years or so, businesses have spent considerable capital deploying private broadband and local area networks. Initially, most of these setups were intended to speed the transmission of vast amounts of data between computers. But advances in communications technology have made it relatively simple to send digitized voice signals over these data networks.

Such a service, known as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or, loosely, Internet telephony, has plenty to recommend it. Since voice packets routed over data networks make optimum use of available bandwidth, long-distance calls are generally cheaper than those placed on standard switched circuit lines. VoIP also eliminates the need for a business to operate separate voice and data networks. More important, Internet telephony boasts features that plain old telephone service (POTS) can’t match, including the ability to combine different types of formats in a single message. Says Pascal Luck, managing director at venture-capital firm Core Capital Partners: “If someone leaves you a voice mail, you can now forward it as an attachment to an E-mail. You can also combine voice and video.”

Some businesses have outsiders handle their VoIP networks. A number of vendors, including Digium, M5 Networks, Bandwidth, Covad Communications, and Broadview Networks, offer various types of hosted IP telephony service. On-premises vendors tend to be more established communications companies such as Cisco, Nortel Networks, Avaya, 3Com, Siemens, and Toshiba.

Whatever the approach, business managers finally seem to be heeding the call of VoIP. So far, call-center operators appear to be the biggest champions of the technology. Initially attracted by the economics, they now see plenty of potential in VoIP’s superior capabilities.

Convergys, a Cincinnati-based customer-relationship specialist, began rolling out Internet phone service in its call centers three years ago — mostly to cut costs. But Bob Lyons, senior vice president of global information services at Convergys, is now working on an idea that would allow retail clerks — say, at an electronics store like Best Buy — to answer questions from customers who have dialed a call center. He theorizes that in-store employees have product knowledge that call-center workers can’t match. When a call-center employee gets stumped, an agent could simply reroute the call to a retail worker who isn’t busy at that moment.


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