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Pitfalls and potholes can trip up your voice-over-IP implementations
The checklist of things to consider is long. VoIP signals often are compressed so they take up less bandwidth, but too much compression reduces voice quality. A network administrator needs to consider whether to go with G711 compression or G729, which applies higher compression and consumes less bandwidth but offers poorer voice quality. Vendors' descriptions of technologies and features can vary widely, too, creating confusion among customers.
Snap, Crackle, Pop
One gotcha is to assume that any new problem is the result of the VoIP network. In some cases, the fault might lie in the connection between the VoIP network and the public switched-telephone network. Testing before fixing is key to discovering the root of a problem. Advocate Health Care, a group of hospitals and clinics throughout Illinois, started switching to VoIP in late 2002 to cut the phone bill and the cost of employee support. The company has reached a result it likes: Now, when an employee changes offices, the support staff doesn't have to go into wiring closets and mess with phone connections. Employees take their phones with them, because a phone's identity is managed on a server, not in a wiring closet.
But Advocate Health Care had to work out some glitches first. When Gary Horn, enterprise architecture and network security director, and his team began testing the system, clicking, popping, and echoing made calls unintelligible, and the echo was so bad callers couldn't understand what the other person was saying. "It would be like the worst type of cellular call you've ever heard," he says.
Horn assumed the problem happened on all the company's phone conversations, but he discovered that only calls that crossed over to the public phone network had quality problems; intraoffice calls were fine. After a few days of testing and tweaking scenarios, his team found they needed to install echo cancelers where the public phone network met the VoIP network. After installing the new hardware, Advocate spent a few days testing the network with network-management tools during the day and reconfiguring and testing the echo cancelers' timing elements in the evenings.
Small things such as headsets can have a big impact on VoIP systems, Allstates Landreth says.
The quality of network-testing tools, Horn found, can make a big difference: Few are designed solely for IP telephony. Testing is important not only to head off problems, but also to teach the networking and telecom teams more about VoIP. "We learned a lot from that first site," he says. "There's a definite learning curve."
And there's more than just technology to learn. When something as familiar as the phone changes, expect negative reactions. "It was a 'You've changed my phone' culture shock," Horn says. "It's almost sort of a religious thing." The shock wore off with time, and the people eventually got used to the new phones.
Another challenge is devising a deployment plan that makes the most sense for your company. When insurance company Allstate Corp. began deploying VoIP two years ago, telecom configurations varied widely among its thousands of offices, as did the age of the equipment. Brandi Landreth, senior manager for network and voice solutions, decided the wisest choice was to attack the challenge piece by piece, focusing on offices that had the oldest equipment, such as a tech-support center in Northern Ireland. "Instead of looking at what we have to replace for the entire enterprise, we do a few offices each year," she says.
Who's In Charge?
For some companies, the biggest gotcha is figuring out who should be in charge of the project. VoIP crosses the boundaries of traditional telecom and networking, so including technical staffers from both sides on the deployment team can be a smart move. But don't assume people in one discipline know what the others are doing.
Allstate didn't create a blended team when it started its first test site. As a result, it was like two separate projects run by two separate groups. On one key question--would the phones be powered by electricity from a wall socket or by power-over-Ethernet technology?--the teams didn't communicate, so they didn't have the correct parts ordered, setting back the entire effort.
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