Stick it to the telcos

Written by David Zimmer


Four years ago, Maritime Steel and Foundries of Dartmouth, N.S. was faced with a technological decision: replace a 14-year-old private branch exchange phone system with a new PBX or find a more cost-effective, high-tech solution. With its corporate head office and a structural division in Dartmouth and a foundry division in New Glasgow, N.S., about two hours away, internal communications were expensive, as the company paid long-distance charges for every status check, confirmation and conference call made between the two facilities. And like all PBX users, every time an employee needed a phone hookup or there was a technical glitch, Maritime had to enlist the phone company to send a technician, “which is quite expensive,” explains Sean Green, Maritime’s manager of information technologies. “Any time a telco comes to our site, it’s a minimum of $150. After that, it’s an additional $100 an hour.” Green estimates Maritime Steel was paying $9,000 a year for on-site service and an additional $5,000 to $8,000 a year for long-distance calls between divisions. Enough to make you want to reach out and strangle someone.


Maritime decided to ditch PBX and run with a system based on Voice over Internet Protocol. In essence, VoIP allows audio to be carried quickly and efficiently over computer networks. But the firm didn’t make the decision lightly. VoIP has a reputation for poor sound quality and spotty reliability — if your computer network crashes, so does your phone system. Green played the skeptic. The phones had to sound at least as good as regular land lines, and the system had to be bulletproof.

After looking at dozens of VoIP systems, Green settled on the NBX 100 phone system from 3Com Corp. “The sound,” says Green, “as good as our regular phone.” There were less expensive systems, but this one offered pay-as-you-grow licensing that allowed Maritime to tailor the size of the system. “It didn’t require us to alter our existing Ethernet setup and can be easily grown down the road,” says Green. “And it’s so simple that we can do most of the maintenance ourselves.”

Employee adoption of the new technology was seamless. The system offers all the bells and whistles we’ve grown to expect from our phones — call display, easy-to-access voicemail and simple plug-and-play installation. As well, Green configured the system to save voicemail messages automatically as digital files and instantly route them to the user’s e-mail account, so executives working at home or abroad can affordably access their telephone messages through their PCs. As a system administrator, Green loves the 3Com setup. He can access the NBX 100 via the Web to reboot the operating system or upgrade software from virtually anywhere. “I don’t have to be on-site to take care of it.”

Occupying the space of a household air conditioner, the NBX 100 comprises its own operating system, server and power supply, backed up by a battery-operated uninterruptible power source (UPS) — if there is a power outage, the UPS kicks in and keeps the phones ringing. A high-capacity digital line connects the NBX to the company’s network and the Internet, and eight analog lines plug into the box to accommodate incoming and outgoing calls over regular telephone wires. “The old phone system was about five different pieces that took up the space of a whole wall,” says Green. “You couldn’t just go to one central place to make changes.”

How it works:

“As long as your office is wired for a high-speed network, it’s ready for the phone,” Green explains. “You plug the main Ethernet cable into the phone. Then you take another cable from your PC to the phone and that gives you network capabilities. Each phone set becomes a network hub.”

The payoff:

The system cost Maritime $32,000. But it saves the company that nasty $9,000 in annual telco service charges and up to $8,000 a year in long distance. Green notes that because the technology is software-based, free upgrades are a regular event. “Every six months or so, they come out with a new operating system, and with each new OS you can do that much more,” he says. “The people who care about the bottom line think it’s fantastic when you don’t have to buy new hardware to keep the system going.”

© 2004 David Zimmer

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