Upgrading to VoIP in the Call Center

By Paul Hansen

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology is here to stay. It has made steady progress in replacing traditional telephone lines in businesses and in homes. It eventually will dominate the marketplace as more people embrace the benefits and features of VoIP technology.

Using software on your call center’s workstations along with a broadband Internet connection allows you to bypass the traditional local, long distance, and international telephone carriers. This can result in significant savings on operational costs. But it would be costly to jump into the deep end of the VoIP pool feet first. Implementing VoIP in a call center a little at a time enables you to learn the lay of the land and pick and choose your changes.

You essentially are faced with two choices: VoIP-enabling your current equipment, or building up a new system through a separate gateway. There are advantages and reliability gains in having VoIP technology native to your existing call center system. You can use your current equipment by adding a VoIP interface board or similar bridging device to your current system configuration; a number of manufacturers offer these products.

When considering this option, look for a product that is certified to integrate with multiple switch providers. Consider the vendor’s commitment to developing its VoIP solutions, and pay close attention to the product’s call capacity and its ease of integration with your current equipment.

How did it all start? The history of VoIP can be traced to 1994 when a small Israeli company, VocalTec, developed and patented what many believe to be the first Internet-based telephony software in the marketplace.

VocalTec’s Internet Phone software was designed to run on home PCs and, like many of the PC phones available today, it utilized sound cards, microphones, and speakers. The VocalTec solution was built on the H.323 protocol instead of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) that dominates the field today.

VocalTec had a measure of success with Internet Phone, which led to a highly successful IPO in 1996. VocalTec continues today as a provider of VoIP-based solutions. Its media servers and gateways compete in the global marketplace with product offerings from Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, Siemens, and other heavy hitters in the computer telephony league.

A major obstacle facing VoIP in 1994 was the minimal market penetration of broadband service. Consequently, VocalTec’s groundbreaking software required a modem, which resulted in poor voice quality when compared to a normal telephone call. Nonetheless, by 1998 VoIP traffic represented approximately 1 percent of all U.S. voice traffic. The roster of entrepreneurs creating devices which enabled PC-to-phone and phone-to-phone communication steadily expanded.

Technology giants such as Cisco and Lucent began introducing equipment that could route and switch VoIP traffic. As a result, VoIP traffic accounted for more than 3 percent of all U.S. voice traffic by 2000.

Audio quality issues were rectified as methods were developed to prioritize VoIP traffic over data traffic and to ensure reliable, clear sounding, unbroken telephone calls. Consequently, revenue from VoIP equipment sales reached $3 billion by 2005 and topped $8.5 billion by the end of 2008. This growth was primarily driven by the increasing availability of low-cost unlimited calling plans and the abundance of enhanced and useful telephony features made possible by VoIP technology.

How do I choose? The deciding factor in selecting a VoIP service provider is Quality of Service (QoS). Choose a provider with a reputation for supplying. Make sure your call center’s network is set up to handle it.

VoIP services tend to be less expensive than the same types of services provided under the old TDM transport media. Due to the nature of the transport mechanism, telcos and governments tend to view VoIP services as data traffic, so taxation and regulation are less than that imposed on traditional telephone traffic.

That’s not to say that telephone-operating companies are not catching on. Operators of wholesale and retail long-distance networks are migrating their legacy trunking networks to VoIP-based Next-Generation Networks (NGNs) to reduce their operating costs and enhance their service flexibility. At the same time, VoIP service providers are looking for more cost-effective solutions to the task of connecting their networks to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). This all adds up to making acquiring VoIP technology through your telco considerably more flexible.

Now call centers can operate telephone numbers from any LATA, geographical areas in which the local telephone companies are permitted to carry both local calls and long distance toll calls. This makes it possible for VoIP-equipped call centers to get essentially free calls when the calls terminate “on-net” within your local telco LATA.

VoIP also brings greater usage and efficiency to your telco access facilities. Where today a PRI circuit can carry twenty-three conversations before rolling over traffic to another circuit, VoIP technology presents a much larger pipe.

The following call volumes for various VoIP connections are conservative computations. The g.711 Codec uses 64K per talk path and is compatible with faxing. The g.729 Codec uses 14K per talk path and is not compatible with faxing.

      Pipe                 g.711                g.729

1.5 Mbps          24 calls            110 calls

10 Mbps           156 calls           714 calls

100 Mbps         1560 calls         7140 calls

When buying a single VoIP pipe, you will spend less per unit of traffic and pay less in local, state, and federal taxes. Plus, with a VoIP pipe the VoIP-to-data traffic ratio is elastic. When call volumes are low, data traffic gets to use the express lane. Typically, this type of access also allows near real-time bandwidth expansion during the course of a phone call.

A VoIP platform provided by your telco usually is associated with a highly functional Web portal that enables a much greater degree of monitoring and control of your account and services, using only a convenient Web browser.

What’s in it for me? A number of opportunities are presented once you have your call center on the VoIP fast track:

  • You are well on the way to creating a multisite phone system.
  • You are in a position to convert your operator audio from the hardwired traditional method to a TCP/IP-based system.
  • You can bring in individual DID lines, or blocks of local DID numbers, from other cities and countries, creating a virtual global presence for your business.
  • You can backhaul an entire PRI circuit from a distant city to a switch in your home city.
  • You are situated to provide toll-free connections to the call center infrastructure for remote and work-at-home agents.
  • You are positioned to have the call center provide value-added call processing on inbound calls, depending on the additional capabilities of your VoIP gateway, such as one-number call forwarding.
  • You have the ability to create virtual tie-lines to network your site and share traffic with other call centers for higher volume clients.
  • You can establish a network-level fail-over system to redirect calls to an alternate location. Combined with one-number call forwarding and real-time switch backup, this will provide a level of redundancy and disaster preparedness that previously was beyond reach.

A word of caution, however: When you set up your VoIP infrastructure, take the time to make sure that calls coming into your system over the Internet cannot be routed back out to the PSTN via your PRI circuits and POTS lines. Monitor your VoIP traffic regularly with an eye for multiple calls to locations that doesn’t concern your business.

Paul Hansen is a senior software developer for Amtelco. He was instrumental in the development of Amtelco’s SIP-based VoIP call center products.

[From Connection Magazine November 2009]