Some technologies are born inefficient, some achieve inefficiency, and some have inefficiency thrust upon them. Your computer, for example, is horribly inefficient, in an engineering sense. It sits and does nothing most of the day. It wasn't born inefficient. It can be hooked to other computers to maximize its downtime, if you like. But your telephone is another matter. It's intrinsically inefficient, and not just because it isn't in use most of the time. It's also because when you're on the phone, one whole line is tied up, and even then much of any discussion consists of pauses. On top of that, you're paying your long-distance carrier for all that dead time.
Now think of all the phone cables running through your office, right alongside the network cables. At least the network is a party line, a common conduit for network traffic, so it's never really idle. Most phone lines are copper wires. Pick up a phone, and its corresponding copper wire is suddenly in use, but only for the minuscule time you're actually talking. Some 99 percent of the time, that copper goes unused. Think how long it takes to achieve your return on investment in those wires. Networks are born to be efficient. Phones aren't.
So let's just run our phone conversations through our networks, eh? And while we're at it, let's make long-distance calls through the Internet, rather than via the phone system. This is what "voice over IP" (VoIP) offers, the ability to hold phone conversations over networks. Every major carrier today has some form of VoIP for Internet calls. And any number of vendors can fix you up with internal VoIP to use over your company network.
The benefits are impressive. A VoIP setup can be more flexible than a PBX (personal business exchange). For instance, you can shunt incoming calls around at will, right from your computer. You have only one set of equipment to worry about, rather than parallel phone and network gear. You can make a call using your "home phone" anywhere with broadband, including the growing number of coffee shops, hotels and restaurants with high-speed WiFi connections.
Price is a major incentive. Internet VoIP is offered by traditional carriers such as AT&T (www.att.com) and by specialty VoIP vendors such as Vonage (www.vonage.com). As an example, Vonage offers four rates, with the lowest being $14.99 a month. With that you get 500 "anytime minutes" in the United States and Canada, and 3.9 cents per minute after that. Go up to $24.99 per month and get unlimited calls. There are also two business plans for $39.99 and $49.99. Keep in mind that these prices are on top of broadband charges from your broadband carrier.
VoIP is getting increasingly popular with travelers, and it's easy to see why. The Internet now runs most places cell phones do, and often for less money. A traveler can make calls, check mail and submit expenses to his company's Web site, all from the same laptop.
But what about offices? There the jury is most definitely still absent. Some companies like the flexibility of VoIP even over their office networks, but many companies already overburden their old network equipment and can't squeeze phone calls into the stream. It can cost thousands of dollars to upgrade equipment for VoIP, even if your network already has the additional capacity. Then the network becomes your sole connection to the outside world, which means when the network's down, your phones are silent, too.
In my view, the case for moving to VoIP across the office local network is a thin one, when there's already a solid phone system in place. Some business functions, like call centers, can benefit enormously from the added capability, but most of us just take and make calls a few times a day, and we don't get much benefit from running our voices through computer lines. The argument for using VoIP for long-distance may be a better one, especially for microbusinesses that make a lot of long-distance calls.
The argument for VoIP on the road definitely has some allure, especially in a WiFi world where broadband is becoming ubiquitous. Imagine making phone calls on your laptop from, for example, Corner Coffee downtown, where the WiFi is free, as you sip your first cup of coffee in the morning. You and your caller can trade data and witty jibes simultaneously.
For more, you can go to How Stuff Works at computer.howstuffworks.com/iptelephony1.htm and read up on how VoIP operates.
Altom is owner of Element Associates, a technical communications consulting firm (www.elementassoc.com). His column appears every other week. He can be reached at email@example.com.