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Telephony a tiny piece of big convergence picture

Globe and Mail Update

Network convergence is an idea that has been around, gone around and now finally may be ready to come around.

Convergence -- where a single network supports voice, video and data communications -- for the past decade has been an important future direction. And it still is, especially as more and more legacy communications infrastructure is upgraded to integrated IP (Internet Protocol) equipment.

Network convergence makes sense because it simplifies networking: It creates one infrastructure to operate and manage, instead of two or three or more.

Recently I hosted a networking Live Tour event in Calgary, where the topic of discussion was IP telephony.

In an aside, one of the attendees mentioned to me that IP telephony was merely an application. It's only one example, he said, of the great potential that exists for converged and integrated business networks. His observation reminded me that network convergence is and always has been a much bigger idea than IP telephony.

Network convergence started out, in fact, as a much grander notion. Back in the mid-1990s when the idea of converged multiservice communication networks was first being floated, it seemed like the more unimaginable, the more intriguing the possibilities.

A converged network could conceivably support all sorts of interactive and real-time multimedia applications and processes. Today, these seem quite practical and desired.

Multimedia has become a key element of the content and applications for businesses and regular folks, particularly in an emerging age of professional and social networks, where businesses and like-minded individuals and groups gather online to collaborate.

But 10 years ago, when network convergence through IP technology was first being proposed, it was a different age for communications. It was a time when voice and data existed in separate network universes, segregated by infrastructure that was designed to avoid interference.

Eventually, IP became the building block for a singular pathway for all forms of network communications. Convergence needed to start somewhere, and for this it required a "killer application." Telephony seemed an obvious play.

So for the past decade, most talk of network convergence has largely focused on voice-data integration in telephony through IP technology.

Fast-forward to Calgary for last week's IP telephony session, where a group of approximately 30 IT professionals plus technical representatives from IBM Canada Ltd. and Cisco Systems Canada Co. assembled to discuss the technology's driving business values.

Discussion initially focused on the most popular and proven of network convergence applications, but conversation ultimately led to examining the greater value of consolidating business networks into one.

It became clear that any business -- whether large or small -- that is thinking about investing in IP telephony should think beyond IP telephony.

Consider how a converged single network can streamline your current communications challenges and create an enriched infrastructure for your company's current processes and future capabilities.

That's how the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region of Saskatchewan is thinking. Bruce Beaurivage, the chief information officer who spoke at last week's session, explained that IP telephony was only the beginning of a much greater network convergence journey for his organization.

The health region has in the near-term a practical need for a revamped telephony strategy to replace its aging and costly equipment and services, but over time there's a plan to address a wide range of communications challenges.

The health region has a large number of single-purpose proprietary networks, all of which will be at an "end of life" condition within five years.

"Converging these single-purpose networks onto one IP-based platform offers unique integration possibilities," Mr. Beaurivage said during his presentation.

One converged IP network would replace a number of separate networks, including those that support nurse call systems, dictation systems, overhead paging systems, security camera systems, door-lock systems, and various alarm and alert systems.

And further down the road, the health region's converged network and the IP telephony application will underpin state-of-the-art contact centres and ultimately be used to enable mobile, remote and home-based workers.

"Once you've got a network that's robust and pervasive throughout your organization, the possibilities are limitless," Mr. Beaurivage said, during a panel discussion at the session. "We're going to be looking at ways to re-engineer some of our business processes to take advantage of that network being there."

Taking their cue from Prince Albert Parkland Health Region, any business going down a similar path might likewise look beyond IP telephony and build for network convergence. The tactical short-term reasons to improve or replace outdated business telephone systems may spur your initial investment, but the strategic long-term reasons will sustain it and provide the greatest payback.

Fact is you'll probably need to make a significant investment in improving your existing business communications networks anyway, in order to support IP telephony. Mr. Beaurivage estimates the health region will need to spend approximately $450,000 on upgrades to existing networks in order to support the $300,000 IP telephony system he'll put in place. But the longer-term plan helps him to justify that hefty investment.

A single network capable of supporting multiple types of communications traffic on one infrastructure seemed like a good idea many years ago. It makes a lot of practical sense today and should definitely be your key consideration.

dmclean@itworldcanada.com

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