Switching to voice over IP (VoIP) means less expensive management and maintenance for ThyssenKrupp Elevator's US telecom group, and it promises even more cost savings in the future for the lift manufacturer.

As its PBXs aged, replacing them with VoIP made sense on many levels, said Adam Kimball, the company's director of IT services.

So far adopting VoIP has resulted in a more flexible and fully featured call centre infrastructure that supports sales, service, parts distribution and help desk groups, he said. Over time, the VoIP network will also save on long-distance costs among the company's 160 offices.

The technology has enabled the distributed company to slowly migrate from traditional PBXs as each of its regions decides it's time to retire the old gear, Kimball said. In this way, it avoided a massive project to change over the entire phone system at one time.

The company has been eyeing VoIP products for more than two years, and three years ago switched to an MPLS fully meshed network service from Verizon. The idea was that MPLS could accommodate VoIP by having Verizon turn on quality of service and perhaps upgrade some network access lines, Kimball said.

ThyssenKrupp's old telecom infrastructure consisted of 60 to 70 percent Avaya PBXs, with most of the remaining gear made by Intertel along with keysets made by a smattering of other vendors. As each one reaches end of life, regional company executives decide what to do about replacing them, and so far all have bought into VoIP.

"We needed a system that would work at a single office, and if we never installed another system, it would still work at that office as a stand-alone phone system," Kimball said. "We also needed that single office to provide some of the wow features -- voice mail in your [e-mail] in-box, softphone capability, the call management platform, unified messaging."

On the administrative front, the major driver for VoIP was the ability to centralise telecom support and reduce the number of trips telecom staff had to make to branch offices, Kimball said. "That's difficult to do with a legacy PBX system," he added. "We had disparate systems and the support costs that went along with it."

Moving a phone could involve flying a telecom tech to a regional office, which is much more costly than having the phone moved and registering itself with the network as is the case with VoIP.

The business also wanted to standardise on a call centre platform. "We have multiple call centres and we wanted to create flexibility for that environment," he said. Two years ago when a hurricane threatened Texas, the company sent all the Dallas call centre staff to a Los Angeles office as a precaution. With VoIP, call centre traffic could have been rerouted to other offices on the fly using centralised VoIP management. Staff in those other offices could handle the calls, he said.

The company also wanted to establish four-digit dialling across the entire business, not just among offices served by the same PBX.

In addition, during outages, the VoIP network can reroute calls so the downed office doesn't lose connectivity, Kimball said.
ThyssenKrupp considered Cisco, Avaya, Nortel and ShoreTel VoIP systems, but after reading up on them and sitting through demonstrations, the company decided on ShoreTel for price, ease of management and the ability to scale the system from just a few locations to the entire business by adding end-user licenses, Kimball said.

After testing the ShoreTel gear with his telecom group, he deployed it at two US offices with 55 end users. The ShoreTel call server was located in ThyssenKrupp's Tennessee data centre, and Kimball deployed separate voice-mail servers in each office.

That was last summer and since then the company has deployed VoIP to 30 offices and more than 1,000 users. The company has about 4,000 phones total.

It no longer deploys a voice-mail server for each office, but has consolidated onto one server at the data centre -- which poses a risk, Kimball admitted. "If our data centre is wiped off the face of the Earth, there would be a period of time during which we wouldn't have a voice-mail system," he said, but the cost savings outweigh the concern.

The ShoreTel gear comes with basic call centre software that is sufficient for ThyssenKrupp's help desk, and the company is rolling out more advanced ShoreTel software for its three other call centre groups, he said. Each group has individual needs, but they all work off the same central server.

The deployment of VoIP has been slow because regional executives budget for phone infrastructure. "We did not do a huge implementation plan and say we're rolling everybody out," Kimball said. "We had to look at it on an individual-office level, and it needs to be able to ramp up as quickly as we need it to, and support our entire enterprise."

Once all of ThyssenKrupp's US offices have adopted VoIP, the company stands to reap added cost benefits, Kimball said. For instance, because the ShoreTel system is set for least-cost routing, a phone call originating in a Texas office to a supplier in upstate New York would be routed, perhaps, to a local office via VoIP, and the ShoreTel switch there would make a less expensive public switched telephone network (PSTN) call to the supplier to patch the call through. Without least-cost routing, the company would have to pay a long-distance fee between Texas and New York.

VoIP routing also helps minimise the size of branch-office connections to the PSTN, Kimball said. He can set a certain capacity based on best estimates, and if actual need to connect to the PSTN spikes beyond capacity, ShoreTel switches can route the surplus calls to other branches where PSTN connections are available. That way the company doesn't have to over-provision each office to meet peak load, he said.

On the support side, once all the offices adopt VoIP, there will be no need for the technical staff to maintain knowledge of the different PBXs, helping to cut costs, he said.