With the debut of commercial Mobile Voice over IP (VoIP) services, such as Skype Mobile, plus the addition of 802.11n WiFi antennas on new iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Bold devices, enterprises are weighing how such solutions might save them money. At the same time, there is the ironic possibility that, as employees began utilizing the new features of VoIP calling on their mobile devices, this cost-saving solution could throw a spanner into an organization's cell service plan budgets and end up increasing overall cellular service costs.
According to Michele Pelino, a Technical Analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, MA, the use of VoIP in general is gaining prominence in enterprises.
The reasons? "It is being driven by productivity, efficiency, and cost benefits," she explains. "Employers are looking at ways to keep costs in line, and mobile VoIP can help."
Pelino notes that, even if the use of mobile VoIP services drive up overall cellular costs for an enterprise, this would be offset by gains in productivity, efficiency, availability, and flexibility that such services provide to employees.
"As such, the real challenge for employers may be trying to determine the actual cost benefits of this additional productivity, efficiency, availability, and flexibility, so they can compare these to the technology costs," she says.
On the consumer side, the cost-savings potential for international calling is the driving force for mobile VoIP, according to Frank Dickson, VP Research, Mobile Internet, for In-Stat in Scottsdale, AZ.
One reason is that there are a lot of international tariffs associated with regular cellular calling. Using a mobile VoIP solution allows users to bridge their calls over the Internet, saving a lot of money in the process.
"In most enterprises, people have desk phones where costs are controlled," Dickson says. However, as the number of mobile workers continues to increase, enterprises are seeking two primary benefits from VoIP solutions:
- Coverage. Voice over WLAN or Voice-over WiFi can provide access over an entire enterprise campus. "In other words, some enterprises have buildings that aren't in good locations, and can't get good cellular service in parts of the building," says Dickson.
- Cost savings. "If your enterprise users are taking their voice traffic over the wireless LAN, then the enterprise can negotiate lower rates with carriers. Because they are not hitting the local cell towers as often, there is less impact on the cellular broadcast network," he says.
For most enterprises, "The focus is on trying to find ways to transmit voice packets less expensively," says Dickson.
What impact will Skype Mobile have in this area? Dickson believes that Skype is interesting in the consumer space. "However, I don't see it becoming much of an enterprise play," he notes. "Enterprise users usually don't have the time or willingness to introduce it on a wide basis."
Doctors Hospital at Renaissance
One enterprise finding success with mobile VoIP is Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Edinburg, TX. The hospital began using VoIP with the construction of a women's hospital across the street from the main facility.
"The current PBX system was out of date, and we didn't want to expand on it," says Robert Acosta, Director of Technology Services and Security.
Doctors Hospital selected ShoreTel VoIP at the new women's hospital, and also made plans to transition to this technology at the main campus in the future.
The VoIP solution has a personal call manager tied to PCs that integrates with the hospital's conference bridge, e-mail systems, calendars, and voice messaging. "We also use it for our wireless handheld phones, which are [Polycom] SpectraLink," says Acosta.
To date, VoIP hasn't reduced cellular expenses. Rather, the hospital has realized least-cost routing as a result of setting up remote locations that are on WAN, rather than having a distributed PBX telephony system at remote sites.
"On the wireless side, we have seen improved coverage, improved productivity, and better availability of staff," says Acosta. For example, from a clinician's standpoint, nurses are able to move about the hospital and maintain connectivity.
Hertford Regional College
Hertford Regional College in Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, is using Agito's RoamAnywhere solution, which enables the college to address the key challenges associated with mobile phone use.
"These challenges included soaring mobility costs, no in-building coverage, and integration into corporate PBX and Unified Communications systems," says Daniel T. Hidlebaugh, Ph.D., Network Services Manager.
The college was involved in significant new building construction, including a four-story structure that covers half a city block. The building materials did not allow indoor cellular coverage, which was necessary for faculty, staff, and students.
Agito is able to integrate with the college's Cisco PBX, as well as its Microsoft OCS 2007. "Agito not only routes cellular calls via the cheapest path inside and outside our enterprise, but uses VoIP over our WLAN and Nokia E series phones, as well as our BlackBerry smartphones," Hidlebaugh says. The college subscribes to T-Mobile cellular service.
As a result of the mobile VoIP installation, HRC has been able to cut its mobility charges in half, saving approximately 3,200 English pounds (about $4800) a month. What would happen to cellular costs if mobile users began accessing services such as Skype?
The possibility doesn't exist at HRC: "The college has decided that we will block all Skype Mobile," says Hidlebaugh. "The reason we have done this is because we are limited in terms of the total bandwidth provided by the government, and we cannot use large amounts of bandwidth for any of the 20,000 students who may wish to use Skype."