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The Cost of Quaint

My wife's grandparents, Arnold and Edna, lived in a huge Victorian era house in the sleepy Mississippi River town of Red Wing, Minnesota. Built in 1865, the house is located a few blocks from downtown Red Wing and a short walk from the banks of the river. The ceilings are high and the closets are small, but it has the charm and sturdy construction of a bygone age.

Sadly, they both passed away many years ago, but their youngest son now owns the house and has kept it almost exactly as it was when Edna died in 1993. It has the same furniture, kitchen utensils, and wallpaper. There are no new books on the bookshelves, and even the photographs pinned to the bulletin board in the kitchen haven't changed in nearly 30 years. Walking through the front door is like walking through a time portal to a world that has otherwise ceased to exist.

Perhaps the most glaring relic of the past is the telephone that sits on a table just inside the entryway...


When was the last time you saw a 1950's rotary telephone? Better yet, when was the last time you saw one that still draws dial tone when the handset is lifted from the cradle?

For you youngsters out there, the answer is probably never. For old guys like me, it was sometime in the late 1960s when most of these artifacts were replaced with Ma Bell's first touchtone models. So, to find one that I could pick up, dial a telephone number (literally), and have someone answer my call was truly a blast from the past.

Of course, that old rotary telephone is just the tip of the iceberg. It needs to connect up to just-as-ancient equipment back at the phone company. Those rotary dials create interruptions in a nine-volt electrical circuit that are translated into dialed numbers. Clearly, you cannot connect these telephone lines up to DTMF receivers and expect to be able to make a call.

And yet, this relic still works and other than calling a bank and entering an account number, it does just about everything you might expect from a home telephone.

A Changing Landscape
I am constantly amazed at how that old telephony gear just keeps humming along. Can you imagine using the same PC for 50+ years? How about your cell phone? When the average cell phone contract is two years, waiting half a century for an upgrade would be as rare as a unicorn spotting.

So, why is it not that uncommon for me to walk into a place of business and find a Nortel 2616 digital telephone on the receptionist's desk? My goodness, I had this same model on my desk 25 years ago. Sure, it was a fine telephone back in the day, but the last time I checked, this isn't 1990. This is 2014, and you wouldn't dream of using a PC of a similar vintage, would you?

Here's the problem. A lot of that old technology was built to last. The earliest providers of enterprise communications can trace their roots back to AT&T and the Bell Operating Companies where the mean time between failures (MTBF) was 40 years or longer. Want proof? How about Grandma's telephone? It's outlived 10 or 11 presidents and shows no sign of slowing down.

Money Left on the Table
There is a big problem with this built-to-last technology, however. It breeds ignorance. Do you remember the woman I referenced in my article, "The Reinvention of the Telecom Professional?" She was a gazillion releases back because she felt that her people didn't need anything beyond dial tone. That ignorance, as well as her prideful stubbornness, kept her company in the dark ages.

Does that mean that we need every new bell and whistle that comes along? No, but to ignore presence, integrated messaging, click-to-call, directory dialing, video, remote endpoints, soft clients, and every other modern day communications enhancement is worse than ignorance. It's downright destructive to productivity, profits, competitiveness, and employee retention. Do you think that the best and brightest are willing to put up with Grandma's telephone? I think not.

Ancient technology is also detrimental to customer attraction and satisfaction. Personally, I would much rather chat with a customer service agent than talk to one. It's not that I am antisocial - I'm not. Rather, I am a very busy person, and if I can spend my "on-hold time" working away while I wait for someone to answer my request, I will.

Real Money, Real Benefits
I will be the first to admit that building an ROI story for something like presence isn't straightforward. Quantifying increases in knowledge-based productivity seldom are. However, there are plenty of places for clear and obvious ROI.

Real dollars are saved when you discard line cards, gateways, wiring, and the maintenance costs that comes with these. Virtualization then allows you to combine disparate features and functionality onto common servers.

Less equipment also means less electricity. You might be shocked at how much of a data center's expenses are powering and cooling electronics. Believe me, it doesn't come cheap.

Real dollars are saved with centralized SIP trunks and an enterprise cloud of shared applications. Why have five voice mail servers for five standalone systems when one SIP-connected platform can serve the entire enterprise? Why provision every location with dedicated trunks when SIP trunks create pooled resources that can be shared whenever and wherever they are needed?

Less tangible are the benefits from unified communications. While you can calculate an ROI for implementing video conference as a way to cut down on travel costs, it's more difficult to calculate the payback of implementing presence, soft clients, point-and-click communication, and SIP mobility. However, it's not impossible. The inputs are sometimes less obvious and the dollars a little more fluid, but money can be saved with all these as well.

The Best Things in Life Aren't Necessarily Free
Of course, nothing comes for free. It costs money to upgrade branch office gateways with the latest processors. You don't replace all those analog telephones in hospital rooms with SIP for free. There may be costs when you upgrade digital endpoint licenses with their IP equivalents.

At the same time, real dollars can be lost when a system falls out of a supportability window. An unsupported system begs disasters, downtime, and unplanned expenses. The fact that your communications system doesn't appear to be broken doesn't mean that all is well. Can you spell Shellshock and Heartbleed? Older, unsupported systems are especially vulnerable to these security threats.

In the end, it's a balancing act, and you need to weigh the benefits of happy customers, empowered employees, and supportability against the cost of staying current. Some answers come easily: You save money when you reduce your hardware footprint. A security attack can bring your communications system to its knees. Some answers are much more difficult: How valuable is video in the workplace?

Andrew Prokop writes about all things unified communications on his popular blog, SIP Adventures.

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