Newspaper Centralizes Call Routing

Gains centralized management and toll efficiencies.

The Seattle Times Co. learned in 2001 that its private branch exchange vendor, Avaya Inc., would soon discontinue support for its aging Definity G2 circuit-switched phone system. So the century-old daily newspaper embarked on a search for a future-proof PBX replacement.

"We're a 24-by-7 shop with a newsroom full of deadline-oriented reporters," says Thomas Dunkerley, IT communications manager. "We have the same expectations for quality of service and uptime that hospitals have."

After also evaluating phone systems from Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks Ltd., the company settled on an Avaya Communication Manager IP PBX. Nortel seemed to require a forklift change in administration, Dunkerley says, and CPU fault-tolerance in Cisco's CallManager IP PBX required manual intervention.

"For one CPU to fail over to the other, you had to go in and make routing changes," he explains.

Historically, negative perceptions surrounding IP PBX reliability have inhibited IP telephony acceptance, says Robert Rosenberg, president of The Insight Research Corp. in Boonton, N.J. This is one reason the number of installed IP-based phone extensions won't catch up with the number of legacy extensions until 2007, according to Insight's research.

Today, remote Seattle Times news bureaus, warehouses and distribution sites run Avaya 4620 IP handsets but not Avaya PBX software. Instead, the distributed handsets feed off a centrally managed system via private routed WAN connections. Remote users dial over the private network to the headquarters IP PBX to make any kind of call.

"What used to cost us $50,000 in dial charges now costs us $2,000 for a router at each site," Dunkerley says.

The catch, though, is that should a T1 fail, all land-line calling capabilities at that site would cease. So there is an emergency analog line at most sites. "And there are cell phones around to use in case of emergency," Dunkerley says.

Thomas Dunkerley, IT communications manager at The Seattle Times Co.
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Thomas Dunkerley, IT communications manager at The Seattle Times Co.

Image Credit: Brian Smale
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Coat-Hanger Cabling Plant

The Times headquarters consists of four connected buildings constructed over the past 100 years or so. When the company purchased the Avaya Communication Manager in 2001, it had a mix of old, very old and very, very old cabling.

Dunkerley notes that VoIP requires a high-end, Category 5E cabling plant. "But shortly after we bought the system, Sept. 11 hit. Then there was the dot-com bust, and our budget vaporized," he says. "We were stuck with an IP phone system needing a good cabling infrastructure and no money to get one."

The situation slowed deployment. But the Times conducted extensive in-house testing and discovered that "VoIP can run over coat-hanger wire," Dunkerley says, including existing Category 3 wiring and links running far beyond Ethernet's official 100-meter limit. "The stuff ran fine," he says. "It was much better than a cell phone connection, even in the worst case."

The company moved groups over to the new system a little at a time for six months, then struck a deal with Avaya's cabling service to get the higher-end cabling out to the endpoints. "Our quality never really changed, except for the occasional pops and clicks," with the improved cabling, says Dunkerley.

Disaster Gone Good

Dunkerley enjoys telling an anecdote that demonstrates how well the shift from circuit-switched to IP telephony worked. During a routine weekend move of a news bureau, workers dropped and destroyed a Definity G2 that was to remain in service for another several months.

Knowing that the bureau workers expected their phone extensions to be working Monday morning, Dunkerley installed a spare WAN access router at the location and placed a quick call to Avaya for some programming advice. He then connected Avaya IP handsets to the router at the bureau, sat back and awaited calls from confused users on Monday.

But his phone stayed silent. Eventually, he called the bureau. He learned that users realized that their phones had been replaced, but because the handsets were intuitive to use, they hadn't required any help.

Like many organizations, the Times anticipated that IP would simplify moving users. "Our organization moves 25% of its people every year. With 1,000 end users, that's 250 moves a year. Now, users basically move themselves," Dunkerley says.

There's also less cable to the desktops. One cable stretches from the wiring-closet Ethernet switch to the IP phone. The PC hangs off the phone, cutting cable installations almost in half, says Dunkerley.

The Avaya PBX can support both digital calling features and IP on the same switch. "As much as we like VoIP, it is subject to power problems," Dunkerley says. "You need power to your closet switches and to your phones. We decided it's best to have a few traditional digital phones in critical areas for when power's down."

He said he keeps eight digital phones out of 1,000 functioning for peace of mind.

Wexler is a freelance writer in California's Silicon Valley. Contact her at joanie@jwexler.com.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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