Here in Broome County, N.Y., our IT department has been watching Voice over IP for the past decade, waiting for call quality and reliability to improve and prices to go down. We finally assembled a solid business case that projected immediate savings and moved forward with a VoIP migration this year.
A recent Cisco Systems network upgrade to replace aging equipment gave us the network infrastructure required to support a VoIP system. With the new gear in place and price competition growing among carriers for Primary Rate Interface lines, it made sense to migrate from a Centrex phone system to take advantage of the efficiencies offered by a Cisco unified communications platform.
We began the VoIP implementation with a rollout for 180 users in a newly renovated building. At the same time, we deployed a new voicemail system to all county workers, about 1,600 in number. For the second phase, completed in August, the IT department rolled VoIP out to about 330 users in the main county office building. We plan to kick off the third phase in late fall.
Some make the mistake of thinking that rolling out a new phone system involves nothing more than replacing phones. But when you add in a new voicemail system and unified communications, it becomes a complex project that requires extensive planning, communication and support from executive management. Like most technology projects, unforeseen issues will arise that often are beyond your control. What follows are some lessons learned to help ease the process of state and local government UC implementations.
- Choose carefully.When selecting a systems integrator to assist with the deployment, look for a company that has a lot of experience and also understands your organization and what you want to achieve. It helps if the company is a long-term partner invested in retaining you as a good customer and understands your budget constraints. It is also helpful if the vendor is familiar with the phone system you are replacing and knows its capabilities.
- Lean on project managers. Having good project managers -- both internally and on the vendor side -- is essential. UC rollouts are complex undertakings that need to be kept on track and on budget. The only way to make sure that happens is to have a good plan in place from the start and to continuously track that plan. For us, weekly status calls were critical throughout the project.
- Adopt a phased approach. For various reasons, this was the right approach for Broome County. The IT department wanted to get its feet wet initially with a small group of users. This gave us the chance to get up to speed with the new technology, as well as to see how effective training had been and how quickly end users were adapting to a new system. A phased approach is also useful for budgeting. We weren't able to secure the funding to migrate the entire county at once, nor did we feel we could take on the entire project all at once.
- Prepare thoroughly. Double-check all the programming setups in the existing telecom system and interview end users about how they use their phones. Have one main contact in each area to help you gather this information. It's a tedious process but critical unless you already have superb documentation on all the setups in your existing system. This includes what extensions are in each department, call trees, rollover numbers/pick-up groups and auto attendant recordings. Make sure you have included all numbers and accounted for all fax and conference phones. Be aware of any hard forwarding within your existing system.
- Communicate clearly. This cannot be stressed enough. Make sure people know well in advance when the migration will happen, how it will affect them and how to use the new system. Also, make sure you have the support of your executive staff, because if things don't go smoothly they will receive calls and complaints. In local government, the phone system is the public's main vehicle for contacting various county departments. It's crucial to keep everyone informed about any problems in the system and when they will be resolved.
- Provide training for everyone. Both end users and technical staff need to be trained on the new system. Broome County had the best results when we set the system up and deployed phones to desks two to three weeks before porting numbers over from the existing provider. This gave users time to practice using the phones internally before they had to rely on them.
For the first cutover, we trained a few key users in each department and sent them out to teach the rest of their colleagues. That method didn't work, so in the second phase we offered open sessions that users could sign up for. We also provided users with cheat sheets for the new phones.
- Port numbers properly. Our biggest challenge was working with two different service providers in porting numbers from one carrier to another. We had no control over the whole process and weren't even recognized as the customer by the vendor we were moving numbers away from. It was difficult to lock in dates to provide to the implementers so that they could be onsite, plus we needed solid dates so we could give users advance notice of when the changeover would take place.
Not all the numbers were ported, and a few that were ported weren't supposed to be. The carrier also had numbers that were not routed to the new provider, and thus those calls continued to come in on the old phones. Make sure your old provider is not conducting its own system upgrade at the same time that you are switching off of its system. Also, confirm that the information provided to the carriers includes all extensions that need to be moved, including the main numbers for call trees.
As our county continues to roll out the new system, each phase becomes easier. Users are adapting to the new system and are pleased with the efficiencies UC provides through features such as presence and instant messaging. As more departments move to the system, our savings continue to increase -- by as much as $10,000 in the first year. In these tough economic times, it's great to have a new technology that shows immediate cost benefits and provides users with a better tool to do their jobs.
Spotlight on Broome County
Situated in New York's Southern Tier along the Pennsylvania state line, Broome County has always seen itself as progressive. The county seat is in Binghamton, home to Binghamton University and several high-tech firms. It is also the birthplace of IBM.