What's a PABX, dad?

For Loddon Shire Council's corporate services director, Brett Eastwood, making the move to a VoIP telephone system was a no-brainer.

For Loddon Shire Council's corporate services director, Brett Eastwood, making the move to a VoIP telephone system was a no-brainer.

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source:Loddon Shire Council

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Loddon Shire Council
The Loddon Shire is located 175km north-west of Melbourne and covers an area of approximately 6,700 square kilometres making it the eighth largest municipality in area in Victoria.

The council was moving to a new building and Eastwood saw the opportunity to ditch his troublesome Fujitsu PABX. Approaching "historical artefact" status, the once trusty phone system was well and truly past its use-by date -- there was only one person in the fine state of Victoria who could service it, and they charged accordingly: like a herd of wounded elephants.

"When something went wrong or if we wanted a new handset it was often a three to four week wait before we could actually get someone up here to have a look at it," he told ZDNet Australia.

Brett Eastwood, Loddon Shire Council

So where is the Loddon Shire Council? About 70 kilometres north-west of Bendigo.

But the region is no technology backwater.

As a member of the Loddon Mallee Health Alliance, the council is meshed into an expansive IP network covering local health providers. The arrangement will lead to significant, if not mind-blowing, savings. "In our community services department, probably about 30 percent of their calls actually go out to local hospitals and other community health providers, and running across the network they're a free call," Eastwood says.

Call savings alone meant the system would be cost effective, despite a modest initial roll out of 40 handsets. "The costs were comparable ... really you're looking at six for one half a dozen for the other, and given that the capability of VoIP is still growing, we felt that it was appropriate to go down that path rather than a traditional PABX," he adds.

The council selected a Zultys system -- a boxed unit. The MX250 Enterprise Media Exchange box handles up to 250 handsets, but can be scaled by cascading more 250s together.

Stephen Robertson of Integrating Technologies in Bendigo installed the system. While he agrees that the Zultys unit will pay for itself, he concedes the days of VoIP systems paying for themselves immediately with call cost savings are over. "The cost savings have really gone out," he said. "VoIP nowadays, with the telcos dropping their prices, the return on investment is really like five to 10 years now, up from three to five."

It was Robertson, a Zultys reseller, who sold the Loddon Shire Council on the MX250. "It's feature rich, in one box, scalable, the complexity's not there, and we don't like the hosted solutions because they rely on good network connectivity," he claims.

There aren't many enterprises installing fixed-line PABX systems these days, but there were drivers for the Loddon Shire Council besides savings. The move, said Eastwood, was mostly about extra capabilities, like the provider's MXIE client software, the ability to do more with calls and future expansion considerations. "With our old system we had calls ringing out, we had people that were sitting five yards from another phone and they couldn't pick it up," Eastwood says.

Eastwood plans to switch the council's five other sites to VoIP as well, which should compound cost savings. "We haven't connected another satellite office yet ... the implementation of this phone system will be over a couple of years in terms of connecting up all sites," he adds.

I expected that we'd have teething problems and that's not to say that everything went according to plan, we did have some minor hiccups with a couple of calls being lost on the first couple of days, but that was more a familiarity thing with staff.

Brett Eastwood, Loddon Shire Council corporate services director

Once the decision was made in March this year, installing the system and getting it operational was surprisingly painless, according to Eastwood. "We had a predetermined move date in terms of the construction of our new building ... the roll out occurred in that week leading up to the move," he says. "We were operational on the first day."

The fact the VoIP system was being installed in a brand-spanking-new building helped -- there were no headaches when it came to switching over. "I expected that we'd have teething problems and that's not to say that everything went according to plan, we did have some minor hiccups with a couple of calls being lost on the first couple of days, but that was more a familiarity thing with staff," he adds.

Training costs were negligible, with Robertson teaching the staff how to operate the handsets. Four Loddon Shire Council staffers are being trained as VoIP system administrators, and there are no plans to cut any staff. "It helps if you want someone to move a handset, or if a new person arrives that they can actually be set up on the day and you don't have to pay for a consultant to come out and do that," Eastwood says.

To date, there have been two problems with the implementation: staff, by habit, are using old commands to transfer calls and can't stop hitting 0 to dial an outside line. The solution? Eastwood had the system modified to allow for the old habit.

Integrating Technologies' Robertson says he hasn't taken too many support calls. "There's been a few follow up calls, but nothing major. The biggest issue we had is they were used to dialling 0 to get an outside line," he says. "Within five minutes it was fixed."

Now, both Eastwood and Robertson realise the new system has potential for an expanded capability. "[Staff] have the ability to take a handset home and have it connect back to the main system, or they can use a "soft-phone" off the laptop with a headset," Robertson says.

In terms of ongoing cost savings, Eastwood expects to slash telecommunications costs by 10 percent to 15 percent in the first year. Soon, the council's VoIP calls to Melbourne will terminate in that city, which will save the council even more.

It's safe to say a telecommunications technology has matured when even a 40 handset office can get connected easily. The only question is, when will the last PABX get junked?

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