Canadian City Adopts IP Telephony
Salmon aren’t the only ones migrating to the riverside city of Coquitlam, which lies just 30 minutes upstream from Vancouver, British Columbia. The city, which takes its name from the Coast Salish native word for a little red sockeye, is spawning double-digit growth every five years in the residential, commercial/retail, and industrial arenas.
“Through partnership in the Industry Canada Smart Choices project and other initiatives, Coquitlam is capitalizing on emerging technology solutions to enhance all facets of customer service and operations,” says Jon Kingsbury, mayor of Coquitlam. “We have invested up-front in modern infrastructure that paves the way for continued growth and development while retaining the immediacy and responsiveness you would expect from a small town.”
If you’re a Coquitlam resident wanting to check the status of a building permit, reserve a park shelter or sign up for swimming lessons, the most visible “emerging technology solution” you’ll see is the city’s new IP telephony communications system.
Strategies For An On-Demand World
Until May 2003, Coquitlam city departments relied on a mix of telephony services from various sources. Most users were served by a 10-year-old Centrex service from an external provider.
With this approach, city employees had a variety of different phone sets and services. It was costly and time-consuming to move, add, or change services, and some employees didn’t have access to essential features, such as voice mail.
The city’s five contact centers used automatic call distribution (ACD) systems, which would place calls in queue and send them to the first available agent, not necessarily the best person to handle their call. There was no intrinsic auto-attendant capability, so a patchwork of add-on systems provided basic interactive voice response (IVR) capability.
“Although we didn’t have to buy and maintain customer premises equipment except our firewall, Centrex was fairly expensive for us in terms of annual cost,” said Rick Adams, manager of information and communications technology. “We had to rely on the service provider to do moves and changes for us, so we had to factor in a long wait. The other big challenge was that we had such a variety of phones that training and movement of staff were very difficult.”
In 2002, the city’s information and communications technology team set out to find a solution that would reduce operating expenses while enhancing collaboration among city employees and responsiveness to city residents.
“We chose an IP infrastructure because we needed to be dynamic,” said Michel Labelle, ICT supervisor of Network & Client Services. “We were looking for an architecture that would allow us to very quickly adapt to community needs and demands.”
The communications system needed to span three main campuses with diverse operational needs. In order to do this with an IP network, it had to provide the necessary quality of service (QoS) to carry voice. It had to provide the reliability users had always expected from the public phone system and it had to make geographic distance between these buildings and campuses invisible to callers.
In 2000, the City of Coquitlam took its vision for enhancing community service through technology to the ‘Smart Communities Project’ — a competition offered by the Government of Canada to stimulate e-community initiatives — and won a matching grant to implement their ideas.
“Nortel became our technology partner of choice because they are a stable and reliable vendor with all of the cutting-edge technologies we need to make this vision a reality, and take us into the future,” Adams explained. The details of the deployment can be found in the sidebar entitled “Coquitlam Deploys End-To-End Nortel Solution.”
“The solution is an outstanding business value for us,” said Adams. “It makes staffing moves and changes as easy as plugging in a PC to the Ethernet network. It is so easy to administer and manage; we brought voice management in-house and saved $300,000 in outsourced voice service fees. Using IP phones across the entire enterprise delivers instant mobility, plus easy training for our 18-person IT support department.”
“The primary advantage over everything I’ve ever implemented in my 16-year career is that an IP infrastructure is incredibly flexible,” said Labelle. “We have a demonstrable ROI for VoIP with Symposium; we will save approximately $500,000 a year, all told — but that wasn’t the major driver. With our vision of flexibility, we need the ability to relocate people and staff at a moment’s notice.”
For instance, under the old system, when renovation work had sparked a small fire in an emergency dispatch center, it took about three hours and ‘quite a panic’ to relocate dispatchers to an alternate location and re-route their calls. “Today, this would take us only minutes,” Labelle said. “Any site can quickly be re-architected to become the equivalent of any other site. By the time staff gets to the alternate site, their services are there waiting for them.”
Not only can these relocations be managed remotely without on-site visits, the system constantly updates a central calling directory. “With a staff of 1,100, plus seasonal variances and the usual amount of turnover, we never kept up a central call list before,” Labelle recalled. Now employees always have a current call list and can connect to anyone in the city network without help from an operator.
Here’s a sampling of other ways the new network has reinvented communications in city divisions:
- The Leisure and Parks department has contact center agents distributed in nine buildings across the city. With the new system, incoming calls can be automatically routed to the most knowledgeable person anywhere, making it easy to provide the fastest response possible.
- The Operations department handles everything from permits and requests for filling potholes to more urgent inquiries such as non-working traffic signals or burst water mains. These calls can now be prioritized and sent to the most appropriate responder, even though Operations employees are located all over the city.
- Collections/Taxation operates a call center to support utility and tax collections. During the height of the busy period, callers can either remain in queue (and hear custom, informational announcements that save clerks’ time) or mark their places in queue, so they don’t have to wait as long.
More Than A Phone System
Because Coquitlam bet on convergence rather than extending investments in a 10-year-old technology, the infrastructure is in place to support exciting new initiatives. For example:
- Customer service enhancements. Computer-telephony integration (CTI) will deliver screen “pops” of the caller’s history to agent desktops, so agents can resolve inquiries quickly and accurately. Residents can do business with the city on the Web, such as register for city programs or apply for licenses. Emergency notifications can be “pushed” or broadcast to residents by phone or e-mail.
- “City on dark fiber.” With ample unlit capacity available, the city’s new fiber WAN can be used by schools, enterprises, and service providers to offer a virtually unlimited menu of value-added services.
The city is also planning to use videoconferencing, unified messaging, wireless LAN access for staff, public wireless “hot spots” in community centers, and tablet technology for warehouse inventory management — all of which can be readily handled on the new Ethernet/IP infrastructure.
“The city of Coquitlam strives to be a leader and innovator in delivering municipal services, and the key to this mission is staying on the leading edge,” said Mayor Kingsbury. “The advanced technology and breadth of Nortel’s solutions have enabled us to engage with our customers at every level, helping to make the city a showcase model for e-community success in Canada.”
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