The rise of bandwidth-hungry applications means that it's more imperative than ever to have robust cabling in this burgeoning space.
March 1, 2006
With IP technology continuing to solidify its hold on the call centre industry, an onslaught of bandwidth-hungry applications are soon expected to start coming down the pipe.
Betsy Woods, call centre marketing manager at Nortel Networks Ltd., says that as the lines between voice, data and video continue to blur, “the usual picture you see of a centre is rapidly disappearing. Virtualization, IP applications and session initiation protocol (SIP) are changing the landscape. They have made it possible for agents to work at home, or offshore.”
With IP-enabled call centres, incoming calls as well as the service agents themselves can be shared among all company locations because all information resides on a common network.
Current skill-based call routing applications can determine the priority and level of assistance needed by a caller and send it to the appropriate agent who then can provide the needed help.
“The agent can be at the main office, working from home or halfway around the world, it doesn’t matter because the call is handled seamlessly,” says Woods.
Many offshore call centres have little or no technology on the premise. A single broadband Internet connection links all service agents to the company’s servers and applications.
“You have one centralized hub in the main office catering to the needs of agents in the main office and offsite, whereas before each site had to have its own apparatus,” says Sean Rowed, account executive of Cygnal Technologies Corp., a Toronto-based IP network designer and installer.
Woods points out that people are increasingly turning to varied ways of reaching the contact centre other than by phone.
“People are contacting agents via e-mail, a teenage user is likely to use instant messaging, customer will expect features like collaborative web browsing and the ability to push key web pages and contents between agents and customers,” she says.
According to Nortel, some 33 million people used the Internet for customer service in 2001. Nortel believes the number could have easily doubled last year.
Despite all of the technical advances, Ron Pickett, principal of RDM Tele Tech Management Group, a Canadian telecommunications and information technology consulting firm, says that cabling is often neglected when it comes to upgrading facilities.
“Most clients are attracted to the bells and whistles of IP solutions,” says the veteran structuring cabling/ telecommunications consultant and former contact centre manager. “Cables are not sexy enough. I have to admit I had that mindset myself.
“Most vendors are more interested in selling equipment solutions rather than upgrade the infrastructure because equipment solutions, such as IP, are what the customers hear about and that’s what they want. You don’t see cabling. It’s under the floors, up in the ceiling, it’s forgotten. As a result, some contact centres are settling for Category 5 when Category 6a is the emerging standard.”
But cabling is “one area you don’t want to scrimp on,” he warns: “Ironically as technology moves forward and converges, there will be a greater need for bandwidth. With convergence, you are cramming all that information — data, voice and video into a single pipe. You need an appropriate structured cabling solution to handle that traffic in order to give you the clarity and performance you want from your applications.
“A lot depends on what you’re running your application on. If you take a voice application and run it on a poor network , you’re not going to get the quality of a TDM or PSTN network. Operating on a converged network means treating voice better than any other application and that requires adequate bandwidth, with a quality of service capability.”
If you are planning to build a new contact centre, Kevin Smyth, the Ontario regional sales manager with Belden CDT Networking says anything less than Category 6a is less than wise.
“10GigE might not be imperative today and the switches and applications for it are just hitting the market now,” he says. “But if that is where you want to be five to 10 years down the road, Cat 6a offers a bigger and cleaner pipe.”
Smyth says, it is expected that within the next two to five years new 10GBASE-T electronics will be widely available and that will mean an upgrade from Category 5e to at least Category 6a which guarantees 10 gig up to a full 100 metres will be necessary.
Tracy Fleming IP telephony product leader and convergence specialist for Avaya Canada Inc. agrees, saying that many contact centres are still running Category 3 or Category 5 cabling. According to Fleming, only a relatively small number of contact centres are in the Category 6 level “because most are still primarily on voice contact.”
“If you have CAT 5 installed, I can’t see why you would rip it out unless you’re converging or going into one-on-one video conferencing. Then you should go with CAT 6,” he says.
“If you’re converging to a single cable we advocate a large cable platform. If your cabling is not robust enough to handle the traffic you will have a lot of signal dropout.”
Smyth adds that within a high traffic converged platform you run the risk of “errors and degradation of signal.”
Internet data, whether it’s a downloaded file, web page, live e-mail chat or voice, gets to an IP contact centre over a packet switching network. The data is broken up in packets and sent to its destination using various packet routes.
In any case it is important that the separate packets of one transmission reaches the right destination at the right time. If you’ve suffered “choppy” cell phone call, you know how frustrating that can be.
“The effects on data would not be as noticeable,” Smyth says. “Data will probably just come in slower. But you can’t afford to have that when it comes to voice.”
Toronto-based contact centre vendor Minacs Worldwide Inc., uses Category 6 in its com-rooms and patch panels and will be installing it in new contact centre deployments to “future proof” the facilities.
Eric Greenwood, the firm’s senior vice president and chief information officer, says the current reality is the demand for that much bandwidth is not there.
Adam Sudol, IT director of Multi Channel Communications Inc. (MCCI), a provider of business processed outsourced services, agrees. The company’s two centres in Belleville, Ont. and Peterbourough, Ont., which primarily service U.S.-based telecommunications firms, are geared for 100 megabit traffic “but we really won’t be getting into that capacity until our customers catch up.
“The typical home user, even with DSL and sending outbound video will only be transmitting at 1 megabit per second. Our agent’s desktops can handle 100 megabit per second. They have enough capacity even if they need to service three customers at one time but they are not hitting that capacity.
“It doesn’t matter how fast I can send the data, the customer will receive it only at the rate his system is capable of. The bottleneck is at the customer’s connection to the Internet.”
MCCI uses Category 6 cabling in both its sites. “If you are a company that handles an extremely large amount of data or video you can benefit from Category 6a, but it won’t do much for a contact centre. About 99% of our inbound traffic is voice,” says Sudol.
Although he considers the Category 5e a “dead drop” by now and advocates a heftier Category 6a structure, Greenwood says “the reality is there is not that much demand for 10 gig.
While both Greenwood and Sudol foresee features such as video conferencing and live-chat becoming more prevalent within the next five years, they see little attraction for the call centre industry.
“I think customers are a little hesitant to use e-mail or live-chat even if it could be instantaneous,” says Sudol. “I think it’s a perception issue. People want to speak to another person. And lets face it, if your computer has a problem, you won’t want to use your computer to call for help.”
adds that within the next two years, convergence and video will be prevalent, but for a call centre, “I don’t think video is necessary. When you call an agent, you’re more likely to be interested in the help he can provide than seeing what he looks like.”
This may be true for North America where traditional telephony still hold sway. In the Asia Pacific region where there are less legacy investments, a growing technologically savvy population is driving the growth of call centres using IP solutions.
A survey conducted by Frost & Sullivan revealed that nearly 40% of contact centres in the Asia-Pacific region are looking to invest in advanced IP technology. The survey polled over 1,000 contact centres in Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Singapore.
The survey commissioned by Avaya last year, also found that 80% of the respondents noted an increase in demand for contact centres that can handle multiple channels such as voice, e-mail, instant messaging and SMS (short messaging service).
In New Zealand, Singapore, Australia and India, more than 60% of the respondents picked e-mail as their preferred channel of communication. Web-based communication came in second followed by SMS.
It may take five to 10 years, but Tom Chang, senior director for sales and engineering of New York-based contact centre technology provider CosmoCom, believes that eventually all call centres will be IP and multimedia-enabled.
“VoIP for call centres is a disruptive innovation that will create hyper-growth and enormous return of investment,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Yankee Group, says that VoIP for contact centres has “crossed the chasm and that here will be a significant shift over the next three years.”
The Yankee Group’s 2005 survey covering VoIP adoption in contact centres indicate that “agents anywhere” and “higher agent utilization” are creating this technology shift.
Ari Sonesh, president and CEO of CosmoCom, also questions the idea that video in the call centre space will not take off. He says that just as the fax machine became more popular when more terminals were installed, video call centres require enough video-enabled phone callers.
“This is happening right now, the new generation of mobile phones are video-enabled,” he says. “In the very near future there will be hundreds of millions of video mobile phones.”
Yves Thibodeau, Cygnal’s senior manager for structured cabling, says one of the barriers he often encounters is the budget.
“When our customers think of scaling down, the usual target is the cabling structure because of its large upfront cost.”
When it comes to retrofitting or building a new centre Greenwood says “my biggest cost is not the cabling, it is raising the floor to lay the cable or pull it across the ceiling.”
Greenwood estimates that for a 2,000 square-foot facility, he would spend $10 per square feet to raise a floor and about $120 per station in labour to pull cable.
Greenwood also warns that Category 6a may itself be “leap frogged” by other emerging technology.
He cites a recent research at the University of Essex in the U.K., which successfully transmitted voice at the rate of 10.4 Gps over the air. The experiment, he say, shows that such a data rich connection is possible.
Then again, at the speed that technology is being churned out today, “I don’t think you can afford to wait,” says Smyth. He adds it is like waiting for the best PC to come along — you’ll never have it because something new is always coming out.”
Nestor Arellano is a Toronto based freelance writer. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.