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Call Mountain America Credit Union at its new corporate headquarters in September and you'll be speaking to an employee who's using a VoIP phone set.

The pleasures of Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone technology are manifold, according to Annette Zimmerman, chief information officer at the $1.2-billion CU, and generate sharp reductions in total cost of ownership of the CU's phone system.

Today, Mountain America employs VoIP to route long distance and toll calls over its Wide Area Network (WAN) between 22 of its 36 branches and present corporate across four states. And the credit union's disaster recovery unit and information technology department have been testing 15 VoIP handsets for a couple years.

Estimated savings from VoIP technology costs in comparison with traditional analog costs: more than $130,000 in the past three years, said Zimmerman.

How It Works

VoIP technology converts telephone conversations to digital form, and then sends the data in chunks across Mountain America's WAN, just as other CU data, before it is reassembled and converted back to sound for the recipient.

"Since the voice calls are riding on our existing data lines, we no longer have to pay toll and long distance charges when placing calls between long distance branches and the corporate office," Zimmerman explained. "These calls travel on our own WAN infrastructure."

In September, when the 100,000 square-foot headquarters in nearby West Jordan, Utah, opens, it will have no separate phone cables. Instead, the 250 IP phone sets will use the same wire as data and video.

Resulting cost savings in wiring costs for the new building: 40%, said Zimmerman.

VoIP will also allow the 165,000-member CU to soften the blow of its "very vendor-dependent" traditional phone system that requires a $60,000 annual maintenance contract, Zimmerman continued.

With a little help from a local vendor, "our network administrators are able to support the VoIP infrastructure," she said. "Because we will be able to do a great deal of the support internally, our new maintenance contracts will be approximately half of what we are paying today."

Another benefit of VoIP comes from the fact that, similar to the CU's computers and printers, telephones are assigned IP addresses on the WAN. "Moves, adds, and changes of credit union personnel are simplified and cost less because dynamic allocation of IP addresses enables us to relocate phones anywhere in the network without having to reconfigure the phone," said Zimmerman.

Telephony will become another part of employees' browsers, because the IP system is XML-based. "This means our employees will have the ability to dial, answer, transfer or forward incoming calls directly from their Microsoft Outlook e-mail screens," Zimmerman said.

Using The Functionality

A touch-screen allows users to easily program their handsets, she added. "This should result in more employees using the functionality of the phones, speeding up our return on investment."

Zimmerman, who also serves as executive committee member for the CUNA Technology Council, is convinced VoIP is the right move-for certain CUs.

"Credit unions really need to evaluate their internal structure to determine the correct solution," said Zimmerman. "If my team did not have the expertise and partnerships that they do, we probably would have selected a hybrid system.

"Based on internal expertise some credit unions might be better served with a hybrid system, which is basically a traditional system with IP telephone connections," she said. "A great first step to putting in an IP phone system is the simple transmission of voice over IP within your network.

"I'm not certain that all shops are suited to jump fully into IP phone systems today," Zimmerman said. "However, I do think that in the near future more and more credit unions will choose the IP Phone systems."

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