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Transitioning a commercial entity from analog telephone communications to VoIP is a business-altering experience. When Senegal’s West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF/WECARD) implemented a Digium Switchvox system this year, the lines of communications burst with newfound capabilities that helped them improve productivity and efficiency while resulting in an immediate 30-percent savings on their first new telecommunications bill. Unified communications (UC) opened up new abilities for their 50 employees in video conferencing, and inspired a phase two expansion in which CORAF plans to bring all of their locations in eight African nations and all their representatives in 22 West and Central African countries together into a centralized Digium Switchvox implementation for French language speakers.
CORAF/WECARD is a non-governmental, French-speaking organization (NGO) partnered with a mixture of economic communities, intergovernmental organizations, and financial and technical institutions to meet the socioeconomic needs of the African population; to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of small-scale agricultural producers; and to promote the agribusiness sector.
According to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) manager Gorgui Alioune Mbow, their old analog telephone system, based on an Alcatel with a Private Automated Branch Exchange (PABX) using an analogic link, was very costly. In addition, Mbow knew that by today’s standards, the quality of analog communications is very poor. “Maintenance on the old system had become too frequent and too expensive,” says Mbow. “In order to upgrade or extend its capabilities to match our needs, the expense was going to be much more, so I began looking for an affordable solution.” Mbow engaged in an Internet research project to familiarize himself with the options available when he discovered [email protected] Senegal, a partner of Digium Switchvox UC business solutions. “[email protected] told us about VoIP and Digium Switchvox, how it could be easily adapted to the French language; and all the features we would gain from the UC capability,” Mbow says.
Implementing VoIP required building a supportive infrastructure for voice communications. According to Lamine Diop, manager of Information Technology and Services (ITS) in the Office of Analysis Design Development and Training at [email protected] in Dakar, they began by analyzing the existing data network. “We showed CORAF how they could use their existing data network with a GSM Gateway to set up the new configuration at an affordable cost,” he says. The GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a standard developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) to describe protocols for second-generation (2G) digital cellular networks used by mobile phones.
“We did a quick analysis of CORAF’s existing data network in preparation for adding voice to it,” says Diop. “We laid fiber and did the cabling, which involved about 100 meters between their two main buildings at the headquarters in Dakar, before setting up the gateway and installing Switchvox with about 40 Digium HD IP phones.”
They completed the structural work in less than a week but ran across some unexpected challenges when working with Dakar’s only Internet service provider in connecting the PRI card. “We had to wait several days for the service provider to tell us the correct configuration for setting up the card and to make sure we had a signal, but otherwise it was a smooth transition,” says Diop.
The change and additional features has somewhat overwhelmed them, not because of any difficulty, but due to adjusting to having so much power and control at their fingertips. “The system is really easy, but we can do so much more — it isn’t like we are accustomed to having mobility, conference calling, videoconferencing, or an IVR with call trees,” Mbow explains.
“They are still investigating and playing around with a lot of their capabilities, but as we continue to train them according to the level of use, they are actively exploring the possibilities,” says Diop. “They purchased 40 Digium D40, D50 and D70 HD IP phones and one of their favorite new features is video using the Polycom VVX 1500, and conferencing using Soundstation IP 7000 by Polycom.
“Right now, we are still learning about the IVR, so we are only using it on weekends whenthere is no one here to answer the phones, but we are always using conference calling and video-calling features all in French,” says Mbow.
Currently, the remaining eight offices scattered across Western and Central Africa are acting like extensions to the main office in Dakar. “In addition to our eight offices, we also have twenty-two representatives in twenty-two countries in West and Central Africa that we want to bring together so we will save even more money,” says Mbow. “We are now gearing up for the second phase, which involves linking them all together into a centralized telephone system.”So essentially, this is just the beginning for CORAF/WECARD!
With the job only recently completed, Mbow says all the long distance savings are yet unrealized and undocumented, but if their first post-installation bill is any indication, they saw a decrease of 30 percent in telephony costs! “[email protected] eliminated our old analog set-up and replaced it with classic technology from Digium Switchvox and I can tell you, I am very happy,” says Mbow. “This new system is wonderful!”