MacDonald Island Park Discovers They Can Have It All with a Phone System that Keeps Customers Connected, is Easy to Manage, and Saves Money
Situated in the Boreal Forest at the confluence of three rivers in Alberta Canada, Fort McMurray is an oil rich boomtown of 120,000 people. At its city center sits MacDonald Island Park, Canada’s largest community recreational, leisure, and social center. In spite of the city’s growing economy, the region is glaringly devoid of technology companies and the hi-tech services those companies provide. This missing tech component has made it difficult for the park to get access to reliable technology resellers to help implement an effective IP telephony solution. Mac Island had purchased and partially implemented four different telephone systems, anchored by a Mitel PBX; yet they still had a reputation among their patrons as having the worst telephone system in Canada, rife with dropped calls and commonly landing in a non-ending loop when on hold.
Part of the problem was that the closest big box telephony vendors are located 300 miles away. Based on past experience in which resellers and service providers often failed to respond to service requests or dropped the ball in the midst of a service issue, MacDonald Island Park’s IT director Jason Carlson didn’t trust resellers and service providers in the region to provide the kind of support he needed. Not wanting to rely on an outside source for support, he discovered Digium’s Switchvox UC solution provided a business phone system that is easy to use and that he could set up and manage on his own, with online or telephone support available when needed.
A year prior, Carlson received a $125,000 quote from Cisco and a $100,000 quote from Avaya to replace the Mitel and its cobbled-together components. With the closest support hours away, he was again unwilling to trust any of the resellers to provide the support he needed, or to justify their costs. “I don’t want to say I was under any pressure, but considering the wasted efforts of the past, and no funding set aside for a new system, let’s just say there was no room to risk another mistake!” he admits.
Partially funded by the government municipality and primarily dependent on profits from programs and sponsorships, the Park is managed as a nonprofit Part IX corporation by the MacDonald Island Park Corporation. Mac Island features a 440,000 square-foot recreational facility and mega sports complex that houses winter sports favorites like curling and ice-skating, a variety of arts and cultural activities, meeting venues, an aquatic center, a climbing wall, and outdoor field sports like squash, football, and baseball. “Earlier this year, the park received final approval for a major expansion project to include an upgrade to the golf course, a football and baseball stadium, non-profit shared space to accommodate 60 non-profits, a conferencing center, and another field house. Construction on that starts Sept 2012.”
Carlson saw the opening he needed to recommend a new telephone solution, only this time, he would build it himself.
“MacDonald Island had purchased a Mitel phone system that had been failing long before I came to work there because it had not been installed properly,” Carlson says. “Voicemail never worked on many of our phones and if a user didn’t answer within three rings, it would ring back to our front desk, even though it was supposed to be a multi-client phone system. It took over a year after my arrival and a threat of a lawsuit for breach of contract before the vendor got our voicemail working, but they never returned to fix the issue of unanswered calls bouncing back to the main IVR. Some numbers never even reached our system.” Neither their MTS Allstream reseller nor Mitel were responding to calls for assistance.
“It isn’t possible to overstate the poor condition of our Mitel system and the bad reputation MacDonald Island had for our phone service,” Carlson says. “Customers constantly complained about getting cut off or being put permanently on hold when transferred to another department. Many customers had to physically borrow other people’s phones to call us because their numbers could not get through to us.” The urgency to replace the system came in late 2011 when the fans failed on the main unit. “We were on borrowed time and as they would not come to fix the other issues, there was little hope they would respond now. At that point, we decided we needed a new system and I decided to find one I could service myself so we were no longer held hostage by resellers for lack of service.”
Carlson had a long history working with Linux operating systems and was familiar with the open source concept, although he had never installed a telephone system. When he realized he could use open source Asterisk for his telephony project, he decided he had enough Linux experience to make the do-it-yourself route worth considering. “I know it sounds ambitious but I decided I would install Linux with Asterisk by Digium, and build a system myself. There was no Digium reseller near my area, so I went to Digium’s website and called Digium headquarters. That’s when I learned about Digium Switchvox.”
As Carlson discovered, Switchvox runs on Asterisk software, but it provides an all-inclusive UC solution so he wouldn’t have to build a system from scratch at all. “Digium quotes their Switchvox differently from other vendors. With Digium, everything is included. With other systems I’ve used in the past like Nortel, Cisco, and Toshiba, they want to know how many users, how many need email, VM, mobile, etcetera, because their pricing is license-based for each feature for every year. If those numbers are one or two off, then you are hit with additional costs and as you add to the system, the price continues to go up,” says Carlson. “This is the primary reason Digium is a fraction of the price, and I love that I'm not limited.
“Furthermore,” Carlson continues, “Switchvox is expandable, which means that at 147 users currently, we can add up to 400 users as we open more facilities.” He says the other thing that got his attention was Switchvox’s pre-configuration. “With the other systems, I was going to have to write all the routing rules for voicemail and that was a lot of work. With Switchvox, I just have to go into a screen, click and unclick check boxes next to the features and rule sets I want. Then, I plugged in the IP phones and they find the software themselves.”
Digium walked Carlson through a demo of the system. He felt confident he could implement the system himself and didn’t want to be dependent on anyone but Digium’s support team. Carlson saved Mac Island over 50 percent in costs by purchasing Meraki PoE switches to replace our Cisco’s brand, also providing additional network troubleshooting information at his fingertips. “By the time I was finished, I had actually found the answers to some of my own questions and solved some minor problems on my own by reading the Linux diagnostic reports provided by the Switchvox control panel.”
Carlson bought the entire Digium Switchvox SMB355 system with nearly 150 IP phones for $46,500; and, Digium helped Carlson find a buyer for the old Mitel, bringing the cost down to $35,000. Compared to Cisco’s $125,000 price tag, Switchvox with its flexibility and ease of use, feature-rich UC functionality, and all-inclusive packaging is less than 30% of the cost of Cisco.
Avaya did a presentation for Carlson, and they contacted him to see how they could negotiate the price to make it competitive. “We get about 1,200 calls a day. The solution has to be seamless. With Switchvox if I go on vacation, the staff can run diagnostic reports from the Switchvox control panel to troubleshoot the problem. Avaya could offer nothing to make them competitive at that cost.”