The problem with new technology is that sometimes the trade-show glitter it exudes hides the end benefit that it provides. That’s why it’s always intriguing to learn about a company like Nor’east Properties, which is using advanced Internet protocol (IP) private branch exchange (PBX) technology in a real-world competitive commercial environment. Nor’east is a startup real estate firm housed in one of the older buildings in one of the older communities in the United States, Portsmouth, N.H. Just as Nor’east didn’t expect to do modern business from a 19th century building—and therefore spent liberally to upgrade the premises—it didn’t expect to operate a 21st century business with a 20th century telecommunications system, so it invested in an IP-based system from Whaleback Systems. Right building, right system The right building and the right system were the goals from the company’s start, says Fred Attalla, Nor’east’s owner. "If we were going to set this office up right, we wanted to have some technological advantages, and one was the communications system," Attalla says. Whaleback’s technology works over a broadband connection to deliver hosted IP PBX capabilities within a small-medium business (SMB) like Nor’east Properties. For Nor’east, it offers "a number of distinct advantages" including cost savings, simplicity and business-friendly features, says Attalla. "Even though we haven’t utilized all the components at this point, we see tremendous potential here." Whaleback’s technology is premises based. The incumbent service provider—a cable operator or, in some cases, a telephone company—provides high-speed commercial data service. Because Whaleback sits on the premises, the service provider maintains and re-uses its headend equipment investment and simply connects to the Whaleback system that handles both customer delivery and customer maintenance. Whaleback’s strategy "We have an installation and service and support network that can deal with the various complexities of setting up a business phone system so that cable operators don’t have to learn all about business phone systems," says Ray West, founder/engineering vice president at Whaleback. For the small business, Whaleback provides "all the equipment that they need to run a business phone solution: the end points or the phones themselves, the server, all the software, and the configuration that’s required" on a per-seat basis for a flat monthly rate, West says. It also manages the system, providing a 24/7 monitoring link and a centralized monitoring system. "The business wants to buy something like our product; they’re a very underserved market," says Ken Stess, vice president of corporate and business development at Whaleback. "They’re looking for a new solution, new technology." Going beyond technology Technology by itself, even bundled as a "solution," looks great on a trade-show floor or in a glossy brochure, but for companies like Nor’east, the answer goes beyond the glitter and even, to some extent, beyond the cost savings into the aesthetics of what it all means. For Nor’east, that means personalized phones for both agents and customers. "Even though we’re a small company at this point, we have the ability to have 50 different extensions in the office," says Attalla. Real estate is a personal business. Callers, who want to sell or buy homes, want to reach their agents. Agents, who want to sell or buy those homes and make money doing it, want to be available at all times to customers. Two-way communications, perhaps more than in any other business, are crucial; personal connections take precedence. "Now we can treat the agent as an individual with their own direct line. If they’re out of the office and want those calls to go to their homes or cell phones, the system has the ability to call forward," says Attalla. "I know that exists in some technologies, but this is just part of that whole attraction to this type of communication, and that’s something that most people around here don’t have." Attalla’s using this personal connectivity strength to recruit top-line agents from other big-name offices to stock up his startup’s staff. A trump card "This is one of our trump cards—that we’re going to provide them the necessary support to be successful. That’s extremely important to them," Attalla says. "Some of these top agents don’t even have their own line (at their current job); they may be an extension, but there’s no direct line, no call forwarding. It’s a very structured and narrow use." The Whaleback system, he says, "gives them the total flexibility to ensure they’re going to keep their independence with total support and backup from us." Recruiting other top agents with modern phones is as much a part of the game plan as providing an interesting and aesthetic workplace in an old building with modern amenities, Attalla says. Besides the phones, the Whaleback system gives Nor’east wireless communications within that old building so agents can use their laptops for Internet access. The company’s also setting up a large plasma TV driven by laptops where it can show off listed homes and provide virtual tours for customers. In the end, Attalla says, it’s just one more item to help Nor’east attract the best personnel. "Here’s the irony," he says, without any apparent irony in the statement. "We have one of the oldest buildings in Portsmouth, 1815, an old captain’s house, and yet we have the latest state-of-the-art technology within this old building." That’s not irony. That’s just good use of technology. Jim Barthold is a contributor to Communications Technology. Reach him at Sidebar Bigger Fish in a Big Pond Nor’east Properties may have acquired a whale of a communications system, but Whaleback Systems itself is swimming in a sea populated not only by schools of other SIP-phone startups but also by bigger fish, such as Avaya, Nortel, Toshiba and that Internet protocol (IP) leviathan, Cisco Systems—or more precisely, Cisco’s $500 million baby, Linksys. Acquired for that amount in deal that closed in mid-2003, Linksys made a big splash in the small business market last November when it unveiled the Linksys One suite of customer premises equipment (CPE) and announced that MCI (now merging with Verizon) would manage the aggregation points for Linksys One customers within the carrier’s IP network. The initial suite included a router, phone and analog gateway. The router featured an embedded 16-port 10/100 local area network (LAN) switch and could host an email server, email services, Web filtering, file server, print server firewall and virtual private network (VPN) technology. The session initiation protocol (SIP)-based IP phone included both standard business phone and next-gen features, such as an application developer extensible markup language (XML) engine. The gateway would allow a business to integrate analog phones and fax machines into this system. The product release described the platform as plug-and-play, automatically configurable and cost-effective: "A 16-employee system with voice over IP (VoIP) can be installed in less than an hour and costs less than comparable key system or PBX (private branch exchange) solutions available today." As of late December, three service providers, MCI, Airband and NeoNova, had committed in the United States to the product offering. "So we are in testing and trials through March," said Karen Sohl, Linksys senior manager, corporate communications, in an email. Noting that the products were dependent on providers’ having the right "service node" equipment to host the service, Sohl said that Linksys would be happy to work with any provider aiming to offer voice and data to the small business market. "The MSOs are a little more behind because of the voice play, so right now, it’s mostly the telcos and ITSPs (Internet telephony service providers)," she added. "However, we want to engage with the MSOs and help them find ways to roll out services like this." – Jonathan Tombes

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