Why – and how – IP can be the hero in your digital transformation success story

A smiling man sat in a cafe holding a cup of coffee and using a laptop

In 2025, the public switched telephone network (PSTN) – which has formed the backbone of telephony infrastructure since the late 19th century – will be switched off, with Internet Protocol (IP), also referred to as Voice over IP (VoIP) taking its place. Given this process begins as soon as April 2023 in some areas, businesses should be preparing by modernising phone systems and by embracing cloud platforms to power their communications.

On the surface it might seem like a complex undertaking, especially in the current tough business and economic climate. But there are major benefits in switching to IP-based communications, including long-tail cost savings and much better call quality. One of the most exciting reasons, though, is the potential for IP to boost your organisation’s digital transformation. Far from being a separate undertaking, the switchover to IP can complement existing projects and enhance the results of wider digitisation efforts.

Future-proofing your communications

Building an investment case for embracing new technologies is often challenging, especially in times of economic turmoil, but transitioning from legacy communications systems like landline-based phones to IP-based solutions makes sense for a number of reasons.

Businesses with digital communications in place are often better placed to deal with disruption to their business. This is especially true for the shift to remote working and the subsequent transition to hybrid working arrangements initially prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Across a variety of industries, it’s been extremely valuable to give employees the tools to communicate internally and externally from anywhere, with the added functionality that IP offers. Future-proofing by giving employees the tools to work effectively from anywhere is a smart move, particularly in the wake of the last three years.

Using tools provided by BT, Archant Media, a 170-year-old publishing company, was able to let staff across a number of teams work remotely during the pandemic. By using a series of multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) networks in larger offices, and deploying virtual private networks (VPNs) to Archant-issued laptops, employees continued producing print and online journalism while distributed on an unprecedented scale.

Indeed, investing in such tools as part of the broader digital transformation picture also gives businesses an edge when it comes to recruitment and talent retention. Technology such as that offered by BT, with integrations into platforms like Cisco’s Webex and OneCloud, make it easier for employees to work as effectively as possible, reducing barriers and offering a range of new features to contend with. Embracing cloud-based communications like One Voice SIP, for example, lets employees text, chat or make video calls through a single portal with total clarity and no interference, while backing up conversations in the cloud. It’s a crucial benefit at a time videoconferencing is so prevalent.

Laying the foundation for digital transformation

Since BT Group announced the shift away from PSTN in 2017, some have seen IP as merely a replacement technology. In recent years, however, IP has been increasingly appreciated for its value as a technology that can grease the wheels of digital transformation, complementing other initiatives in the digital sphere.

Embracing IP isn’t a matter of flicking a switch, though, and appropriate planning must be put in place. The full picture of adoption will vary based on industry, need and use case. Migrating from legacy copper-based systems will certainly unlock new possibilities, but businesses must carefully plan how these benefits will filter into other strategic aims and fuel areas of digital transformation already on the roadmap.

Proactive organisations that integrate IP into broader digital transformation plans will find it neatly complements several major digital transformation trends. Because IP platforms are tightly integrated with the cloud and offer powerful analytical capabilities, the areas that might benefit the most include broader cloud adoption, data networking technologies, automation, the internet of things (IoT), internet-facing applications and other initiatives that fall under the wider Industry 4.0 umbrella.

Indeed, adopting a digital phone service is so much more than replacing the copper-based system with digital services. The transition to IP also unlocks a slate of possibilities for employees. Such systems offer the capacity to integrate with smartphones and software applications, as well as data analytics functions, giving teams insights to improve not just customer experience but also how employees behave. Finally, they pave the way for complete flexibility in a way that being tethered to legacy phone systems can’t.

Harmonising communication and digital transformation

A number of organisations have made strides in integrating the transition to digital-first communications with broader strategic aims. The NHS, for example, has explored how the possibilities of IP systems might give clinicians a helping hand in their day-to-day duties. Experts within the NHS, in conversations with members of BT’s healthcare team, agree that integrating electronic patient records with communications tools, coupled with elements like workflow automation and decision-support tools, can allow clinicians to deliver joined-up patient care. Adopting IP platforms also open up channels for analytics and remote monitoring, which allows more oversight and sharing of patient data as people move between sites – such as from hospitals to homes.

The forthcoming switchover might also give many businesses a rare opportunity to pause and take stock of the purpose of their communications systems. Replacing hardware such as desktop phones in a like-for-like manner based only on instinct should be avoided. Businesses should instead seek to understand how employees want to use work-issued devices, and whether there are IP-based systems that complement these demands. For example, BT offers a number of solutions for call centres that may be seeking to migrate from a fully office-based regime to a hybrid work arrangement. Instead of replacing legacy desktop phones with an IP equivalent, it may serve an organisation in this sector better to invest in IP headsets coupled with a softphone client for workers who prefer flexibility.

Whether we like it or not, the PSTN switchover has started and is here to stay. However, rather than seeing it as a pain point, businesses should seize this opportunity to factor one sizable technological leap into broader digital transformation plans. With digital-first communications at the heart of business continuity and with a greater focus on data-driven insights than ever before, it’s incumbent on businesses to have the right tools and systems in place to truly make the most of their digital transformation efforts.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet
Features Editor

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.