The supposed benefits of implementing Voice over IP services were questioned by members of Ottawa’s small- and medium-sized business community at a recent conference in the nation’s capital. The Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) held a one-day conference that was to have dispelled the myths and spelled out the benefits of VoIP, but the March 23 event appeared to leave many still shaking their heads as to the advantages of IP telephony. The one-day event featured some of the city’s most prominent companies, such as Mitel Networks and Telecom Ottawa, and also some of the smaller ones such as Centerpoint Technologies and The IT Department. The big providers were also there, including Bell Canada and TELUS Communications, as was Vonage Canada.  Despite the mix of large and small, new entrant and incumbent, the message to participants was clear: VoIP and its myriad of applications will provide companies, small or large, with cost savings that will allow them to improve operational efficiencies and drive revenue.  This is a message that companies of all sizes like to hear, but small- and medium-sized businesses tend to look for quantifiable cost savings stemming from the implementation of any technology whether it be IP telephony or new workstations. This is often difficult to explain to the small business owner.  According to figures presented by Cam Davis from Pollara, lower long distance costs is one of the top reasons why a small business would make the investment to implement VoIP. But deploying VoIP isn’t about ensuring lower long distance rates, at least according to the experts.  Bell talked about a soon-to-be-released SMB hosted VoIP solution; TELUS spoke about its IP telephony leadership; and Vonage talked about its growing presence in the SMB space. Speakers also talked at length about the productivity improvements resulting from the implementation of presence, find-me, follow-me technology, and unified messaging technologies. But do Canadian small businesses really understand the essence of these kinds of technology, let alone the financial impact?  Davis says his data that Canadian SMBs expect lower long distance charges demonstrates they don’t yet fully understand the benefits of VoIP deployment. "If that’s the message they are getting I don’t think it’s a good message from Voice over IP," he says noting that in the U.S., companies see advanced features as the big benefit. While the large enterprise community recognizes the financial significance of implementing IP across the enterprise, the financial impact of VoIP on the small business isn’t as cut and dry as that. Many speakers at the conference identified "soft" savings such as employee productivity improvement as one of the benefits of VoIP deployment.  Dave Dobbin, COO of Telecom Ottawa, broke the value proposition of implementing VoIP down into four basic elements: how does the company sell more; how do I serve my customers better, how do I do that while making as much money as possible, and without spending a whole lot of money. The burning question for small businesses is how to turn VoIP into a strategic advantage for the business, he adds.  Dobbin warns small businesses, however, not to get caught up in what he refers to as commodity services: long distance savings, phone lines that are cheaper than the ILEC and optional services. "These aren’t serious business issues. I don’t think the (value) in Voice over IP is in the commodity, that’s just substitution. That’s like going and buying a Macintosh apple rather than a Granny Smith apple."  "Look at (services) that can actually help your business. Think about collaboration, integration into Outlook, things like that. But where the rubber hits the road, where the real value to business is when you get into the value add," he explains. One number service, unified messaging and other services that "make it easier for your customers to get you, talk to you, buy from you and keep you ahead of the competition. That’s what I think is important." Several questions from the floor indicated that at least some of the city’s small business community understood at least some of the basics of what VoIP can do for a company. But others demonstrated that the benefits of VoIP deployment aren’t yet understood by a large constituency of the small business community.  Davis’ numbers are telling in this regard. A 2004 survey showed that about 7% of residential users were aware of and were strongly considering adopting VoIP. The 2005 wave indicated that this level had jumped to 9%. "So it’s got a long ways to go in terms of getting the value proposition out there among consumers, let along small businesses," he says.