Telephony systems rarely make it onto the list of business continuity Šrequirements says Graham Chick.

The telephone has become invisible. Our reliance upon it has become absolute, but a perception of constant availability has created a culture of complacency. But what happens to a business when the phone network fails, or a power cut takes out the PBX or, even more familiar, a cable in the road is cut, or a fire, flood or gas leak keep staff away from the office?

In an edgy economy, no organisation can afford a glitch in service, whatever the cause. Business as usual is essential if customers are to retain faith in an organisation's ability to deliver on time and to contract.

The good news is that while the carriers can only offer call recovery for expensive non-geographic numbers, cost-effective business continuity solutions that deliver a seamless transfer of geographic DDI numbers to a range of pre-programmed, event-dependent locations, from home to branch office, are now available for every geographic number.

Telephone reliance

Even in this world of email, online transactions and instant messaging, voice communication underpins every aspect of business, from receiving customer orders to chasing unpaid bills. Yet how many companies actually consider the value of the telephony system within their business continuity plans? Just 2%, according to the annual Business Continuity Awareness survey conducted by the Business Continuity Institute (BCI) and IMP events.

Indeed, the survey reveals that telecoms protection is a blind spot in the planning of many businesses. If asked to think of something adverse happening to their business, very few people spontaneously think of telecoms failure. But when directly asked, nearly all acknowledge that it is one of the gravest threats of all.

Perhaps this lack of focus on telecoms is understandable. In the UK, the phone service is highly reliable; indeed the carriers' exchanges are, by OfCom Regulation, 99.999% reliable. But this is not true of the connection between the local exchange and a company's premises. Underneath the pavement, these cables are now fighting for space with a multitude of other services, and are increasingly prone to accidental fracture.

Furthermore, with every component of the telephony system - from PBX to ISDN30 connection - dependent upon power, for those organisations without an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), a power cut will bring down not only the IT systems but the telephony network too.

Of course, at a pinch, employees can take to their mobiles. But while this is fine if the problem is building-specific, it will not be the case if the problem affects a wide area, when the mobile network will keel over within minutes. And what about in-bound calls? With the PBX down, calls cannot be automatically forwarded from DDI number to mobile, leaving customers' calls unanswered. How much would it cost an organisation if customers could not get in touch for 30 minutes, an hour, a day or a week?

What will be the impact on reputation and loss of customer confidence?

Limited recovery

A number of carriers say they can recover calls for customers should a network failure occur. Unfortunately these services apply only to the non-geographic numbers, the 0845s and 0870s, used primarily within call centre environments. Most carriers offer little support for the geographic numbers that make up the majority of business lines, and those that do tend to charge heavily for it.

Yet the perception among many organisations is that such functionality is already a basic component of their contract. One large government agency assumed that in the event of any problem in telephone services at one call centre using geographic numbers, the carrier would automatically route calls to another centre several hundred miles away. It was only when the agency actually asked the carrier to confirm this that the truth became clear: the service was a figment of the agency's imagination and was not deliverable at any price.

Geographic support

So how then to protect these key geographic numbers? There are now routing systems available that can intelligently divert any DDI number to any other number - from mobile to home, branch office to call centre - at a price that brings telephony protection neatly within budgetary levels normally associated with other essential insurance policies.

The solution must, of course, be robust and resilient, preferably leveraging the highly secure carrier exchange building and fast ISDN30 connectivity.

If a problem occurs with the connection, incoming calls are automatically directed from the sanctity of the local exchange, at which point powerful re-routing software is used to forward calls on an individual DDI basis to people in any location.

Critically, this service must be affordable, and, if possible available as a managed service. Underpinning the business as usual concept must be the flexibility to respond to the diversity of business continuity issues - from rerouting calls to home when employees cannot reach the office, to managing a range of options in the event of a major disaster.

It is essential that the personalisation associated with DDI numbers is not lost if customer confidence is to be retained. While it is often expedient to transfer incoming calls directed to multiple DDI numbers to selected operators, an organisation can retain the personalisation by playing one of up to 100 recorded messages and flagging up the name associated with the DDI to all personnel allocated to answering the re-routed calls.

Invisible costs

The phone's reliability has become its Achilles heel. It is an invaluable but invisible tool, and so few businesses take the time to consider the implications of lost voice communications. Yet the cost to business is severe, as one organisation that had been prevaricating on the implementation of a back-up solution recently discovered. Several thousands of pounds and a loss of customer reputation later, a business continuity solution for the telephony network suddenly became top priority. Why pay for it twice?

- Graham Chick is chief executive, GemaTech,