February 17, 2004

Walter Hatten says that he can go through an entire day without even one phone problem reported throughout each line of business in Hancock Bank's 100-branch network. Even more surprisingly though, is that the Gulfport, Miss.-based financial institution's network is operated entirely on voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP).

Hatten, senior vice president and technical services manager for Hancock, says that the firm undertook the implementation over the past year, finishing near the end of 2003. Hatten explains that Hancock previously used physical lines for all of its communication. While adding T1 lines helped, since they could handle 24 calls simultaneously, he says, "it's not cheap."

The firm explored many VoIP vendors, such as traditional players like Cisco, but ended up opting to stay with Nortel Networks, an Ontario, Canada-based vendor with whom Hancock had already been a customer. "There's over 100 functions available on most phone sets, and Nortel had a plan to support them all," Hatten says. "Other vendors were trying to just do the basics and then come back and do more later. We felt more comfortable with where (Nortel) was going in the long term."

Hatten concedes that the implementation was not painless. "This is not for the faint-hearted," he adds. "We bled on this. We were out on the edge with it."

Issues arose at the beginning, creating spotty success. "One day it was working, one day it wasn't," Hatten says. He notes that effort was necessary from all parties involved: Hancock, Nortel and BellSouth, the local phone carrier.

For example, he says, moving the data over the network in a time-sensitive manner was a challenge. "We thought we knew networking, but we learned a whole lot that we didn't know," Hatten says. "It has to get there in a matter of milliseconds, and be sure that it sounds right." Otherwise, you have "jitter" he explains, where words start breaking up and voices become unclear or incomprehensible.

"It was a learning curve for all of us," he adds. "Anyone who comes behind us, we solved a whole bunch of problems for them."

However, he says that the majority of the issues were cleaned up by November of last year, and it has been smooth sailing ever since. Once you understand the technology, Hatten explains, VoIP is fairly simplistic.

Hancock is already generating return on investment from the project, he says, and expects much more. In addition, the firm now has a reliable business-recovery capability for its network. Due to its flexibility and quickness, Hatten says, "The best thing is how I can recover in VoIP versus traditional telephony. I feel much more comfortable about that."

This article originally appeared in Wall Street & Technology Online, Feb 12, 2004.