Talk is cheap–and powerfully interconnected, geographically indifferent, resource-filled, data-enriched and inexpensively managed by in-house staff when company phone systems fling voices across the Internet, rather than over traditional networks most use today.

The enabling technology is called Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP. It is an early wave in a sea of new Internet-enabled business tools on the way. But VoIP already is widely available, and early adopters say it’s a great fit for the construction industry.

With VoIP, phone calls are transmitted over the Internet for a fraction of current costs. But ultimately calls reach any phone as if they had traveled by what the telecommunication engineers call the POTS, or Plain Old Telephone System, anyway.

Users say VoIP not only immediately cuts expenses, but also enables a huge range of business intelligence tie-ins that were either ruinously expensive, difficult to implement, or simply impossible before.

Internet Protocol phone systems can link to e-mail and databases, going far beyond caller-ID by automatically serving up background information on computer screens when calls are connected. Missed calls can be automatically rerouted again and again to chase down their intended recipients. Setting up new phones and offices is greatly simplified.

Creating truly mobile communications networks that make calls between employees and offices anywhere on earth as local as calls to the desk across the hall are features that can be turned on and off by company staffers through desktop software. That is faster and simpler than expensive "Move, Add or Change" service calls from outside technicians.

In fact, early users say that they haven’t even begun to figure out all the new things their IP phone systems can do.

Test Bed. Centex tested VoIP with wireless jobsite coverage in Durham, N.C. (Photos courtesy Centex Construction Co.)

"I think it can make a significant impact on the industry," says Josh Owens, manager on a Centex Construction LLC project at North Carolina Central University in Durham where the technology was recently tried. Owens says immediate payoffs will come from reduced expenses in setting up phones at jobs and from a sharp drop in toll charges, since calls to numbers in other cities can be placed over the Internet and shifted to dial out of Centex offices near their destinations. That makes them local, rather than long-distance calls, a trick called "least-cost routing." And even when calls are placed to areas of the country or abroad where Centex does not have offices, toll charges are usually a fraction of traditional connection costs because the carriers apply, and can pass along, the same least-cost routing advantages.

With everything being so cost-driven, things even as small as phone bills can add up over a 16-to-24-month project," Owens says. "If you are looking at connecting remote jobsites, owners, architects and subcontractors, you are taking a potential $5,000-a-month phone bill–and it just goes away."

Voice, and More

But Dallas-based Centex has its eyes on much bigger things, of which VoIP is a part. Through a partnership with Cisco Systems, San Jose, Calif., the 126,000-sq-ft science complex Centex is building at NCCU has been a test-bed for a slew of jobsite communications tools that the telecom equipment vendor is developing for construction.

Based on the trials, Cisco this summer plans an initiative called Cisco Connected Construction. It will include a line of small, plug-and-play Internet connection boxes for jobsites to "jump-start" job communications, says Ray Rapuano, the project’s global leader. Variously sized for small, medium or large jobs, Mobile Access Routers will consolidate access to wireless, cellphone, satellite and Internet communications, including VoIP, in a box that users can self-install and plug into a high-speed data line. It may eliminate need for traditional phone connections to jobs and project offices entirely.

Cisco’s ultimate goal is to blanket jobsites with wireless voice and data communications, delivering project data to handheld computers and tablet PCs, and integrating mobile voice communications seamlessly across Internet connections with main office telephone systems.

While much of the wireless jobsite is still in the gestation phase, VoIP is ready to go. It is supported by a growing number of vendors with many technical variations, and companies are signing up.

Smarts. Brasfield & Gorrie’s IP phones link to Outlook data. (Photo ourtesy of Tom Garrett/Brasfield)

"We have just finished rolling it out to the whole company," says Tom Garrett, chief information officer at general contractor Brasfield & Gorrie, Birmingham, Ala., and another Cisco customer. "We’ve looked at voice over IP for two years and it just came to where it made economic sense."

Garrett says the company, which has permanent offices in five states and project offices scattered between them, was relocating two offices and needed to buy phone systems for them anyway. After projecting costs, "we found we are actually going to save a little money by throwing out our whole phone system," Garrett says.

The lower per-unit cost of a VoIP system, plus lower maintenance costs, "projected to a pretty nice savings...not to mention least-cost routing savings," Garrett says. "We are now calling between all of our offices with a four-digit number. It goes out over our data line and it’s a free call. We’ve also been able to push out VoIP to jobsites, and that’s a big win. We were spending $10,000 to $30,000 for a single purchase of a phone system for 10 to 20 people. So now we are not putting in a phone system. We plug in through the computer."

Garrett says the jobsite set-ups that the company uses requires a slightly more expensive router and a second, dedicated high-speed Internet line, but the bottom...