SCARBOROUGH, Maine -- Hannaford Bros. here is rolling out a robust communications network that will handle voice and video as well as data transmission, a move that is expected to significantly cut phone charges and improve network reliability while laying the groundwork for a desktop video-conferencing test this fall.
"The goal was to install a communications network that will handle all of our communication needs -- data, voice and desktop video-conferencing for all of our 150 stores and headquarters," said John Bartlett, wide area network team leader. "We needed one network to serve the entire enterprise."
All the stores are expected to be transmitting data over the new network this month, and all stores should be able to route phone calls to headquarters over the network in September, Bartlett said. "We're about a third of the way there now in terms of stores sending voice over the network, but we'll be there very soon."
Bartlett said the retailer has been using the system in its 50 Maine stores for a little over a year. The system replaces satellite communication for store-to-headquarters transmissions of point-of-sale tallies and inventory balances.
"We'll be able to route phone calls between headquarters and the stores over the network as well. These are calls we used to pay the telcos for. Now, we can route these calls over the same network we use for our data, and we're not spending an extra penny. At $40 a month for each voice line at the retail store, plus per-minute charges, that is a nice chunk of change," he noted.
While only calls between the stores and headquarters will be routed over the network, the retailer will be able to reduce the number of phone lines in each store.
Reliability played a large role in switching from a satellite network to the asynchronous transfer mode network, which is a dedicated-connection switching technology that organizes digital data into packets and transmits information using digital signal technology.
"Satellite networks can be affected by so many things like snow, which is a factor especially in Maine, and rain.
"Also, there are problems like what happened back in May of 1998 when the satellite went down," he said.
One of the next applications that the retailer will test over the network is desktop video conferencing.
"Our CEO is actually very enthused about this. Our CEO and a senior vice president are located about 600 or 700 miles from one another. They want to be part of the pilot of desktop video conferencing that we will do sometime in the fall."
While the speed of the network makes things like desktop video conferencing possible, Hannaford also expects to leverage the faster response times for accessing of data over the new network, a joint effort of Cisco Systems, San Jose, Calif., and Bell Atlantic Network Integration, Frazer, Pa.
"We save at least half a second in each direction because we have to flow the data up to the satellite and back down. Now we've got a 286,000 bits-per-second pipe."
This is important, he noted, for applications such as remote technical support. "We can go right in, and in seconds we can see what the user is seeing. With the satellite connection, it took a long time just to make the connection before we could even start figuring out the problem."
As Hannaford, like other retailers, begins to offer employees access to human-resources functions, enabling store staff to do things such as submit a change of address on-line, quick and reliable access becomes crucial, he said.
"And we're going to see more and more of these kinds of remote applications coming down the pike," he said.