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Alternatives for the Enterprise: Hosted VoIP

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March 11, 2009

Alternatives for the Enterprise: Hosted VoIP

By Richard Grigonis, Executive Editor, IP Communications Group

This article originally appeares in the March issue of Internet Telephony magazine.
Whereas on-premise IP PBXs are becoming the provenance of those large enterprises having financial resources necessary to buy or lease equipment and maintain it with a knowledgeable (and expensive) staff, hosted and managed VoIP systems have become the mainstay of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (SMBs). The smaller the business, the more “hosted” the VoIP system, mostly because of the reduced Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) thanks to the negligible upfront investment and low monthly service fees associated with hosted solutions. Hosted VoIP is already used by over 11 million SMBs, according to a 2008 Dell’Oro Group report, and they’ve predicted that 35 million SMB will adopt it by 2010.

Many VoIP providers that originally delved into the consumer space are now targeting the more dependable and lucrative business world. One VoIP provider that has successfully taken the business segment by storm is 8x8 the folks who bring you the Packet8 services. Perhaps their most impressive offering is the Packet8 Virtual Office hosted PBX service, which offers advanced PBX functions along with local and long distance calling from a single service provider. Companies can instantly enjoy seamless business communications whether they operate from a single location or from a combination of centralized headquarters and remote satellite and home offices. Packet8 / 8x8 also offers advanced call/contact center services.
Even if you have a big investment in your current equipment and phone numbers, Packet8 lets you use your already installed data connections to do unlimited calling between your sites using a combination of Packet8’s service and Microsoft’s (News - Alert) clever little on-premise phone system box called Response Point. By using direct IP trunking connections over any broadband Internet connection instead of jumping calls in and out of the PSTN, Response Point customers using Packet8 services automatically enjoy unlimited free calls to and from any other Packet8 subscriber worldwide along with the option to combine Packet8 on-premise and hosted solutions for multiple locations.
Larger, more traditional network operators are also attempting to win over businesses with VoIP services, though nimbly making changes in response to market forces is less difficult for a Packet8 than something the size of Verizon Communications, which terminated its short-lived VoiceWing IP Internet phone service for consumers as of March 31, 2009. Apparently, Verizon partly feared that VoiceWing would cut into its more lucrative landline business, and it also wanted to create revenue-generating services — such as digital voice service — to run over its huge fiber optic network build-out that’s currently used for FiOS TV and broadband Internet access.
However, Verizon does offer Verizon Hosted IP Centrex, a Broadsoft PBX-powered descendant of the old MCI Advantage hosted VoIP service. Telecom managers should like its desktop web browser interface to quickly handle such tasks as Moves, Adds, Changes and Deletes (MACDs) along with network applications. Hosted IP Centrex can be used to establish a new location or replace a old PBX, key or TDM-based central exchange system. This complete turnkey solution package includes design, installation and ongoing maintenance and is intended for locations with 5 to 325 employees.
“One-man band” SOHO operations may find the Verizon Hub intriguing, which will be released on February 1, 2009. The Verizon Hub is a sophisticated though inexpensive ($200 and $35 a month for unlimited calling/messaging in the U.S.) touch screen home/SOHO communications system that both replaces landline telephones and can be wireless service accessory. The Verizon Hub can call upon any broadband connection to connect to the Internet and provide VoIP-based telephony services. It’s seven-inch touchscreen display — vaguely reminiscent of the old ADSI (Analog Display Services Interface) phones — that offers a sort of super personal information manager, with calendars, weather, maps, directions, traffic, movie times and messaging.
Qwest Communications International is also maneuvering in the hosted VoIP space for businesses. Their OneFlex Hosted VoIP service lets you make place and receive calls, while at the same time enabling you to check voice messages online, filter incoming calls, quickly add new employees to the system and more. Calls are made using a OneFlex phone connected to the Internet. VoIP services are connected using a separately purchased Qwest iQ Networking Internet Port (for Dedicated Internet Access).
Hosted, Managed, or Totally On-Premise VoIP?
Unlike premise-based systems that charge “per-active” port fees, hosted systems can expand one line at a time and are therefore subject to cost-effective per-seat licenses, charge only for those actually configured for use.
There is also an interesting middle ground of “managed services” wherein IP equipment can exist on the company premises (or in a tenant’s building) if necessary, but it’s taken care of by the service provider. It conserves the provider’s office space and distributes much of the call control processing around to the customer locations. Even though the equipment may not be situated right inside the service provider’s facilities, network surveillance and remote fault monitoring and various forms of remote reporting and service management can keep the provider on top of things and maintain both high availability and QoS.
Some managed plans are quite flexible, since businesses often find that what they want to “outsource” is simply the day-to-day distractions of administering a complex communications environment. In the case of Avaya’s (News - Alert) Remote Managed Services for IP Telephony, the service ensures that a company’s IP-telephony applications, platforms and underlying data network are working together and companies can choose the amount of operational responsibility they want to farm out to Avaya. Remote monitoring and management of applications is done via Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), real-time access of platform and network data is maintained as are “health checks” and network-wide voice statistics. (There are hourly updates of service outage events.) Avaya can deal with the receipt of and response to off-board alarms for all supported Avaya PBXs.
Similar flexibility can occur at the other end of the business model — instead of offering VoIP services directly to small businesses, Speakeasy (News - Alert) sells through its channel. Despite the additional layer of the channel, customers still enjoy the expediency of working with a single supplier, simple pricing, a single bill and the ease of doing business with a single support person. The highest voice quality is maintained by keeping voice calls off of the public Internet and instead utilizing various Speakeasy Points of Presence that serve over 120 metropolitan markets around the U.S.
The same kind of master agents that served as middlemen between carriers and customers in the old TDM days are also at work in the new convergence market. For example, Concierge Communications offers businesses products and communication services from over 30 of the nations top communications companies.
The Right Hardware Makes it Easy
When serving huge number of users in a hosted or managed environment, a provider naturally wants to use equipment and software that will reduce as much as possible the number of truck rolls to a customer site.
For example, take Momentum of Birmingham, Alabama, a provider of private label digital voice service to operators throughout the U.S., who in 2008 introduced a line of business digital voice products with advanced packaged feature sets targeting those regional cable operators and municipalities focused on serving SMBs. These digital voice products allow cable operators to offer 1 to 12 line integrated access and hosted IP PBX services in order to address the market’s current lack of functional, cost-effective, streamlined business solutions for SMBs. The solution’s key features include music on hold, auto-attendant, 8xx remote retrieve voicemail, standalone extensions as seats, call pickup, voicemail to email, multiple hunt groups and call logs
Momentum’s business product suite is built on a BroadSoft platform and can either work with a customer’s existing PBX/key system or use the IP PBX product with Polycom (News - Alert) or existing phones. The feature set enables operators to easily rollout, train, sell and support the new product to SMBs at competitive rates with less complexity than many of the other options in the market. The service includes a friendly feature console that allows operators, office administrators and end-users the ability to quickly adjust the enhanced feature settings as needed.
From VoIP to Telepresence (News - Alert)
The hosting and managed scene in the world of convergence is growing in size and scope every day. Looking toward a time when VoIP calls will be challenged by frequent Telepresence teleconferencing calls of extremely high video and sound quality, AT&T in 2008 enhanced its Cisco-based AT&T Telepresence service solution to include multipoint, intercompany connectivity. Organizations can now extend Cisco TelePresence multipoint meetings beyond the enterprise boundary to help enable meetings with customers, suppliers and partners using the AT&T Business Exchange.
The AT&T Telepresence Solution combines the “in-person” experience of Telepresence with the simplicity of a phone call, along with an interesting “meet me” feature guarded with a secure PIN code that simplifies intercompany calling. And now, Cisco TelePresence Multipoint can bring many conference rooms together in a single meeting, enabling a large number of dispersed people to sit “face to face” in a single virtual meeting room, without any performance degradation, thus obviating the need for expensive business travel.

Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group. To read more of Richard’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Greg Galitzine

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