How to create a sensible telephone strategy
To VoIP or not to VoIP
Mobile Clinic In this our penultimate mobile clinic piece, The Register's group of experts return to provide their opinions on your questions.
This week the team are tackling how to best create a sensible telephone strategy, and as usual you can have your say via our comments section at the bottom of the article.
How do we create a sensible telephony strategy - eg: How to transfer calls between landlines, VoIP lines and mobile phones - considering the options and the incumbent infrastructure of Mobile, VoIP, PBX technology, hosted PBX services?
Dale Vile, Research Director, Freeform Dynamics Ltd
If you are dealing with a situation in which there is some compelling reason for a quick fix to your current telephony arrangements, eg escalating costs, aging equipment coming to end of life, or some practical constraint that is otherwise hampering the business, then it is tempting to look for a like-for-like replacement for whatever you have in place already. This might lead you to a simple swap of a traditional PBX for the IP equivalent, or, indeed, to just move a contract from one service provider to another, whether fixed or mobile.
However, the world has moved on quite a bit over the past few years in terms of both solutions and the requirements and the expectations of business users. It is therefore recommended that before any significant investment or contract commitment is made in this space, you stand back for a while and take time to understand the communication needs of your business as a whole. It will then become clear to most that telephony, or any particular flavour of it (traditional fixed, cellular, VoIP, etc), is probably best considered as just one ingredient of an overall communications cocktail. The other key ingredients of the cocktail are email, instant messaging and voice conferencing, perhaps spiced up with a bit of video conferencing and real time collaboration stuff, such as application/display sharing between PCs in a virtual meeting.
There are some vendors out there who wrap all of this up into what is commonly referred to as 'Unified Communications', and define offerings that promise to provide everything you need in an integrated manner with so-called 'presence' as the cherry on the cocktail stick. For those not familiar with the term 'presence', it's basically the ability to see which of your contacts are available through which medium at any moment in time - a kind of hyped-up version of being able to see which of your buddies are online in your instant messaging environment, but extended to look across all communication mechanisms. The idea is to avoid all of the telephone tag and 'hunt the colleague' games, and get away from the routine of trying someone's desk phone, then their mobile, then instant messaging, and if all else fails, either calling their desk phone again to leave a voicemail, or sending them an email in the hope that they'll pick it up soon and call you back.
The other big selling point for unified communications is a single inbox, into which everything flows - voicemail, missed call notifications, etc, as well as email - the idea being that it is more efficient and there is less likelihood of important communications being overlooked.
The trouble is, though, when you listen to vendor presentations on this great 'unified vision' of the world then consider the practicalities of implementing it. It can sometimes seem a) like overkill and b) a bit daunting, not just at a technical level, but organising activity across groups that have previously operated quite separately eg those looking after the email facilities and those taking care of telephony.
The trick is to go right back to what's important to you and consider the needs of different parts of the business and groups of users within them. It may be, for example, that a high-value mobile sales force involved in a lot of collaborative team selling and complex communication and information intensive sales cycles can benefit from the efficiencies and responsiveness that that can be achieved with a full unified messaging approach. Other groups, such as technical or engineering staff that spend 90 per cent of their time in the field doing relatively routine work, may simply need telephony and messaging on a handheld cellular device.
These are just a couple of examples, the point being to simply flag up that most organisations beyond a few people are not homogenous in their communication needs, so it is important to look across and understand the communication characteristics of the various types of user that exist within your organisation. Only then can you assess the merits of what's now on offer from the vendor and service provider community.
Simon Peralta, Senior Product Manager for Converged Voice Services, OBS UK.
The start of any good strategy, whether it's a marketing, business or technology strategy, is always to have a thorough understanding of the starting position and the desired end goal. The strategy is simply a blueprint that outlines how to get from point A to point B; what organisational changes are required? What level investment is needed? Are there any skills or systems gaps that need to be addressed? etc, etc.
It's not unusual for large organisations to have a wide range of telephony services and infrastructure, a situation often due to legacy mergers & acquisitions, or because regional IT teams have been given the freedom to make technology decisions independently of any central IT control. They'll usually be a mix of plain old landlines for desk-based employees; perhaps a small IP telephony trial at a branch site and maybe even a limited number of business paid broadband connections for home-workers. Even organisations that have maintained strict IT procedures often find themselves with a wide range of mobile devices in the field; many of which have been purchased by employees themselves.
With IT departments under intense pressure from internal users, and with a seemingly never-ending stream of new technologies on the horizon, it can be very difficult for large organisations to take stock and plan for the future.
In contrast, smaller organisations have generally been quicker to adopt VoIP services and are also likely to be the earliest adopters of a new wave of emerging business applications and services that are being delivered via the internet. In the right context these services can be very cost-effective tools for small businesses. There's no need to make huge investments in infrastructure or commit to long service contracts, so it's a flexible, low-risk solution.
However, as is often the case when successful businesses grow, they may find that their business models and processes start to become increasingly complex. They may need to consider more sophisticated communications services that meet the broader needs of their employees and customers and can scale with their expanding business. This is often the time when companies start to look for an integrated service provider that can provide reliable, business grade customer support across a range of voice and data services.
Orange Business Services is keen to work with customers to help them better understand their current telephony environment, to provide advice on the different technologies and to discuss the research and developments that we're currently undertaking, whether it's related to mobile voice, legacy voice or new advanced voice services such as VoWLAN - using UMA or SIP. Following an open discussion with customers we can really understand their business drivers and the competitive issues that they are facing. This provides our technical pre-sales and sales teams with the insights that they need, in order to assist customers in the creation of their telephony strategy. Each customer will have a different starting point and commercial objectives that are specific to their business, and hence their telephony strategy will be unique. For some it will make sense to pursue a telephony strategy that focuses on replacing landlines with mobiles (fixed-to-mobile substitution), making the most of mobile tariffs that provide unlimited calls between colleagues and back to base. With mobile virtual PBX services in the making, FMS can also be an attractive prospect for reducing costs and improving the productivity of employees that work from remote offices. For customers with significant PBX/IP-PBX investments, an alternative approach could be to use a voice VPN service that integrates the PBX with the mobile fleet, for savings on calls between the office and mobile staff and vice-versa.
Currently there is a raft of new technologies and services being developed that may provide an even closer integration between mobile devices and the company PBX/IP-PBX, which fall under the banner of Fixed-Mobile Convergence (FMC). FMC services offer the promise of greater cost savings through least cost routing via the PBX, extension of fixed telephony features to mobile devices, and enhanced employee responsiveness and accessibility. Orange Business Services is leveraging the capabilities of the France Telecom Group to undertake extensive research into new convergence technologies, such as UMA, SIP and IMS. In the future Orange's FMC services will complement the current portfolio of mobile voice and fixed line services, and provide even greater value for our customers' current and future telephony needs.
Ed Moore, OpenWeb Product Manager, OpenWave Europe
Telephone strategy depends largely on how old your company is. Any company over ten years old with an office is probably wedded to a standard circuit based telephone infrastructure, and would find it hard to justify changing this. A new company on the other hand, perhaps with many flexible home-based workers, may find it mad to adopt this approach.
This state of flux has been driven by the introduction of VoIP or Voice Over IP telephony, where calls are made and terminated across a data network rather than over good old copper circuits. The problem is it still has a lot of problems in terms of service levels and reliability to match against the undoubted flexibility. It also delights in its level of acronyms and the further you go into the subject - and especially in trying to formulate a strategy - the worse it becomes. Here's a few; DID, DDI, GAN, GERAN, SIP, H.323, ENUM, MGCP, SDP and XMPP - nice eh? As these cover both data networking and traditional PSTN telephony, every technical person asked to look at the subject will have something to learn, given the two worlds were traditionally so far apart.
To formulate a strategy, let's start with two easy areas; office cabling and internet IM. If you're wiring an office then use IP telephones and lay out just a data network to desks, very little argument against this. IM? Staff will use it and let them do so. It's free, informal and quicker than email for text messages and cheaper then a phone line for quick chats and conference calls. Even if not everyone adopts it enough people will, and the extra complexity is won back in lower costs and increased flexibility, especially for remote and geographically spread staff.
The interesting area in strategy is how to combine functions that should be standard, such as a direct dial PSTN number with staff who you may prefer to connect via VoIP. Staff no longer stay handily in one place, but wouldn't it be good if their official office number routed to where they were and cheaply? As more companies start to migrate to VoIP though how do you accept both VoIP and PSTN into a PBX and have these connections routed out to users wherever they are at minimal cost? VoIP may be relatively undeveloped but these last aspects are almost experimental. ENUM and SIP are interesting answers to these problems (I'll let you look them up), but is everything ready now or should you wait? If so, for how long? Given how cheap standard calling has become is it something that'll turn losses into profit and crown you with glory? I'm betting not yet.
Where does this leave mobile phones you may ask? In my opinion, well out of the way. People are used to the idea a mobile number is different to an office work number so you'll need to run this separately for now. There are moves to develop fixed to mobile convergence and to enable VoIP to a mobile handset, but leave this in the lab for the techies to experiment with. You've got enough headaches as it is.®