You Were Driving Home When You Saw Lan The SMB Voice and Data Collision

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The SMB Voice and Data Collision

Life demands that we do more in less time, and the term “multitasking” is everywhere from the domestic front to the business world. A housewife might be preparing dinner, talking to a friend on the phone, and doing laundry. A salesperson may be calling a customer, researching the company online, and responding to an instant message from an inventory manager to ensure products are available. So it makes sense that the technology revolution for small and medium-sized businesses revolves around the convergence of voice and data networks.

In my previous life in telecommunications equipment sales, we were told that this consolidation was coming. I remember some of my co-workers laughing as our sales manager made this premise and privately thought it wasn’t going to work. At the same time, Cisco Systems was racing to release the first version of its CallManager products, and so was a race to the finish line for network-based systems.

The old key and PBX telephone systems date back to the middle of the last century, and were the most innovative technology for most businesses. From the large glowing button phones of the 50s and 60s to the more sophisticated Private Branch Exchange (PBX) mega-systems that were popular in large enterprises, these analog business telephone systems used cabling infrastructure. Organizations that had some kind of data network also needed to be kept completely separate, and this created two consequential problems.

  1. The additional cost of running two sets of cables to each staff location for use by either network.
  2. Complete differentiation between operation and maintenance of each network with almost no cross-training.

In large enterprises it created two teams, a telecommunications team and a computer team with the associated costs of employing them both. In small to medium-sized businesses, instead of employing two sets of technology professionals, they hired third-party local and long-distance suppliers that often led to massive finger-pointing wars when something went wrong.

It was therefore perhaps inevitable that the two networks would converge, however major advances in the underlying technology were required to make it a reality. The result was Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). The first VoIP-based system was said to be a software-centric system called Vocaltec. This application is designed to run on a home computer like a PC phone is used today. Although it has hardware requirements such as a special sound card, microphone and speakers, it is called an Internet phone. Internet Phone applications used an older protocol called H.323 instead of using Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) which is widely used today. There are many who considered Vocaltec to be the “Skype” of the mid-90s because of the company’s considerable success as a VoIP provider. However, the Vocaltec solution was fraught with performance issues centered around a lack of sufficient bandwidth.

While Vocaltec didn’t prove to be the best solution, it really was a bellwether of what was to come. Even as traditional phone systems changed, the fact remained that voice and data systems were still operated and maintained separately, with additional costs and additional infrastructure. As Cisco’s CallManager platform grew and diversified, other manufacturers entered the market with on-premise solutions. Companies like ShoreTel and industry giant Microsoft entered the fray to mixed success. One of the main problems was that prices were significantly higher than traditional phone systems for small and medium-sized businesses. So while many liked the integrated options offered by this new breed of technology, most were unwilling or unable to justify the up-front costs and ongoing support costs.

Slowly but surely this ratio started to decrease. Cisco saw the light and began offering products specifically designed for the SMB space, and some older manufacturers who resisted the coming revolution also offered solutions. One of the biggest was Avaya, a twice-renamed hardware maker that was once part of communications powerhouse AT&T. Their attempt to provide an “IP enabled” communications system encouraged their everyday competitors to follow suit. Soon traditional PBX manufacturers are promoting their “IP systems”.

In fact, these products were little more than window dressing and in many cases still ran on their own infrastructure and still required a relationship with a telecom hardware provider to handle maintenance and moves/additions/changes. The dealer was charged a service call charge (aka truck roll charge) plus an hourly rate per call for service.

A third option emerged during this period that slightly reduced the market share of each of the other two. Hosted VoIP combines the advantages of network-based assets with the savings of shared infrastructure, the flexibility of mobile and remote use, and the security benefits of built-in disaster recovery and prevention. While the other two mainly rely on hardware and software based on-site at customer server rooms or data areas, hosted VoIP provides companies with call processing that is largely complex and redundant super switches in remote hard data centers. No longer will the main phone hardware need to be on site as it will be accessible from anywhere. Workers connected through a secure Internet tunnel and accessed their phones at their desks in the office, at home connected to an Internet router, or through a software-based application on their laptops. In the event of an outage at the company’s office, the phone will continue to be answered at the call processing point and messages will still be delivered. The downside? The organization will depend on the continued existence of the service provider, because if the VoIP host goes out of business (and more than a few have), the customer is suddenly left with a phone and nothing to run. them

So now that we know about the three different ways to build a telecom solution that leverages data networks, the question becomes “why should I do that?” According to many surveys and studies, it’s not the why, but the when. Are there organizations that can get by using old-fashioned TDM technology? Without question, but for most small and medium-sized businesses the benefits of integrating voice and data across networks can be significant.

The fear is that this significant improvement also comes with a hefty price tag. This was certainly the case in the late 90s and early 2000s, as data-intensive manufacturers struggled with how to offer competitive pricing. At the enterprise level this made almost no difference, as those organizations could justify the costs through productivity gains and reductions in cable plant and services. As is often the case, SMB throngs operate in very different silos and cost was a major consideration. As the marketplace adjusted, feature sets became more financially accessible and thus increased the desirability factor.

Beyond shared cabling, network infrastructure, and the bond between voice and data created a new world of coordination commonly referred to as “unified communications.” In short, the concept of Unified Communications can be fully covered in another article, UC is just what it sounds like.

Unified Communications components allow previously disparate communications to be merged and managed within a single platform. So when you receive a voice mail, it is delivered as an attachment to your email. When you receive a fax, it is delivered to your email as a PDF file. When you want to see a colleague’s status, you use the “Presence” features that give you a dashboard and indicators to show what they’re doing. You can start an instant message conversation with someone who is available and turn it into a phone call or video call. This scratches the surface of what can and is being done in the UC marketplace today, in both SMB and enterprise flavors.

UC is not the be-all and end-all of what these new systems can do. There are also applications to consider.

  • Click and dial from email or a web browser.
  • Network multiple locations into one seamless entity for internal calling and transfers.
  • “Find Me, Follow Me” call forwarding that delivers calls to a location specified by the end user.
  • Text-to-speech conversion of text messages or speech-to-text conversion of voice mail messages.
  • PC-based receptionist call handling.
  • A tightly integrated call center with calls handled by agents at one or multiple locations, distributed over time, skill sets, etc.
  • The ability to use a cell phone in an on-premises wireless network to easily transition from cellular calls to business network calls.

As you can see, there are countless reasons to look towards combining voice and data, but it’s important to ask the right questions, and they should include the following.

  1. Is the size of your business particularly relevant to the number of employees currently using phones? In two years? In five years?
  2. What is the current status of data networks and related systems? Are they robust enough to deal with the additional demands of VoIP? Need something completely new installed or a minor upgrade?
  3. What are the most important features a phone system must have, regardless of cost or time to implement? What key factors and capabilities should be considered for the current health and future growth of the business?

It’s only a small part of your thoughts when you’re on the roundabout, because once you’ve driven a car on the autobahn, it’s hard to imagine driving your aunt’s van in a school parking lot! Move your business towards unified voice and data. Once the initial panic wears off, you’ll be looking for a nice straight patch of road to really open her up. Enjoy the ride!

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