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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 home front to the business world. A housewife may 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 the inventory manager to ensure products are available. So it makes sense that a technology revolution for small and medium businesses revolves around the convergence of voice and data networks.
In my previous life selling telecom equipment, we were told this integration was coming. I remember some of my colleagues laughing as our sales manager laid out the premise and privately thinking there was no way it would work. At the same time, Cisco Systems was in a sprint to release the first version of their CallManager products, and so the race to the finish line for network-based systems was on.
The old PBX and switch phone systems date back to the middle of the last century and were the most innovative technologies for most businesses. From the big flashy push-button phones of the 50s and 60s to the more sophisticated mega-systems of Private Branch Exchanges (PBXs) that were popular with large enterprises, these analog business phone systems used a cable infrastructure of their own. Even organizations that had some form of data network were required to keep it completely isolated, and this created two impactful issues.
- The additional costs of running two sets of cables to each employee location for use by each network.
- Complete differentiation between operation and maintenance of each network with almost no cross-training.
In large enterprises this created two teams, the telecom team and the computer team with the associated costs of employing both. In small and medium-sized businesses, instead of hiring two sets of technology professionals, they hired local and long-distance third-party providers, which often resulted in massive finger wars when something went wrong.
So perhaps it was inevitable that the two networks would head towards a crossover, however major advances in the underlying technologies were needed to make it a reality. The result was Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). The first VoIP-based system was said to be a software-based system called Vocaltec. This application is designed to run on a home computer, just like the PC phones used today. It was called the Internet Phone, although it had strict hardware requirements such as special sound cards, microphones and speakers. The Internet Phone application used an older protocol called H.323 instead of using Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) which is more widely used today. Many considered Vocaltec to be the “Skype” of the mid-90s because the company had considerable success as a VoIP provider. However, the Vocaltec solution was riddled with performance issues centered around a lack of sufficient bandwidth.
While Vocaltec proved not to be the best solution, it was indeed a tease of what was to come. Although traditional telephone systems were changing, the fact remained that voice and data systems were operated and maintained separately at additional cost and added infrastructure. As Cisco’s CallManager platform grew and diversified, other manufacturers came to market with in-house solutions. Companies such as ShoreTel and industry giant Microsoft entered the fray to mixed success. One of the main problems was that the costs were significantly higher than traditional telephone systems for small and medium-sized businesses. So, while many would have liked the built-in options offered by this type of new technology, most were unwilling or unable to justify the initial outlay and ongoing support costs.
Slowly but surely, this began to diminish. Cisco saw the light and began offering products designed specifically for the SMB space, and some of the legacy manufacturers that had resisted the coming revolution began offering solutions as well. One of the biggest was Avaya, the twice-renamed hardware maker once part of communications powerhouse AT&T. Their effort in providing “IP enabled” communication systems gave their everyday competitors the impetus to follow suit. Soon there was a glut of traditional PBX manufacturers advertising their “IP systems”.
In truth, these products were nothing more than window dressing, and in many cases they still ran on their own infrastructure and still required a relationship with the telecom equipment provider to handle maintenance and moves/additions/changes. With every call to the dealer for service came the service call fee (aka truck fee) plus the hourly fee.
During this period a third option emerged which eroded a small share of the market from each of the other two. Hosted VoIP combined the benefits of a network-based asset with the savings of a shared infrastructure, the flexibility of mobile and remote use, and the security benefits of natural disaster recovery and prevention. While the other two relied primarily on locally based hardware and software in the customer’s server room or data area, Hosted VoIP offered companies the call processing of a massively complex and redundant superswitch in a data center. hardened into the distance. There would no longer be a need to have the main phone hardware in place as it would be accessible from anywhere. Workers connected through a secure Internet tunnel and had access to their phone at their office desk, at home connected to an Internet router, or even through a software-based application on their laptop. Even in the event of a failure at the company office, the phones will continue to answer at the call processing point and messages will continue to be sent. The downside? The organization would rely on the continued existence of the service provider, because if the VoIP host went out of business (and more than a few have), suddenly the customer would be sitting with a bunch of phones and nothing to run. those.
So now that we are aware of three different methods of creating a telecom solution that leverages the data network, the question becomes “Why should I do this?” According to most surveys and studies, it’s not a matter of why, but when. Are there organizations that can get by with old-style TDM technology? Undoubtedly, but for most small and medium-sized businesses, the advantages of integrating voice and data into the network can be significant.
The fear is that this significant improvement comes at a high price. That was certainly the case in the late 90s and early 2000s, as data-centric manufacturers struggled with how to price them competitively. At the enterprise level, it almost didn’t matter, as those organizations could justify the costs with increased productivity and reductions in cabling and utilities. As is often the case, the SMB crowd operates in a very different silo, and costs were a major consideration. As the market adjusted, feature sets became more within fiscal reach and therefore increased in desirability factor.
Going beyond common cables, network infrastructure and connectivity between voice and data created a new world of synergies commonly referred to as “unified communications”. In short, because the concept of unified communications can be fully covered in another article, UC is almost what it sounds like.
Unified communications elements allow different forms of communication to be merged and managed on one platform. So when you receive a voicemail, it is sent to your email as an attachment. When you receive a fax, it is sent to your email as a PDF file. When you want to see a coworker’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 just scratches the surface of what can and is being done in the UC market today, in both SMB and enterprise flavors.
UC is not the be-all, end-all of what these new systems can do. There are also applications to consider.
- Click and call from email or web browsers.
- Network multiple locations into one seamless entity for internal calls and transfers.
- Find me, follow me call forwarding that sends calls wherever the end user specifies.
- Text-to-speech conversion of text messages or Speech-to-text conversion of voicemail messages.
- PC based receptionist call handling.
- Tightly integrated call centers with calls handled by agents in one or multiple locations, distributed by time, skill sets, etc.
- The ability to use mobile phones on the indoor wireless network to easily switch from a mobile phone call to a business network call.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons to look in the direction of merging voice and data, but it’s important to ask the right questions, and these should include the following.
- What is the size of your business specifically as it relates to the number of employees who actually use the phone right now? In two years? In five years?
- What is the current status of the data network and related systems? Are they strong enough to handle the additional demands of VoIP? Need to install something completely new or perform a minor upgrade?
- What are the most important features a phone system should have, regardless of cost or time to implement? What are the key components and capabilities to consider for the current health and future growth of the business?
These are just a few of the considerations you should have when you start down the convergence road, because once you’ve driven a car on the Autobahn, it’s hard to imagine driving your aunt’s van in the school parking lot! Drive your business in the direction of combining voice and data. Once the initial jitters have passed, you’ll be looking for a nice straight path to really open it up. Enjoy the ride!
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