Traditional ISDN phone systems are now coming to the end of their lives, with BT announcing ISDN will not be supplied beyond 2020. Cloud-based solutions are now widely available and include cloud-based hosted phone systems, which provide an alternative to buying a direct replacement that sits in the corner of your office.
However, poorly designed and implemented cloud-based VoIP phone systems can suffer from serious issues, such as quality and reliability, that destroy many of the potential benefits of using this technology. This article is aimed at business decision makers who need to understand these benefits & pitfalls and looks at how their businesses can get the most from any investment they make.
Today’s business users need phone calls that are ‘rock-solid’ reliable and features & functions that help them work flexibly, such as working anywhere and receiving their calls on whatever device they choose. Many companies are still relying on traditional Integrated Service Digital Network (ISDN) technology for their business communications. This obsolete technology was first introduced in the 1970’s and is due for final switch-off by 2025. Many of the phone systems supporting ISDN are now beyond economic upgrade and as such are also defunct.
This leaves many business owners / decision-makers with the issue of what to do next? Do they upgrade their phone system by replacing the box that sits in the corner of their office? Or are there alternatives that can be considered? Cloud based VoIP telephony is now a stable and mainstream service which offers many benefits that include zero-capital expenditure, highly flexible features and easy set-up. These are features that many business users already enjoy from other cloud-based services, such as Microsoft Office365 or Google Cloud.
What is Cloud Based Telephony?
ISDN is heavily reliant on physical copper wiring, it uses its own set of physical equipment and adding / removing connections is time consuming, costly and often troublesome. When issues arise, it can also be problematic to fix in a timely manner and having a dedicated ISDN backup is costly. Not ideal in an ever more demanding business world!
Cloud-based telephony or hosted VoIP uses the Internet to connect the users handset device to the hosted switch or PBX (private branch exchange), which in tun connects the business to other VoIP users or the PSTN (public services telephone network). This means using the same equipment and technology as used by your computer network.
Benefits of Cloud & VoIP Telephony
Cloud-based VoIP telephony uses the Internet and the same technologies of your computer network. This means that cloud-based VoIP telephony is now much cheaper, easier to set-up, change, resilient and easier to support & manage than iSDN system. Let’s look at some of the factors behind this;
Internet based means that users and their handsets connect via the same LAN (local area network), comprising the same network switches, the same wi-fi and the same types of Internet connection already used in most businesses today. This commonality translates to cheaper, more flexible, easier to set-up, change and manage than the older dedicated systems of iSDN.
How the service is costed and financed is also a critical factor for many businesses. The ability to avoid large CapX (capital expenditure) and move toward on-going monthly rental or OpX (operating expenditure) is key to many businesses. Improving cashflows is vital to so many SMB (small & medium business). Cloud-based also means systems are centrally managed and updated, hosted on the best platforms in the most reliable data centres. This means they are more reliability, have higher up-time / availability and are better protected against cyber-security than systems directly hosted and managed by a business. This also means that cloud-based VoIP telephony provide features that are way beyond the budget of most small and medium sized businesses. i.e. Paying to use a part of a much larger system, rather than buyer a specific piece of hardware.
How does it work?
Using IP (internet protocol) VoIP handsets and devices automatically connect from any location with an active Internet connection. Simply plug-in the phone via your standard ethernet cable and you’re away! Behind the scenes, the phone handset connects to the voice server or PBX. The system is programmed to know which handset is assigned to which user and calls are routed from the PSTN via the cloud-based phone system to the appropriate user.
Users can also login and logout of the system, analogous to hotdesking on your PC network, allowing any user to login and receive their calls anywhere. Cloud-hosted systems are feature-rich and provide almost unlimited potential, such as incorporating the desk phone features in to your mobile device or software that shows comprehensive calls statistics about who is picking up your calls or how many are going unanswered.
Being able to connect with any Internet connected device, means having your phone calls whereever you need them, making your business agile, flexible and efficient. However, if this is set-up badly, poor call quality can leave customers with a bad impression or even lose business. Therefore, here are some things to look out for when selecting a system.
What to look out for
A VoIP call using the best quality takes around 120Kb/s. That’s a very small amount of data, compared to the routinely available speeds of 100,000Kb/s or 1000,000Kb/s found in most LANs (local area networks). However, the problem isn’t speed, but delay. With computer data, the IP packets can be re-transmitted and jumbled up with no issue, as the receiving computer simply reorders the packets or asks for new ones to be resent. However, the human ear can’t do this and any delays or drops outs means that t*e c*nver*ation becom*s ra*her d*fficult t* foll*w!
To combat this several things can be done, such as separating the traffic in the LAN by having different voice and data networks. However, this doesn’t mean doubling up on equipment and losing some of the benefits of commonality mentioned above! If the right switching and LAN equipment is selected, then VLANs (virtual local area networks) can easily be implemented that provide this traffic separation and help keep things running smoothly.
Perhaps more importantly, is how the VoIP traffic is handled in the WAN (wide area network), where companies routinely use connections (like broadband), where the speed of connection is much lower than in the LAN. Because speeds are lower, the ‘pipe’ into which this data is being ‘squeezed’ is smaller and therefore the flow becomes ‘congested’. We commonly see this in many installations using home or low-quality broadband services. To overcome this problem, look for solutions that offer QOS (quality of service), which enables the bandwidth to be reserved for critical applications like VoIP and stops this congestion issue. Our broadband solutions are specifically designed for business use and products like Converged FTTC or Assured broadband allow both voice & data to operate without issue.
Even in the best solutions can go wrong and when they do, it’s important to have the ability to redirect calls quickly. Look for systems that offer automatic call redirect when the destination site goes down. I.e. when the broadband fails, calls are automatically rerouted to your mobile and / or other users or sites. But what happens if the hosted platform fails? This maybe a rare event, but we recommend using a different ICS (inbound call solution) to that of your hosted telephony platform. This ensures calls always go somewhere and calls are not lost.
Also, consider the support you have for your lines, broadband or leased line services. Make sure you can report faults 24*7 if needed and that you understand the target fix time in the event of failure. Often you can pay an enhanced fee on your telecoms line or internet service rental to improve these response times. Or alternatively look to set-up dual connections, whereby services failover from one to the other if a connection drops.
The voice server or PBX software used is also critical and we suggest going for a mainstream product that is well supported. One such product is Cisco Broadsoft, which ranks highly on review sites like Gartner, so do your research. The choice of software is critical and will be a main factor determining the features, functions and stability of the system you select. Broadsoft for example, is the market leader and specifically designed to be run as a cloud-service and has been widely adopted and developed.
Finally, look for a partner who has the skills and badges to prove they can design, implement and support any solution you choose. For example, Charlton Networks are a Gamma Accredited Partner and have been deploying VoIP and Telecoms solutions for many years.
Handsets, Devices & Software
Handset instruments come in all shapes & sizes, with corded and cordless devices, mobile phone applications and support for Windows, Android and Apple devices. Whatever computer device you have, there is almost certainly a software client that can run a softphone, turning it in to a phone and enabling you to receive calls anywhere and work more flexibly. The choice of handsets are huge and range from non-display, simple to full colour, touch screen and cordless.
Wired handsets often include an extra port to plug in your laptop or desktop computer, meaning you only need 1-cable to your desk. This can be handy if you are short on cabling or moving into a new office where you need to cable. But phones can also run on wireless too, support Bluetooth for headset connectivity (avoiding messy tangled cables) and can be ‘twinned’ with your mobile phone, so you always pickup your call whether at your desk or whilst out and about.
Voicemail, Messaging and Status
Getting your voicemail messages is critical to serving your customers and remaining productive in our ever-changing daily business lives. The flexibility of cloud-based VoIP systems again comes to the fore, with voice message alerting, listening and responding being able to be done where ever you are working and what ever device you are using.
Menu items like this make it easy to navigate and select the functions you need, such as collecting your messages, searching for a number in a company or private directory or placing your self in Do Not Disturb (DND).
This screen grab shows a typical softphone client, where a user is being informed they have a new voicemail message and that this can be played and reviewed simply by clicking the message.
The expansion of telephony on to mobile devices & computers has also led to advances in how systems are managed and controlled. VoIP cloud-hosted systems are web-based and controlled via you Internet Browser. More sophisticated applications have arisen from this and now routinely include Instant Messaging, where users can exchange text messaging that is quick and can be done while they are on the phone to someone else. Features such as ‘presence’ allow others to see where you are and if you can take calls, rather than taking messages and keeping a client waiting.
In general, such features are converging the computer, phone, email, messaging and status, with some vendors creating their own applications, such as our Horizon Collaborate application or offering to integrate into other common applications, such as Microsoft Teams or Microsoft Outlook.
Here for example is the Horizon Collaborate application, showing contacts, with their photo, their current status information on the right-hand side and giving the user the ability to send and IM, phone call, video call or conference in that user.
This application also provides a virtual room, where information, documents, notes can be shared and any number of participants can collaborate on a project.
The uses of applications like this opens up a whole new way of working together, managing customers, improving customer services and working in the most flexible way.
Numbers & Porting
With cloud-based telephone systems your telephone number becomes much more transparent and flexible than is with a traditional phone system. Unlike a traditional phone line or iSDN based system (where the numbers are directly linked to the physical line), cloud-based telephony ‘de-couples’ this link and gives you complete freedom to associate almost any phone number to an individual user or group of users. For example, I might choose to have a geographic number for Cheltenham (01242), which I can use for sales & marketing my local Cheltenham clients. This number can be allocated to me or my sales reps who also cover the Cheltenham area. We can be working from any location, making it super handy for sales & marketing and allowing me to build any number of other geographic numbers to cover my sales area.
The above number flexibility can also be very helpful if I’m moving office, say from Gloucester (01452) to Cheltenham (01242) and want to preserve my old number and also have a new number for the new office location. Providers like ourselves, can take-over your legacy lines and ‘port’ required numbers in to a cloud-based phone system. This resolves the issue of potentially losing or changing numbers when you physically move buildings.
With the expansion of Voice-over-IP (VoIP) calling and cloud-based phone systems, the cost of trunks calls has been steadily decreasing. This is because a significant part of these calls does not go over the Public Services Telephone Networks (PSTN) and is therefore essentially free. These cost reductions has allowed the industry to routinely offer call bundles, that generally include local, national and UK mobile calls. Look for call bundles that are ‘aggregated’ across all your users, for example you get 4000-minutes of calls / user and with 10-users you receive 40,000-minutes of free calls per month. This means that you don’t pay for virtually all your calls if you are a business dealing primarily with UK customer.
If you do undertake lots of calls overseas, these are often still cheaper, but you should enquire about rates and based upon the volume of calls, you maybe able to obtain discounts or free calls to these destinations too.
Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is a key communications language behind cloud-based telephony and is used to connect your phone handsets and soft clients to the hosted PBX system. It all works seamlessly and as a user you don’t need to know anything about this normally. However, SIP can also work on traditional phone systems and may be worth knowing about in case you can’t move to a cloud solution immediately. Like all business investments, you will want to get the maximum return on any capital expenditure you have made and if your phone system is less then 2 or 3-years old, SIP maybe a useful ‘stepping stone’. In these cases, SIP can be used to replace legacy iSDN services which are now going end-of-life and allows you to keep the phone system, but upgrade the lines. You will need a reliable Internet connection, typically a ‘leased line’ to connect the SIP channels, but its worth remembering.
Summarizing the benefits
- Cloud-telephony is now main-stream with thousands of UK businesses adopting this technology, enabling them to easily grow and remain agile.
- Cloud-telephony allows users to have the same phone number regardless of where they are in the world. This number flexibility means no issues when relocating your office, even if you are moving to a different geographic location.
- Cloud-telephony is the perfect communications solution for growth, enabling the addition of new users, remote workers and new office locations via a simple process.
- Cloud-telephony is reliable and can now offer better recovery and easier support than legacy ISDN and on-premise phone systems. Modern solutions, like VOIP, now come with in-built resilience features, such as the immediate redirection of calls in the event of failure.
- Many commercial packages now include ‘call plans’ that include bundles of call minutes, that can be shared across the whole group. This means that most companies have zero call charges and their cloud-phone solution becomes a fixed recurring monthly charge
- Costs for SIP channels can be around 50% cheaper that the equivalent ISDN. The bigger the business, the bigger the saving in that respect.
- iSDN phone systems are coming to the end of their life? BT have announced that ISDN will not be supplied beyond 2020.
- Business phone costs can be reduced by 50% or more!
- Avoid changing your phone number when upgrading your phone system. Use the same phone number anywhere on the globe.
About Charlton Networks
Charlton Networks provide a complete set of Business IT services, that provide business clients with a ‘one-stop-shop’ for all their IT needs and making their daily business lives easier. Our services include Cloud-Telephony and Hosted-PBX solutions that replace traditional iSDN-based phone systems. We provision and manage the best cloud-based phone systems and offer these as fully managed service solutions. These solutions are easy to use and manage, remove capital expenditure and help cashflow, whilst providing unprecedented levels of flexibility in operating and running your business.