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Negotiating the pitfalls of VoIP

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Public cloud telephony is on the rise in small and medium enterprises. Companies in the five to 50-user segment (including distributed offices) are sold on the benefits of outsourcing the skills burden, upfront cost and risk of owning, maintaining and refreshing PBX equipment to a cloud PBX VoIP (voice over IP) provider, writes George Golding, MD, Euphoria Telecom.
But are they doing it right?
The most important aspects to choosing a VoIP provider are:
* The service provider itself;
* The connectivity to the provider;
* The value the VoIP product adds to the business; and
* The financial relationship with the service provider.
Service provider
Do they have a trusted track record with their current client list? Cross-check their references and ask for a demo. It is too easy to download an open source PBX from the Internet and install it on a single server without backup in a location with frequent power cuts, so users should probably check up on their hosting situation too.
Furthermore, do they provide secure http (https) connectivity to the management system and SIP details, use virtual private network for voice communication, and require high-strength passwords and authentication for system access? Is their cloud PBX confined to South African networks only, and do they have multiple firewalls and controlled access to their servers?
Do they have the skills to support the technology locally? Many providers use open source or imported solutions without the full set of skills to implement it securely and reliably. A local provider with a local solution can fix problems swiftly when they arise.
Doing it themselves? Users may even decide that they want to download said free open source stack from the Internet, and learn the ropes on an Internet user forum. Don’t. Users might be able to install it and get it up and running well enough, but it gets complicated pretty quickly after that – for example, security configuration.
They will be at an immediate and real risk of losing tens of thousands in damages by having their PBX hacked.
Does the host specialise in VoIP, or is it a generic Web hosting company? The data networks of non-voice specialists do not have the appropriate quality of service (QOS) prioritisation in place to give delay-sensitive VoIP packets preference over e-mail and other data services. As a result, users will get inconsistent service with all the downtime and quality problems of a non-dedicated, best-effort technology.
Connectivity
Assuming that any Internet connection is suitable for VoIP will lead to guaranteed quality problems, and probably disaster. At the very least, stable connectivity presupposes automatic failover to a secondary link.
ADSL is acceptable for business VoIP only when the Telkom exchange is stable and uncongested and consumers use a dedicated ADSL line, linked directly to their voice provider’s network.
Do a speed test as well as a quality test online. A quality assurance technology such as ViBE is a minimum requirement for using ADSL, to improve transmission and failover to an alternate connection such as 3G or a second ADSL line.
Use a 1Mbps ADSL line speed – it is better for VoIP than a faster line, as synchronisation rates are lower, resulting in lower latency, less jitter and more consistent bandwidth, which is more of a requirement for VoIP than line speed. Remember that a dedicated voice line on ADSL should not attract a line fee. Users should be given a free password onto a voice only network.
Wireless providers are acceptable for business VoIP provided they have a direct connection to major voice networks, they can offer users one to one contention on the speed of their choice, and their network is capable of using ViBE technology.
A WiMAX or fibre link is acceptable provided it is dedicated to voice.
3G is only acceptable as a failover to a primary wireless link or ADSL line for disaster scenarios, or where users are in remote areas without ADSL or other wireless networks. Remember that 3G only works for more than one simultaneous call when used in combination with ViBE.
Broadlink and Diginet are both excellent options for VoIP. However, high monthly costs put them out of reach of many businesses in the SME market. If the business is in telesales or support, the cost-benefit ratio of these technologies should be considered.
Value-add
Does the provider offer a complete solution? Make sure their value-proposition doesn’t only involve savings – savings should be a spin-off of the real reason for switching.
The real reason should be significant value-add. VoIP should be a step forward in business communications, improving internal workflow, cost management and service to customers.
At the very least, users should get an online management portal for near-realtime cost and usage reports and monitoring of the system’s health across all branches.
Customer service is critical, and again go back to customer testimonials.
Financial relationship
Another way of ensuring that users will get good customer service is to avoid providers with a high-upfront cost. A provider that charges reasonable monthly fees has a vested interest in ensuring users have a good customer experience.
Never sign long-term contracts with a new service provider. It just stacks the playing field against users and gives all the power to the provider. Besides, they can’t complain. If they continue to provide good service at a reasonable cost, why would anyone leave?
Know what is wanted
Now that users know what they can demand, don’t be content with a basic product that doesn’t constantly evolve in functionality and sophistication, an unattended system, inferior technology and lack of business continuity assurance. Demand certainty.