“South African companies have, for many years, shied away from voice over IP (VOIP) telephony solutions because of our legacy of slow and expensive bandwidth,” says Stephen Davies of Connection Telecom.
Much has improved over the last two years though. The introduction of cheap(ish) uncapped ADSL offerings and Telkom rolling out line speed upgrades across the country last year were welcome news.
Newly deployed local fibre connectivity and more undersea cables due to be lit up later this year have also given users hope for a more robust IP space.
As a result, South African vendors are now able to provide national branch, multi-tenancy and managed solutions to customers through the enterprise or global cloud. IP can now begin to live up to its promise of unifying everything and hosted applications are making their way into every department in the enterprise.
Communications is shaping up to be the big winner in an IP-over-everything world. In 2010 the US cable companies were providing VOIP telephone services to more than 20-million subscribers.
Meanwhile, local analysts, BMI-T, have forecast South African growth in Internet and data services of just 10% through 2014, while VOIP is expected to enjoy a 93% (CAGR) revenue growth, reaching R895-million by 2014.
The real world is never that simple
It’s not all sunshine and roses for local VOIP service providers. There are still concerns around the quality of VOIP services. Enterprises don’t want to run two networks. Rather, they are looking for one network which can handle voice and data. However, this remains tricky – do they compromise data for voice, or do they run their networks at half capacity to properly prioritise traffic?
No matter how much South Africa's networking vendors promise that technologies like MPLS can handle voice and data, in practicality, these technologies don’t work well on slower networks.
Despite the massive improvement, South Africa is still behind in terms of network speed and, while there may be spare capacity at the core, speeds at the edge of the networks are still much slower than the global average.
Slower speeds at the edge of the network means that links are often overloaded, resulting in dropped packets as they hit the narrower pipes and this results in the two VOIP-quality killers – jitter and packet loss..
South African Internet uses the Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet (PPPoE). This protocol is great for telephony, as it allows for easy integration into legacy systems. However, it requires fairly heavy overheads being added to each packet to ensure delivery.
So a VoIP call can use five times more bandwidth in reality than users might naively expect. All this overhead exacerbates the spikes in the packet flow and leads to packet bottlenecks and packet loss, and the dreaded jitter which affects voice quality.
What is needed is a mechanism to compress the VoIP data and to smooth the overall data throughput. As soon as voice starts to flow through the network, the data throughput is dramatically reduced.
By using solutions like Runway, (Connection Telecom’s engineered access network) and ViBE, companies can increase access link capacity, manage voice quality and dramatically improve manageability.
In a real-life scenario, 10 simultaneous VOIP calls were made on the same network. It is clear that smoothed throughput makes for a more stable environment where both voice and data traffic are flowing optimally and there is far less jitter.
Managed VOIP is compelling for chief operations officers
Business processes and policies can sometimes be an irritation. However, using VOIP solutions can mean wins in these areas as well. Because VOIP calls are kept within the office systems, there is an increased ability to track and monitor calls. Support staff can pick up messages no matter what device is being used.
In fact, anecdotal evidence has shown that people are becoming overly reliant on their cell phones, and up to 40% of calls made from a cell phone are made when there is a landline easily available.
Simple softphone applications on staff cell phones mean they can remain on office VOIP systems no matter which handset they reach for – a compelling argument for many a CFO.
Telkom’s synchronous data transfer service, Diginet, has been the de facto resort for most enterprises. However, it is neither cost effective nor failsafe. By using ADSL as a backup, companies are ensuring a more redundant environment. The cost savings of running VOIP on ADSL are also compelling.
There is no doubt that managing one PBX that’s in the core of the network is far more efficient that managing hundreds of PBXs around the country. Call recording and pin access are also not an option in the traditional PBX setup, and new regulations in many of sectors are making this a necessity – the Consumer Protection Act is just one example.
So, it seems that VOIP has reached a level of maturity which makes compelling business sense at operational, risk and cost levels. However, while South Africa is enjoying much better bandwidth, it would be a foolish manager indeed who did not ensure they had robust, managed VOIP solution should they decide to make the switch.