Since the unbanning of voice over IP in 2004, it has grown from geeky pursuit to mainstream sensation; dodgy calls to carrier-class service. Recently, cheap, copious bandwidth further boosted VOIP, including cloud PBX offerings.
But not all VOIP providers are equal, and sometimes the telecommunications link to the local ADSL exchange requires an experienced hand to overcome issues. So what should a VOIP provider be and do for users to be assured of a great voice service?

A managed service
Early adopters of VOIP (early 2000s), typically ICT companies, were savvy enough to connect to a hosted IP platform and run their VOIP themselves. But with the mainstream acceptance of cloud PBX services, today’s providers have to provide a fully managed service.
Ask whether the provider will handle installation and management of the entire service – from customer premises equipment (the router) through to the hosted PBX solution.
This will include a site analysis, prolonged soak test, procurement of dedicated IP Connect capacity from the local exchange, upgrading of the access line to Diginet or a wireless link if necessary, quality-of-service monitoring, and redundancy (backup) strategies.
Security

IP lines are quite accessible due to their openness, but to avoid SIP accounts being used for someone else’s high-value phone calls, defences can be erected on the customer’s as well as the provider’s side.
On the customer’s side these may include securely-generated passwords, tools that monitor and block repeated password attempts, and strong access policies.
On the provider’s side, tools should be in place to monitor unusual call patterns, call destinations, number of live calls, account balances and so forth, with alarms prompting investigation when irregularities occur. VPN tunnels used in an enterprise-class service further shield calls from eavesdropping and line-jacking.
Service continuity

Good VOIP providers arrange for backup infrastructure in the case of system failure or disaster – both on-site and in the off-site hosted environment.
One way of delivering on-site backup is to replicate the setup of the hosted PBX on-site, on a local “gateway” appliance. Should the line to the provider fail, this device has all extensions, hunt groups, pick-up groups and so on pre-programmed on it, as well as local PSTN port (analogue telephony lines out), allowing service to continue.
On the provider’s side, a “mirror” PBX configuration must exist in a separate data centre, with continual updates and regular backups from primary to secondary servers. Certain quality-of-service applications provide line redundancy.
Service level agreements

Sound SLAs are mapped to severity levels. Severity Level 1 may mean total site outage, requiring immediate investigation to meet mean-time-to-resolution obligations, whereas L3 severity may involve something as simple as user error and invoke a lesser response (first-line support).
Are users satisfied with the SLA undertakings from their provider? Is the cost prohibitive or are reasonable break-fixes included in the service?
Are they legit or not?

If the provider’s Web site does not disclose its ECS/ECNS licence number in its obligatory disclosure or terms and conditions, ask for it.

Level of connectivity

Tier 1 providers have their own IP networks as well as direct “interconnect” agreements with the fixed and mobile telco networks and other VOIP networks, providing the cheapest and most direct route to the termination point of calls as well as quality assurance. Tier 2 providers connect to the Internet and other providers via Tier 1 providers.
Both these instances are acceptable “levels of connectivity”, but anything lower and the provider will go through too many links to reach a terminating provider (serving the called party). Too many hops may detract from quality and bulk up cost.
What are their rates?

Do they work on a fixed and transparent margin above the interconnect rate (the charge levied by a provider to terminate a call)? Hence, if the interconnect rate drops, will the cost of calls drop accordingly? Do they charge per minute, or per second?

Training

Something as simple as transferring a call could lead to great frustration and intense support activities, unless there is a solid hour or two of practiced training and an acceptance test signoff.

Number porting

Can the provider port numbers to their system? Is it a deal-breaker if they cannot?

Reference sites

Some providers serve SMEs, others play in the midrange field, and yet others have an enterprise speciality. Which category does the business fall in to, and what demonstrable success does the provider have in that arena?

Selecting the perfect VOIP partner comes down to a few simple issues. Do they have the capacity and inclination to walk users through initial stages, and will they assume ongoing caretaking of the system? Have they got users’ backs, with regard to hacking and backup plans? Are they a serious player? Do they have users’ interests at heart? If so, it’s a match.