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How to negotiate the pitfalls of choosing a provider and platform.
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 provider.
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 your business
Your financial relationship with your 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 you should probably check up on their hosting situation too.
Further to that, do they provide secure http (https) connectivity to your 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 yourself? You may even decide that you want to download said free open source stack from the Internet, and learn the ropes on an Internet user forum. Don't. You 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. You are at an immediate and real risk of losing tens of thousands in damages by having your PBX hacked.
Does your 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 email and other data services. As a result, you will get inconsistent service with all the downtime and quality problems of a non-dedicated, best-effort technology.
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 your Telkom exchange is stable and uncongested and you use a dedicated ADSL line, linked directly to your voice provider's network. Do a speed test (www.speedtest.net) as well as a quality test (www.pingtest.net). A quality assurance technology such as ViBE is further 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. You 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 you one-to-one connection on the speed of your 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 you 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 your business is in telesales or support, the cost-benefit ratio of these technologies should be considered.
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 your business communications, improving internal workflow, cost management and service to your customers.
At the very least, you should get an online management portal for near-real-time cost and usage reports and monitoring of the system's health across all your branches.
Customer service is critical, and again we go back to customer testimonials.
Another way of ensuring you'll 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 you have a good customer experience.
Never sign long-term contracts with a new service provider. It just stacks the playing field against you 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 you leave?
Know what you want
Now that you know what you 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.
About the author
George Golding is MD, Euphoria, which was founded in 2010 and provides VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) communication services for small and medium businesses in South Africa. For more information go to www.euphoria.co.za
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