The world of voice telephony is changing. The old world of an organisation buying a private telephone exchange for its premises and connecting individual phone lines back to it, then connecting it over BT fixed lines to the local telephone exchange, is fading fast.
Many installations of this type, using TDM technology to carry voice, are installed all over the world and many will stay in place until they wear out and need replacing. Indeed, in spite of all the hype surrounding IP telephony, that is still how most businesses make and receive phone calls.
However, as it has become possible to describe a telephone call using TCP/IP packets, as used in all internet traffic, so new possibilities have opened up for voice. Once a voice call is only shifting packets around using the world internet infrastructure, so it becomes possible to do things which are not possible on a premises-based private telephone exchange. And so a new industry, the Unified Communications industry, has come about and is gradually replacing sales of premises-based telephone systems with privately hosted functionality.
Traditional suppliers of telephone systems have found themselves outflanked by new entrants to the business telephony market, as business voice telephony has moved from being on-premises equipment installations to data centre based software applications. New names like Broadsoft are who people mention now, and even Microsoft has made a major commitment to the market with the launch of its Lync product.
The limiting factor for take-up by the marketplace is the availability of fast, reliable fibre to business premises. In major cities, there is no problem as FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) and FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) are widely available. Further outside of the cities, coverage is patchy. It will eventually get better, but the investment to bring fibre into every premises is huge, as the government well knows.
Additionally, for good resilience, consideration must be given to diverse fibre. If the organisation is served by a single fibre or a single fibre route, then disruption or damage on that route can cause serious outage problems.
Hosted telephony, as part of a Unified Communications package, offers flexibility, scaleability and the ability to make changes in a way which is simply not possible in on an on-premises system. An example is a multi-tenanted short-let serviced office building.
With a hosted arrangement, it becomes possible to bring on a new client, with new phone numbers and customised facilities, within a day, to expand or contract the client’s telephone facilities at will, and to close them down when the client leaves.
New facilities, such as call recording, conference bridges, video conferencing and mobile integration can be added or subtracted at will in minutes. New facilities, such as one-click calls from Outlook or call centre functionality, become possible. Billing becomes centralised, so one manager can control it and allocate costs to departments.
Whilst it may seem remote from the user, the choice of supplier and the software the supplier is using is important. There are many software platforms out there, some of which are early designs that are not well developed or supported, others that are agile and forward-looking and yet others from large companies which are cumbersome to integrate.
Equally important is the choice of the data centre in which the supplier hosts his equipment. For voice telephony, especially if a large proportion of overseas calls are anticipated, a data centre with a high level of connectivity is essential for a choice of reliable, diverse routes. Even in a world where everything moving is TCP/IP packets, the choice of carriers for specific parts of the world is important. Most of the highly-connected data centres are in London, either in central London or in Docklands.
The integration of the old and new worlds is eased by SIPP trunks, which allow connection of existing TDM on-premises exchanges to the world of the internet. This eases the path for organisations which have invested in on-premises telephone switchboards and do not wish to replace them before the end of their working lives.
There seems little doubt that Unified Communications will be the way forward for everyone in the coming years. On-premises equipment will slowly disappear, to be replaced by Ethernet cabling, or possibly wireless, with only small routers on premises connecting on high-speed fibre optics to hosted telephone functionality, running as software on standard off-the-shelf servers in highly-connected data centres. And, as a result, telephony will become cheaper and more flexible for the end user.