Ready to roll

Vendors are predicting that this year will see computer telephony hit widespread deployment in the Middle East, and channel partners will have a leading role in making sure the rubber hits the road.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  March 7, 2002

Computer telephony selling points|~||~||~|Telecommunications have been changing gradually in recent years—and not just in the mobile market. From feature rich digital switchboards, to hotlines with instant access to enterprise databases, to the very simple fact that you can order a taxi without even speaking to an operator, computer telephony is making its mark in the Middle East. Now the technologies behind CRM, IP telephony and a number of other solutions are about to make the move into the small-to-medium business market, and vendors are looking to the channel to help them.

There are a number of different technologies that are coming to the fore in this next phase of the infrastructure build out. While some fall firmly into the remit of the telecomms specialists, and others are concerned with wireless communications, there is a whole raft of different elements that are ready for a broader deployment. IP telephony—replacing analogue switching systems and handsets with systems that transfer data over IP; the backend boxes that manage CRM solutions; and interactive voice response systems that can be hosted on a simple Intel server are all areas where the market anticipates a great leap forwards in the number and scale of deployments.

One of the areas causing the most excitement among vendors and partners is IP telephony. There are a number of high profile customers that have opted to replace their standard voice phone network with a system that runs over IP—Dubai Internet City with Cisco; Dubai Technology Partners with 3Com, and most recently, the Dubai Victory Powerboat team with Seven Seas and Avaya.

IP systems have a number of selling points that are proving attractive, but the biggest are cost and simplicity. Hani Tawfal, technical manager for 3Com MENAT explained: “Installation and administration of legacy PBXs was very, very expensive. You couldn’t do basic things in your PBX like change time and date, add a name or extension number without calling your PBX reseller or support people,” he said. “The MBX [3Com’s solution] is almost plug and play. All you need to do is plug in the outside lines to the system and plug in the phones, and you will be up and running in a few minutes. Then doing extra things like configuring users and extensions is very simple.”

Another selling point is that IP-PBX can run over an existing LAN, saving on infrastructure costs, especially for new deployments on greenfield sites. The flexibility of a single infrastructure makes hot-desking a reality, as workers can replace their phone and extension with a software phone and headset on a laptop, which only requires a single connection to the LAN. Microsoft and Lotus are building support for many new IP telephony features into their software. IP phones also allow companies to rethink what an employee needs on their desk for situations like hotel receptions, hospitals and so on. “We are seeing that the IP phone can really be a smart device, or the only device on the desktop, because it can give basic web access and has the ability to support XML applications,” said Tim Scott, new business development manager at Cisco.

||**||Market readiness|~||~||~|The benefits of IP-based PBX are so attractive that Forrester is predicting that IP PBX will outsell traditional voice PBX by 2005, said Scott, but a lot of work has been done by vendors in the region to convince the channel and its customers of the benefits.

“Most of our time has been spent on education,” he said. “There has always been a grey area of people thinking that IP telephony is the same as Internet telephony [illegal in much of the Middle East], but now everybody understands that we don’t offer a toll bypass solution.”
While Cisco has previously sold mainly to greenfield sites, it has taken time to be able to sell into sites with legacy infrastructure. These sites require a gradual approach to convince customers. “Our goal is not a complete revolution, to overhaul all the voice networks, our approach is a migration strategy,” said Samer Alkharrat, technical director for Cisco. “Normally with a legacy PBX there is either an expiry date for the lease, or a renewal for the maintenance agreement, or the customer builds a new building and needs to buy an extension. This is an opportunity for this customer to transition to an IP telephony agreement. We can integrate our technology with almost any existing deployment, so if a customer has 200 extensions, they can put 20 of them on IP telephony to get the feel of the technology. Our products allow them to co-exist between the new and the old system. It allows the customers to start integrating this technology, instead of a complete forklift upgrade.”

Products for the SME market have also taken a while to arrive. “In the SME sector, we are right at the bottom of the curve,” said Scott. “We have delayed until we had a product set that we were comfortable with, although we have continued to educate the distributors over the past twelve months so they are scaled up and ready to go.”

“We now have a set of solutions that are targeted at SMEs for price and technology, we have a team that is purely focused on SME business, and we are now looking into more and more aggressive programmes for the channel to make sure we are selling those solutions,” Alkharrat continued.

||**||Selecting the channels|~||~||~|The convergence of voice and data channels has left vendors asking which of their channels they should be using to sell. “When we launched the system, we didn’t know whether to go for a telephony reseller, or a normal data networking reseller,” Tawfal commented. “The system fits between the two types—it is a telephony solution, but it is running over your network. You have to have network experience, to understand and maintain the system. A reseller with telephony experience as well as networking experience, would be the ideal reseller.”

For Avaya, spun out of Lucent to cater specifically for the new communications technologies, creating the right channels has proven to be a considerable task. The vendor has had major successes with most of the primary banks and telecommunications providers in the region, both with IP telephony and its high-end call centre applications, according to Walter Koenig, regional vice president for Middle East, North Africa & South Eastern Europe, but getting partners to make the transition has been one of its biggest challenges.

“The challenge has been to take what is primarily a voice-oriented channel infrastructure, and bring them up to a hardware, software, voice/data, converged solutions capability,” Koenig explained. “In order to provide a framework for our partners to follow, to get to that level of expertise we launched a channel certification process last October, where we define for specific product categories, specific criteria that partners must follow in order to be a value added reseller, a systems integrator, a value added distributor, to support the ever increasing end user requirements that we are seeing in the marketplace.”

Different channels have proven more appropriate for different products as well. “It is interesting to see which channels adopt new technology most readily and most easily. In my experience, voice channels have a substantial advantage over data channels with respect to a lot of the IP telephony issues; data has some advantages over voice where you have heavy data networking and perhaps CRM and software based implementations required,” Koenig said.

Many of the vendors say that while they are often relying on existing partners, be they from data or voice backgrounds, they are providing training programmes to bring them up to speed in all aspects of the technology, and looking for other partners that have the basic skills to get trained on communications technologies, particularly those with vertical expertise. Generally this means some experience with networking or voice, but mostly vendors are after partners that will invest in training and the staff to manage this new technology properly—they don’t want to create a bad impression with a botched deployment.

Potential channel partners also have to be aware that there is little room for error with IP solutions. “Telephony systems are a bit risky,” Tawfal explained. “Customers can’t afford to have their telephony system down for half an hour. You can probably wait for a few hours to get your network switches replaced, but certainly not your telephony system.”

For the right partners though, the opportunities are there. Cisco’s packaged offerings will require less knowledge from the partners, and they will be encouraging a more collaborative model between partners for larger deployments. Telecommunications deregulation will also expand the opportunities, Koenig believes. As managing director of Lucent in Italy when the Italian PTT was privatised, he has witnessed the benefits. “What we saw was an immediate expansion of services, an immediate reduction in tariffs, and all kinds of positive benefits at the time. They were able to deploy IP telephony, better call centre service, and there was a very rapid growth in Internet usage and penetration in the market. The evolution took place over months, not years.”

Alex Watson, general manager of CTME, distributors of CT hardware and software in the Middle East summed up the situation: “This is not for all resellers. You can’t go into this market thinking ‘we have a new product here that we can make better margins on than with the other gear’, it doesn’t work like that. Resellers need a viable, existing customer base that is interested in the products, they need a dedicated technician and a dedicated sales person, they need to be willing to invest in training, and they need to be imaginative with their customer approach. They don’t need to focus on the technology, they need to focus on the application to enhance their customer’s business—that is the way to close CT deals. And when you have the right application on the right hardware, it is a very lucrative market here.”||**||

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