Talking Telephony

Commercial third-party VoIP may be tightly controlled - if not banned - across much of the region, but businesses can start grabbing some of its benefits right away. Windows talks to vendors about what's on offer…

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By  Matthew Wade Published  August 1, 2005

|~||~||~|VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), also known as IP telephony, refers to voice data being transmitted over an IP-enabled computer network, such as a LAN, WAN, corporate, private, cable or even a wireless network. This approach to making and taking calls means organisations can use the same network infrastructure to support their data and voice applications. This can save a business cash (because voice and data are converged onto one network, this can be centrally maintained), plus it can make managing these systems simpler and brings into play a plethora of new productivity-boosting phone and communications related applications, such as text-to-voice for example. “The ROI you'll get, whatever the size of your business, is simply not comparable with traditional systems,” claims Cisco's Wayne Hull, the company's regional sales manager for the commercial GCC region. Indeed Cisco's competitor Avaya even includes a ROI calculator on its web site to further back-up this claim. Avaya Middle East's marketing manager, Roger Al-Tawil, breaks the potential benefits of IP telephony down into three categories: “The applications available will help you lower the cost of communications; secondly - with easy, flexible options for call and message forwarding and one-number reachability, IP telephony keeps everyone in touch. Thirdly, IP telephony can help you set-up a customer sales and service centre designed for your needs and your budget - with all the routing and reporting capabilities you'll need.” Aside from the potential cost savings on offer, Al-Tawil's mobility point is key. For staff who work ‘in the field’ or at different offices, it means they can work with any IP-enabled end-user device, whether an IP telephone, computer, laptop or PDA, and use this to keep in touch, jump into call conferences, access apps and so on. Nor do they need to have their calls forwarded to a new phone. IP telephony means an entirely portable solution. As with many of the technologies now available to the region's SMBs, IP was, until recently, targeted only at big corporates. Not anymore. Cisco has been examining the SMB market for three years, considering how its services could be configured to suit such firms, in terms of their functions, features and price points. “In September 2004 we made our SMB section a standalone section of the business,” explains Hull, “and we've had a very positive response.” Hull's colleague and Cisco's regional SMB manager, Jamie Dewar, says 40-60% of IT spend over the next 10 years will come from the SMB segment. “That's why we've launched 43 new products,” he adds. “We're only touching between five and ten per cent of the SMB market. It's a huge opportunity.” SMB Opportunity Avaya finds itself in a similar position, with Al-Tawil explaining how - because of this SMB growth - the company has launched a specific product line. “The market is growing. Because of this we've brought in SMB products, namely ‘IP Office’.” Many of the VoIP-related stories in Windows recently have concerned national authorities banning consumer VoIP sites, such as Skype.com (in many cases because such services contravene a country's monopoly-based telecom laws). So, one might wonder, how can businesses use and benefit from IP telephony if such laws are in place in their country of operation? Nothing is crystal clear in truth, but here's the situation as best described at present. All Avaya and Cisco's products have been approved by the region's telecoms providers. However, the legal situation with regards to how they can be used, is different in each country. It depends on that particular government's telecoms policy. Bahrain and Jordan for instance have both moved towards deregulated markets. In contrast the UAE is still years away from having a fully open market. The way Al-Tawil explains it, Avaya's products can provide “traditional telephony or IP telephony, depending upon whether or not a country's telecommunications industry is deregulated. In other words they are future-proof.” That said, the IP technology on-board can be used, even in countries such as the UAE, within a company. “Today, using the IP method within your own enterprise (i.e. your corporate LAN or your in-country WAN) is okay,” he explains. And, he adds, potential buyers must consider not only the benefit of being future proof, and saving costs on calls between in-country offices, but also the applications available. First Steps For companies keen to bring their voice and data networks together, or at the least look into how this might work, both Avaya and Cisco's first step is to sit down and talk them through the technology and what's needed in advance. “Firms that might have 50 or 100 staff may often have a limited level of IT knowledge within the business,” says Cisco's Dewar. “What they want then is a tech partner, based within a couple of mile radius, who can come in, set them up and run their initial training.” In order to first reach that stage of agreement, Cisco has developed an ingenious IP telephony sales tool that it claims is unique. “We have a ‘demo in a box’ to show customers and we're the only vendor to offer this,” says Dewar. This demo comprises a Cisco IP phone packed with example applications, with which Dewar's team can outline the end-user simplicity of an IP system. “Once you have our router, modules such as Call Manager Express are just loaded as code onto that box,” says Dewar. “If you need more users, we'll put a switch in. After that, you just plug in phones. Just click Add User and get an extension.” Al Tawil also adds that the customer must have taken some measures to assess and prepare its current network. “Preparing the network is one of the most challenging aspects of IP telephony deployment,” he explains. “(Research company) Gartner estimates that companies who fail to conduct an analysis of their IP network infrastructure prior to implementation will have a 75% failure rate on their deployment. The reason is that voice has unique requirements, but most networks are optimised for data.” He adds, “dropped packets are bad for data in a high transaction environment, but they are cataclysmic for voice.” As for how many firms are prepared to jump in at the deep end and move immediately from TDM or PBX systems to IP, this depends to a degree upon the type of business. “Our customers fall into two groups,” explains Al Tawil, “either established customers or new ‘greenfield’ firms. The first group usually want an IP migration plan, as many managers don't want to trust everything to IP immediately.” The second group comprises corporations moving into the region and what Avaya calls SMEs. Al-Tawil suggests the latter “are often actually more receptive to the idea of starting their business using IP.” On Offer What specific products and solutions are being targeted at SMBs then? What's out there to choose from, and what can you expect to pay? From Avaya's point of view, the firm's IP Office is the product it's looking to push across the region. “This is designed specifically to give you more functionality without making more demands on your resources,” explains Avaya's Small & Medium Enterprise channel manager, Youssef Sannan. “This is key for smaller firms.” IP Office equips operators to manage calls and personalise services and offers hundreds of application features, such as letting mobile workers listen to e-mails remotely. Its Contact Center Express tool also adds high-end contact centre features for the midsized enterprise. One IP Office box can incorporate up to 360 ports, and up to 16 boxes can be networked together. SMBs should expect to pay between US $3,000 and $15,000 depending on the number of ports and applications required. As for setting IP Office up in the first place, it uses a GUI and wizard system. “To a certain extent, IP Office is a P&P (Plug & Play) device,” suggests Sannan. “Someone with some IP or IT knowledge will be able to configure it.” At the end of the day, Al-Tawil suggests that “infrastructure is infrastructure, applications are the key. While the price may seem expensive, this includes all the different functions and applications your business will need, plus the whole configuration is just one data file, so if you have any problems you can just e-mail that to your Avaya partner who will reconfigure it and send it back.” Cisco's overall product offer is noticeably wider, with the firm having launched 43 products purely aimed at the SMB sector. The company is loathe to be pinned down on pricing however , but does admit it is currently running eight additional promotions. These, says Dewar, “are designed to get us to a price point that SMBs are happy paying.” ||**||

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