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Know When to Commit to Free VoIP Services

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VoIP
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When talking about enterprise voice over internet protocol (VoIP), let me start with a silly question: “what could be wrong with free?” A free car wash, free drink with your burger, free added channels to your cable plan – what’s wrong with any of that? Generally speaking, nothing is wrong with it – to misquote Gordon Gekko, “Free is good.”
 
However, when talking about cloud-based enterprise voice and related services, allow me to suggest a different answer – it depends. It will depend on what your enterprise needs for communication and collaboration.
 
I still run into a few enterprises that are happy with their 15-year-old on-prem PBX’s. But right now, we are seeing the “COVID-19 effect,” which is driving the urgent need for really good and really reliable (aka “enterprise-grade”) communication and collaboration, especially for workforces that suddenly find themselves working remotely for extended periods. We now find ourselves using our laptops and smartphones connected to our home’s Wi-Fi, not only for the occasional early morning conference call but to accomplish all necessary work throughout the day. Client-facing meetings, engineering design reviews, legal contract negotiations, CFO presentations to investors, emergency response coordination meetings. All these critical or mundane collaborations that allow organizations to function effectively and get work done.
 
As all this plays out, UCaaS providers are aggressively pitching their services, and several are pitching “free voice service” (e.g., bundled in at no extra charge, or free for a year based on a multi-year contract). From my experience regarding these services, “free voice” doesn’t equal “quality voice” or “what-my-organization-needs voice.” Let me explain.
 
Consider the effort required to offer basic VoIP service – simply use one of the open source codebases, load it onto a couple of servers with decent internet, connect to a SIP trunk service, and voila – you’re a VoIP service provider. Now consider the effort required to offer “enterprise-grade” voice – i.e., service that meets the following requirements:
 
  • Is highly reliable (ideally >99.995% actual uptime over the last 12 months)
  • Delivers consistently high quality of service (QoS) over all the various communication scenarios, including mobile and PC-based clients connecting across continents over various public internet connections, including cellular data and Wi-Fi networks (ideally actual MOS scores of >3.5 for >98% of all calls worldwide)
  • Has achieved a sufficiently high level of security certifications, particularly for sensitive communications segments like healthcare, finance, and law enforcement. Ideally, this goes beyond the various self-certifying standards like PCI, and it gets into the realm of more rigorous certifications like the US government’s NIST 800-53 security standard (which typically requires a year or more of hands-on assessment by INFOSEC experts to achieve)
  • Is consistently delivered at these high service levels globally, including third world countries with less than ideal internet infrastructures
  • Is well-integrated with your organization’s other key cloud service areas – office productivity, video conferencing, CRM, contact center, sales force automation, etc.
  • Can integrate with or otherwise handle various legacy or other non-mainstream requirements like analog devices, DECT / WLAN phones, radio dispatch systems, or integration with legacy PBX’s

 

So, what does it take to deliver this kind of enterprise-grade voice? Quite a lot.

 
Few service providers have achieved it. For those that have, it takes a talented team multiple years to accomplish, and ongoing effort to maintain and further improve. It requires the deployment of service instances in a dozen or more data centers around the world, with redundant failover capability – contracting with only the best local carriers and NSP’s across 100+ countries and avoiding “grey-route,” cheaper interconnects. It also requires implementation resources and network experts that can assess your organization’s intranet and network services and provide upgrade recommendations to avoid issues when you first switch over.
 
It takes sideband management and monitoring of the service and the underlying network, to identify problems in real-time and dynamically fix them. It also takes operations experts who have created and continue to refine algorithms to tune multiple network variables for optimal QoS – along with a host of other things too long to list here – typically developed over years of experience.
 
While I’ve occasionally seen all these things offered by premium providers, I’ve never seen all these things (or even a decent subset) provided “for free.” Organizations that still rely on voice (in conjunction with video, chat, team collaboration, etc.) as one of their important methods of communication and collaboration, will be best served by weighing their needs carefully and choosing wisely. Additionally, it helps to avoid the trap some managers fall into, in which they see the cost of everything but the value of nothing. Don’t assume all VoIP services are created equal – they’re not. Figure out what your organization needs, look beyond clever marketing claims, and assess which vendors can prove their ability to deliver against those needs.

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