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Microsoft Set to Launch Operator Connect, What's Next?

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At Enterprise Connect, Microsoft revealed that Operator Connect will be GA later this week. It’s a fascinating development for UCaaS.
 
It’s funny how the tech pendulum swings back and forth through each upgrade cycle. One of the more subtle changes associated with the prem-to-cloud shift is how products merged with the services. Specifically, PBX implementations have always required separate engineering, management, and procurement of circuits. With UCaaS, the circuit and call control are bundled together into a single decision — or at least it was.
 
Bring-your-own-carrier (BYOC) options have seen a resurgence of interest lately. BYOC separates the carrier services from the UCaaS provider decision. It’s attractive to many organizations, particularly larger ones, that have specific requirements that favor modular services.
 
Over the past few years, we’ve seen several new UCaaS options for BYOC, including Direct Routing and Operator Connect for Microsoft Teams, Cisco’s Cloud Connected PSTN for Webex, the recent launch from RingCentral and Bandwidth of Duet for RingCentral, and Zoom’s announcement of a BYOC program earlier this month.
 
Motivations for BYOC vary, but unbundled carrier services provide enterprises more versatility and control. For example, it allows a customer to implement a global UCaaS solution, even with a regional UCaaS provider. Customers can leverage the different strengths of regional providers with BYOC.
 
BYOC also allows UCaaS partners to create differentiated services. For example, they may bundle telephony, access, security, and managed services into a single offer. BYOC simply enables more design creativity that can include resiliency, equipment reuse, and carrier consolidation efforts.
 
While interest and support for it are growing, BYOC is extraordinarily complex for UCaaS providers to enable. That may be surprising considering how the industry has so much history with unbundled services. However, UCaaS was created as an all-in-one offer, so legacy doesn’t really matter, and it supports more modalities than voice.
 
So, let us consider Microsoft’s Operator Connect. It’s effectively the next evolution of Microsoft’s very successful Direct Routing program. Microsoft saw an eight-fold increase in Direct Routing in 2020, but the program is narrowly defined in terms of scope and equipment. Operator Connect is intended to offer more modular control per region and per carrier.
 
It leverages a new “Operators” tab in the Teams Admin Center (TAC) that allows administrators to select operators for specific services, acquire numbers, and then assign them to resources — all from within Teams. Operator Connect went into public preview last April and is now expected to be GA this week.
 
While seven months might seem slow to software people, the carrier crowded is not surprised. Carriers have evolved over a hundred years. Not too long ago, the world’s communications were dependent on copper lines and mechanical switches. What’s really mind-boggling is those services were delivered by the same providers we use today. Modern software engineers are often surprised when they get a glimpse behind the carrier curtain. Many common processes, even number porting, are often performed manually. A third-party GUI UI can be lipstick on a telegraph.
 
Carriers/operators that are approved for the program will need a certified integration with the TAC and meet other requirements. Microsoft intends to simplify the burden of carrier administration by providing a consistent UI for carrier services. The plan is to interface with the carriers via APIs, but carrier management systems are not typically API-ready. In many cases, the operators are building entirely new middle layers that translate API calls to whatever proprietary interface their systems require.
 
Network modernization is occurring but at carrier speed — that’s not meant to be mean. Carrier networks are very sophisticated, and the providers have developed meticulous change control processes. Software development tends to iterate more quickly. With Operator Connect, it’s a bit like mixing oil and water. For example, Microsoft updates Teams monthly, while operators tend to update network services a couple of times a year.
 
This type of integration testing is extremely complex. We are talking about hundreds of features and hundreds of carriers on a platform that receives near-continuous updates. Massive automation was necessary for Operator Connect to become generally available. For that, Microsoft turned to TekVizion.
 
“All of this is only possible with continuous automated testing,” said Chakra DeValla, the CEO of TekVizion. “Every operator needs to validate each service separately and regularly.” Microsoft has authorized TekVizion to validate and certify Operator Connect integrations. TekVizion also performs regional testing, such as compliance and high- availability assessments.
 
It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the processes and scale that TekVizion is providing. For Microsoft, TekVizion verifies operator integrations and functionality work as intended. This means testing API calls at scale. It involves trunk-level configuration and billing at the tenant level. Plus, it also includes all the associated support systems such as E911 and lawful intercept compliance.
 
TekVizion is also helping the operators, for example, should an integration fail, sharing detailed documentation of what went wrong. TekVizion goes beyond the UI and APIs to also evaluate quality of service. It does this with robotic process automation via Teams bots that simulate user load on the Teams client. The TekVizion 360 program provides operators with ongoing evaluation and testing of Operator Connect services.
 
Operator Connect is a game changer and still has a lot of potential. Its initial focus is around core services such as selecting an operator, assigning numbers, and conferencing services. It has the potential to expand into other services such as SMS, FMC, and even Microsoft’s own Azure Communication Services — all centrally administered from the TAC.
 
Demand for BYOC will likely continue growing. Enterprises need the functionality and also because UCaaS continues to expand in scope. Not long ago, Azure Communications Services didn’t exist, and I expect Microsoft will soon expand into CCaaS too. Complexity drives modularity, and we are seeing the need for increased capabilities on both the customer and provider sides of the equation.
 
Operator Connect is an exciting development from Microsoft. It’s not just BYOC but doing BYOC through a familiar and consistent UI, which is a significant and overdue undertaking. Like Direct Routing, the program will likely experience significant expansion over the next few years. I’m pleased to see Microsoft approaching it with such thorough testing.
 
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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