Cloud Telephony Options for Office 365

  • Microsoft recently rejiggered Skype for Business Online, adding a PBX feature set and PSTN connectivity that turns it, plus Office 365, into a viable alternative to traditional hosted voice services. This makes Office 365 less of an island when it comes to business communications and is something the company has been planning for quite some time.

    It's also something that a number of Microsoft partners have not just been planning but actually delivering for a while now. Nearly a year ago I blogged about services from AT&T, Telenor, and Vodafone that turn Office 365 into a proper business telephony service. And a number of other services do so as well.

    So let's take a closer look at what Microsoft is offering when it comes to a service that provides PBX functionality and PSTN connectivity to Office 365, and compare what it has in-store to what other providers have on offer.

  • In the slides to follow we'll be looking at five different services that effectively turn Office 365 and Skype for Business Online into a hosted PBX service. One is from Microsoft itself, one is from a major telco, another is from a subsidiary of a major telco, and two are from startups.

    While others do provide similar types of service, I'm not able to cover them all in this blog. So here's a shout-out to AT&T, Telenor, and others providing similar services.

    And of course others offer different ways of introducing business telephony functionality to Office 365, namely via integration with premises-based systems and hybrid deployment models. But I'm not going to cover that. This blog is about all-in-one cloud services that turn Office 365 into a full-on business communications service.

  • Arkadin
    Arkadin, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tokyo-based telco NTT, provides a range of audio, video, and Web conferencing services, as well as a hosted communications service called Total Connect. Based on Skype for Business Server, Total Connect is deployable in either a single- or multi-instance architecture depending on how complicated the enterprise's requirements. The multi-tenant model originated from Chinook Communications, which Arkadin acquired in 2014.

    Arkadin has global footprint, with the ability to deploy local voice users in more than 17 countries and local offices in 33 countries that support its Microsoft-based services. As far as I can tell, Total Connect for Office 365 is the cloud-based telephony service that's been around the longest, and is actively sold in the largest number of countries -- namely, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Ireland, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, U.K., and the U.S.

  • Switch
    Switch is the UC-for-Google Apps startup that branched into UC-for-Office 365 very recently. I wrote about the company not too long ago, so -- besides urging Google to buy Switch as a quick way to counter the increasingly strong UC capabilities Microsoft is building into Office 365 -- nuff said.

  • Umojo
    I'd never heard of Umojo, a startup, I before starting in on this blog. Umojo has a homegrown telephony platform it specifically designed to work with Office 365. "We have built our PBX functionality from the ground up," Founder and CEO Rick Neubauer told me. "It is utilizing a lot of open source projects, including Freeswitch, Kamailio, and RabbitMQ."

    Not your traditional VoIP provider, Umojo sells video surveillance and other services -- like its telephony application -- that run on an Internet of Things platform capable of supporting millions of devices. Honestly, I don't know much more about the company than that, so I won't try to comment further.

  • Vodafone
    I wrote up Vodafone's UC-for-Office 365 service, called One Net Collaboration, last year. Think of it as a mash up of Skype for Business Online, which provides IM and PC-to-PC calling, and Vodafone One Net Business, which provides all the business telephony capabilities. That is, One Net Business is cloud-based, converged business communications services built on IMS architecture across Vodafone's fixed and mobile network. Vodafone has integrated this with Office 365, providing the telephony capabilities that are... I mean, were... OK, either are or were depending on where you are... lacking in Skype for Business.

  • Platforms
    I mentioned the platforms in each of the provider-specific slides earlier, but I figured I'd create a slide for those not bothering to read my scintillating prose.

    In terms of customer base, Vodafone and Switch aren't providing numbers at this point. Arkadin, though, says it has more than 500 businesses using the service, and Umojo, whose service has been available for a shorter length of time, has more than 150 business customers. For Microsoft, more than 5,000 businesses participated in the E5 preview, which took place in the latter half of 2015, but it's not clear yet how many of these will become paying E5/PSTN Calling customers.

  • Pricing
    So, the obvious question: How much is connecting Office 365 to a telephony service going to cost you?

    Short answer: About 45 bucks a user. Sometimes a bit less, other times a bit more.

    Switch's pricing page stands out as the most straightforward. It offers one plan, and service costs $15 per user per month. This is over and above whatever your Office 365 plan costs.

    Umojo and Arkadin pricing is a bit more involved, but only slightly. Each has multiple plans at different prices. Each plan delivers the same set of telephony features, with different prices depending on with what the telephony service is integrated. For example, Umojo charges $19.99 per user per month when its telephony service is integrated with an Office 365 E4 plan or connected to a common area phone. Pricing goes up to $24.99 when integrated with E3, and $28.99 with an Office 365 Business Essentials or Business Premium plan. (Scroll to the bottom of the Umojo splash page for pricing details.)

    Arkadin, which doesn't have Total Connect pricing on its website, likewise charges a lower amount when providing telephony for E4 or a common area phone and more when integrating with E3 or an Office 365 Business plan. I asked why pricing varied by Office 365 plan and was told that E4 and E5 have voice-ready licenses already included, making them easy to integrate with and resulting in a lower-priced telephony service. E3 and other plans, on the other hand, are not voice-ready. This requires the provider to add the voice-ready SKU, which raises service price.

    At Vodafone, pricing consists of two elements:

    • A One Net Business license for either a fixed only or fixed/mobile telephony service. This includes a 4G data plan, unlimited domestic minutes and texts, and free intercompany calls
    • An Office 365 license bought from Vodafone that includes One Net integration

    And with Microsoft, you add telephony to Office 365 in one of two ways:

    • Subscribe to the new E5 plan, which includes the PBX functionality (as well as a bunch of other stuff), and add PSTN connectivity to it (either from Microsoft itself or a third-party provider)
    • Take your existing E1 or E3 plan, and add both PSTN connectivity and the new PBX features set (both of which are provided as a single SKU)

  • Service Details 1
    On this slide, the service-level agreement (SLA) and contract length info are straightforward, as long as you keep in mind that by "SLA" I'm just talking about service uptime. Go grab a fine-toothed comb, a magnifying glass, and a comfy chair if you want to pour over all the other details that are included in an SLA.

    I've also grossly simplified the "plans supported" info because, frankly, delving into the minutia is tedious. What I'm trying to call out here is Skype for Business Cloud PBX and PSTN Calling are supported on Office 365 E1, E3, and E5, but not on Office 365's Business, Education, or Non-profit SKUs. Support for the latter is something Microsoft plans to add in the future. Other providers, by contrast, are further along on this particular front.

    Perhaps because their services have been around longer, Microsoft partners are already able to connect their telephony services to Business Essentials, Business Premium, and in some cases other Office 365 plans. Microsoft can't do this yet, so this gives competitors an edge in the near term... but don't expect this differentiation to last for long.

    All five can connect to Skype for Business Online as standalone services for companies not subscribing to the full Office 365 suite.

  • Service Details 2
    You're connecting Office 365 to the PSTN so your end users can gab on the phone. So how long can they gab? "As long as they want," at least for domestic calls, is the answer for most of the services since the norm is unlimited calling.

    Microsoft, however, bucked the unlimited domestic calls trend. Businesses buying PSTN Calling can get 3,000 minutes per user per month of domestic calling, with international calls charged per minute or the $12 add-on mentioned on slide 8. Or they can get the $24 add-on that is capped at 3,000 domestic minutes or 600 domestic minutes per user per month, whichever the user reaches first.

    The usage cap will be off-putting for some businesses that have high call volumes. But this bitter pill is sweetened by the fact that minutes are pooled across all users. So a company with 100 employees has a pool of 300,000 minutes for everyone to use each month.

  • Features 1
    I've always been conflicted about feature charts. On the one hand, there's something very satisfying about a box with a bunch of check marks in it. It's easy to comprehend and provides a lot of information in a small amount of space. But it's also very misleading, since the story is always much larger than a simple check mark conveys. Are the features in fact identical or do they vary slightly? Are they supported on just one type of end point or many? It's just a lot of info to turn into a clean and easy chart.

    That said, I've done my best to show the call features supported in the various services providing telephony functionality to Office 365. But the chart doesn't capture lots of niggly details that I either didn't try to gather or to reconcile across the five providers. Things like:

    • Music on hold doesn't work for Skype for Business-to-Skype for Business calls on Vodafone One Net Collaborations. (Is that true for the other services? I didn't ask)
    • Microsoft says paging is via instant messaging and multi-line appearances is via "multiple points of presence." (How does this compare with providers that just ticked off paging and multi-line as support features? Again, I didn't look into it)
    • Umojo doesn't yet support call recording, though users can record conference calls. (Do the other services support recording both on point-to-point and conference calls?)
    • Switch notes that support for internal extensions isn't needed since call-by-name is more useful

    The takeaway: Each of the services supports the majority of the most commonly used PBX call features. Before you subscribe, though, don't just check to see which are supported, but how and on which types of clients and end points.

  • Features 2
    Other things that I asked about, but didn't include in the slides:

    • Active Directory synchronization – All five support it
    • Single sign-on via Office 365 – All support it except Umojo, which expects to support it by the end of Q1 2016
    • E911 – All support it except Vodafone, which instead supports the equivalent emergency services in the countries where One Net Collaboration is on offer

    And each provider has a number of features that are rather unique and help it stand out from the others. Things like:

    • Umojo's management software, which resides in Azure and includes a slick drag-and-drop IVR engine
    • Switch's Social Caller ID feature, which not only shows the name and number of the caller, but also his or her LinkedIn profile, recent emails, documents, and other relevant information
    • Vodafone's range of advanced call features, such as hot-desking, multi-user hunt groups, distinctive ringing, and e-fax
    • Arkadin's optional conferencing and cloud-based fax services

  • Handsets
    When it comes to handsets for services that provide telephony for Office 365, for the most part they are the usual suspects. Polycom VVX phones, which have long been sold with on-prem Lync and Skype for Business deployments, are supported across most of the services, with other Skype for Business-qualified end points sometimes available as well. (For more info on these, see my now dated but perhaps still useful Lync desk phone overview.)

    Switch, for its part, can support any SIP-compatible desk phone for its service, regardless of whether it's connected to Office 365 or Google Apps. And it says it has particularly tight integration with Obihai devices. (Wait, Obi who? I know, that was a new one to me too.)

    A couple Cisco phones show up in Vodafone's lineup. That's only surprising until you remember these are the desk phones for its One Net service in general, not just for its Office 365 integration.

    And this is a good place to note that while Arkadin, Switch, Umojo, and Vodafone all support common area phones, Microsoft as yet does not.

  • Wrap-up
    So there you have it... five different ways to integrate Office 365 with a cloud-based telephony service. So don't go telling me it can't be done any more.

    Which is best? I'll leave that for you to decide. If you've had experience with any of them, please leave a comment below. I know plenty of folks will be interested.

    And which will remain? That will depend largely on how businesses respond to Microsoft entering the telephony services game. Let's give it a year and see if all five contenders are still in the ring.

    Follow Brian Riggs on Twitter and Google+!
    @brian_riggs
    Brian Riggs on Google+

Let’s take a look at how Microsoft is providing PBX functionality and PSTN connectivity to Skype for Business Online and Office 365, and compare what it has in-store to what other providers have on offer.