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PSTN Calling Re-Emerges for Lync Online

Nearly a year ago Microsoft detailed its latest plan to re-introduce PSTN calling to Lync Online. This plan involves telco partners launching services that let Office 365 and Lync Online customers place and receive calls to regular phone numbers, as well as get access to some basic call features. Microsoft identified AT&T, KPN, Telenor, and Vodafone as providers that would offer the capability before long.

I don't know about you, but I'm not getting a lot of calls on my landline from Lync Online users. And the Lync Online client on my desktop remains stubbornly dialpad-free. So what gives? Where do things stand with connecting Lync Online users to the PSTN?

I reached out to each of the carrier partners to find out. The short story is that three of the four have in fact made the capability, commonly called "Lync-to-phone," available to their Office 365 and Lync Online customers, while the final one is in the process of doing so. Only one, however, offers service in the U.S.

The medium-length story is that two of the services integrate Lync Online with the carrier's mobile network, and because those networks are IMS-based many of the calling features are provided from the carrier's cloud. The other two services -- including one that AT&T quietly released in the past few weeks (more on that on Page 3) -- integrate Lync Online with the provider's standard telephone service, and most of the calling features are powered by Lync Online itself.

As for the long story, here are the details on how AT&T, KPN, Telenor, and Vodafone are each bringing Lync Online with PSTN calling to market.

Vodafone One Net Collaboration
Vodafone has had PSTN calling for Lync Online for a year or two already. Until recently it was only available in Spain, where the carrier regularly tries out new services. But last summer Vodafone began offering the service in the U.K. as well. The service, branded as Vodafone One Net Collaboration, integrates Office 365 and One Net Business, the carrier's IMS-based communications primarily for SMBs but with uptake from a number of large enterprise subscribers as well. With Vodafone One Net Collaboration users can click to call any mobile or landline number directly from their Lync Online client, as well as from Outlook email, contacts, or calendar. Users can transfer a call that comes in via Lync to any PSTN number, and users communicating with each other via Lync can conference in additional participants joining from landlines or mobile connections.

Incoming calls from the PSTN simultaneously ring the user's mobile and/or desk phone and the Lync client, since the same Vodafone One Net number is associated with both the One Net phones and the user's Lync Online account. However, simultaneous ringing does not extend to those Lync-to-Lync calls that do not involve phone numbers. That is, such calls will ring the Lync client, but not the mobile or desk phone associated with the One Net account.

portable "What happens in Lync stays in Lync, as long as phone numbers are not involved," explained Marco Lozza, the UC product manager who was manning the Lync-to-phone demo at Vodafone's recent analyst conference.

Additionally:

  • Calls to PSTN numbers initiated from Lync display the user's Vodafone One Net number on the called party's caller ID.
  • The user's presence state changes when a call is placed from Lync to the PSTN since Lync recognizes that a call is being placed regardless of whether it's Lync-to-Lync or Lync-to-PSTN. However, calls placed using a mobile device or desk phone do not change the end user's presence state if the Lync mobile client is not used to initiate the call.
  • A "call toggle" featured powered by Vodafone's IMS network can seamlessly transfer a call in progress from a Lync client on the user's PC to her mobile device with call continuity (that is, without the other party having to listen to ring tones or announcements). The Lync client doesn't include a special icon for Vodafone's call toggle feature. Rather, the user clicks on the transfer dropdown menu and picks one of her own numbers from the list of configured devices. This rings the user's mobile device and when she picks up, the call is transferred to the mobile device and terminated on the Lync client.

  • Calls to PSTN numbers initiated from Lync display the user's Vodafone One Net number on the called party's caller ID.
  • The user's presence state changes when a call is placed from Lync to the PSTN since Lync recognizes that a call is being placed regardless of whether it's Lync-to-Lync or Lync-to-PSTN. However, calls placed using a mobile device or desk phone do not change the end user's presence state if the Lync mobile client is not used to initiate the call.
  • A "call toggle" featured powered by Vodafone's IMS network can seamlessly transfer a call in progress from a Lync client on the user's PC to her mobile device with call continuity (that is, without the other party having to listen to ring tones or announcements). The Lync client doesn't include a special icon for Vodafone's call toggle feature. Rather, the user clicks on the transfer dropdown menu and picks one of her own numbers from the list of configured devices. This rings the user's mobile device and when she picks up, the call is transferred to the mobile device and terminated on the Lync client.
  • portable
    Call toggle: Vodafone One Net Collaboration transfers calls in progress from the Lync Online customer's UC client to his mobile phone or other device.

    To get PSTN calling for Lync Online from Vodafone, a customer must:

    • Subscribe to Office 365 or Lync Online Dedicated from Vodafone. If the customer already has Lync Online from another Microsoft partner or from Microsoft itself, the account must be transferred to Vodafone.
    • Subscribe to Vodafone One Net Business in the U.K. (around 11 to 30 pounds sterling ($15 to $45) per month depending on plan and contract period), or either One Net Business or One Net Express in Spain.
    • Subscribe to Vodafone One Net Collaboration, which links Office 365 to One Net Business and Express. This costs 4 pounds sterling/€5 ($6) per user per month, which includes the incremental license that Microsoft charges for Lync Online PSTN calling.

  • Subscribe to Office 365 or Lync Online Dedicated from Vodafone. If the customer already has Lync Online from another Microsoft partner or from Microsoft itself, the account must be transferred to Vodafone.
  • Subscribe to Vodafone One Net Business in the U.K. (around 11 to 30 pounds sterling ($15 to $45) per month depending on plan and contract period), or either One Net Business or One Net Express in Spain.
  • Subscribe to Vodafone One Net Collaboration, which links Office 365 to One Net Business and Express. This costs 4 pounds sterling/€5 ($6) per user per month, which includes the incremental license that Microsoft charges for Lync Online PSTN calling.
  • Vodafone says it has thousands of customers using its Lync-to-phone service, mainly in Spain where it's been available for more than a year.

    Read more inside:

    • Page 2: Telenor and KPN offerings
    • Page 3: AT&T's service and Lync Online Plan 3

    Telenor Lync-to-Phone Capability
    Telenor has likewise tied its Lync-to-phone capability to IMS. Its Lync-to-phone service works with Mobilt Bedriftsnett (MBN), an IMS-based mobile offering aimed at businesses looking for communications service that provides a single number regardless of device used. "Our implementation is completely mobile-centric, in practice making Lync a 'twin' to your mobile phone," says Ola Giortz, department manager of business solutions at Telenor.

    All call control -- powering features like call forwarding, call transfer, and voicemail -- is performed by MBN rather than Lync. The user's mobile number shows up as caller ID when calls are placed from Lync to the PSTN, and toll calls are invoiced to the user's mobile phone account. "Incoming calls come in parallel on your Lync client and your mobile terminal, and status is shared -- so Lync displays 'In a mobile call'" when the mobile device is in use, Giortz says.

    Lync Online integration with dial-in audio conferencing service is on the roadmap. And the carrier is investigating ways to support businesses that haven't bought Office 365 and/or Lync Online from Telenor itself.

    Telenor announced its intention to deliver a Lync-to-phone capability for its Office 365 customers in December 2012 -- more than a year before Microsoft's February 2014 announcement. It's been commercially available to the carrier's 500,000 MBN subscribers since early last year. Interestingly, Telenor's Lync-to-phone capability isn't just available to Office 365 and Lync Online subscribers, but also to businesses that have deployed Lync Server on premises or subscribe to a hosted Lync service. The caveat here is that the business still needs to subscribe to MBN. I assume this means some of Lync Server's telephony features -- things like call forwarding, call transfer, and voicemail which Lync Server has but Lync Online still lacks -- are disabled so that MBN can provide them.

    Unlike Vodafone with its One Net Collaboration service, Telenor does not have a separate service that enables Lync-to-phone. However, the price for Lync Online and Office 365 service is higher when purchased from Telenor than from Microsoft. For example, Office 365 E1 costs kr 179 (about $23.50) from Telenor, as opposed to kr 50 (about $6.50) from Microsoft. This is because Lync-to-phone, extended end-user support, and administration are bundled in.

    KPN Lync & Call
    KPN started reselling Office 365 in 2012, branding it Business Office 365, and in March the following year initiated a pilot project, called Lync & Call, to add PSTN calling capabilities to Lync Online. However, KPN is still in the process of bringing Lync & Call to market as a commercialized service, says Joost Tieleman, innovation manager at KPN's cloud business unit.

    Unlike Vodafone and Telenor, KPN's Lync-to-phone service will neither be tied to a separate business voice service nor paired with an IMS-based network. Customers purchasing Office 365 from KPN will have the option of also purchasing a phone number and a calling plan that provides unlimited calling within the Netherlands and international calls at a standard tariffed rate.

    KPN's approach further differs from Telenor's and Vodafone's in that it will provide calling features like call hold and call transfer, as well as simultaneous ringing and Exchange voicemail, directly from Lync Online (as opposed to an IMS service). This set of features, once available in the long-since-discontinued Lync Online Plan 3, remain available to Office 365 syndication partners, according to Tieleman.

    KPN hasn't set an exact date when it will make PSTN calling for Lync Online generally available, but Tieleman tells me KPN has started the process of GA planning.

    Continue to Page 3 for a look at AT&T's service and a status on Lync Online Plan 3

    AT&T Voice Connection with Office 365
    AT&T, the latest Microsoft partner to introduce a true Lync Online with PSTN calling service, is the only carrier with a U.S. offering. If you haven't heard of it (I hadn't before speaking with the carrier the other day) it's because AT&T hasn't drawn much attention to the service just yet. But Tony Mazraani, director of UC product marketing at AT&T, says last month the carrier held a soft launch event during which it introduced AT&T's small business sales reps to the offering and is now in the process of creating a funnel for it.

    portable
    AT&T Voice Connection with Office 365 adds native dialpad and voicemail icons to Lync clients that are registered to Office 365 and that wouldn't otherwise have access to these and other telephony calling features.

    AT&T Voice Connection with Office 365 integrates Lync Online with a new cloud-based VoIP service that AT&T developed specifically for Office 365. This lets the carrier associate a phone number to Lync Online, allowing users to place and receive PSTN calls from the client. Users can also click to call standard phone numbers from their Lync or Exchange contacts, can have multiple devices ring simultaneously, and can transfer calls and put them on hold. These are all native to Lync Online, whose Plan 3 feature set adds a dialer to the client app, as well as delivers a set of basic call-handling features.

    Another Plan 3 function is basic auto attendant, letting AT&T issue Voice Connection with Office 365 customers with a main business number so callers can press 1 for sales, 2 for support, etc. Voicemail is via Exchange, so customers wanting that need an Office 365 E4 account since that's the plan that delivers unified messaging. And E911 is supported, with administrators and end users managing their location using an online customer portal. AT&T doesn't yet offer an audio conferencing component, but has it on its roadmap.

    AT&T Voice Connection with Office 365 is generally available in the U.S. only. It costs $15.50 per user per month over and above the price of Lync Online ($9.50 per user per month for Plan 3) or Office 365 ($8 to $22 per user per month depending on plan type). In addition to a phone number (either new or ported), Lync Online integration, and the calling features I detailed above, Voice Connection provides practically unlimited calling (10,000 long-distance minutes per user per month) within the U.S. and international calls at a standard tariffed rate.

    Return of Lync Online Plan 3
    Lync Online Plan 3, which is needed for Lync Online customers to call out to the PSTN and provides some basic calling features, is in a marvelously confused state right now. There's no mention of it on the official Lync Online plan site. And a licensing guide, published as recently as April 2014, identifies it as discontinued, which has been my understanding of where things stand at present.

    However, Plan 3 crops up as an existing offering in literature from a number of Microsoft's partners, such as these data sheets from HP, Swisscom, and Insight, not to mention the AT&T Voice Connection document mentioned above. These were all published in 2014, well after Microsoft put the kibosh on Plan 3.

    So it seems that Plan 3 has reemerged as a viable Lync Online option. Or perhaps it never really went away, with -- as KPN's Tieleman noted -- certain partners always having access to it behind the scenes as they prepare their various Lync-to-phone services. Maybe Microsoft marketing and product literature has yet to catch up to the state of affair as regards Plan 3.

    portable
    Source: AT&T... circles added

    Regardless of the details, after an 18 month or so hiatus Lync-to-phone is officially back. Restrictions apply, certainly, but it's great to see Microsoft taking another shot at making PSTN calling and telephony features available to businesses subscribing to Office 365 and Lync Online.

    Catch Brian at Enterprise Connect Orlando, March 16-19, where he'll be presenting: Integrating UC With Google Apps

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