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Microsoft Aims to Simplify, Accelerate Operator Connect With Partner Initiative


Image: SOPA Images Limited - Alamy Stock Photo
Microsoft today announced a new initiative, Operator Connect Accelerator for Microsoft Teams, aimed at simplifying the the Operator Connect journey for telephony service providers. Operator Connect Accelerator will give service providers access to a select group of Microsoft authorized technology partners that they can leverage to facilitate the integration and certification processes for connecting their telephony services to Microsoft Teams.
Operator Connect Accelerator will also enable providers to make the sign-up process for telephony services via the Teams admin center more web-centric and more digital, reducing the need for multiple rounds of traditional sales calls and emails between customers and carriers.
Operator Connect Positioning
You might recall that Operator Connect is Microsoft’s latest option released six months ago for providing public-switched-telephone-network (PSTN) connectivity for Microsoft Teams software clients and phones. Two other PSTN connectivity options exist, including Microsoft’s Calling Plans and Microsoft Direct Routing. Direct Routing is a solution that integrates a service provider’s SIP trunks to Microsoft Teams via an enterprise Session Border Controller (SBC). Operator Connect is quite different from Direct Routing because Operator Connect creates a cloud-to-cloud connection between a telephony service provider’s network cloud and the Microsoft Azure cloud, removing the need to terminate the telecom services on the customer premises. Simply stated, Operator Connect is designed to make procuring carrier SIP trunking services for Microsoft Teams users easier while eliminating the need for any on-premises telephony equipment.
Operator Connect deployment graphics

Figure 1. Microsoft Teams SIP Trunking integrations: Direct Routing on the right usually includes on-premises SBCs while Operator Connect is a cloud-to-cloud service with no on-premises hardware. (Image source: Ribbon Communications)

Teams administrators looking for PSTN services can go into the Teams admin center and click on the Operator Connect option to access an Operator Directory that acts as a storefront for the certified Operator Connect providers. By clicking on a Service Provider’s panel, administrators are redirected to a landing page where they can explore the details of a service provider’s offering. Unfortunately, most of the providers don’t yet offer a fully digital acquisition model, something the Operator Connect Accelerator is expected to change.
Twenty five providers, mostly large carriers in North America and Western Europe, have passed the certification requirements to offer telecom services via Operator Connect. Operator Connect Accelerator aims to swell that number by leveraging the program’s tech partners to boost access to the integration resources service providers need to join the Operator Connect program. It will level the playing field, making it easier for more providers to join Operator Connect and improve Teams customer’s choice globally for telecom services.
List of Operator Connect partners

Figure 2. A partial list of certified Microsoft Operator Connect partners. (Image Source: Microsoft)

What Does It Take to Become Operator Connect Certified?
To become Microsoft Teams Operator Connect certified, a carrier needs to satisfy criteria in four areas: network connectivity, provisioning and onboarding, management, and support. Operator Connect Accelerator addresses two of the more difficult certifications for carriers: provisioning and onboarding and management.
In the provisioning and onboarding certification, carriers need to provide two key capabilities:
  1. A capability to use Microsoft APIs to set up trunks within Teams
  2. A facility for uploading phone numbers along and their configuration data (e-911 addresses, auto-attendant numbers, etc.) using APIs into the Teams Admin Center
Likewise, in the Management certification, carriers must
  1. Provide an operator management portal for use by customers
  2. Allow customers seamless access, by region, into the phone numbers provisioned by the operator — by voice tenant. (There is a complication here: many companies have multiple Microsoft Teams tenants due to geographical or organizational preferences and/or through merger and acquisition activity. The operator needs to provide a portal to the end user to associate carrier phone numbers with a particular Teams tenant.)
There are other certifications, but the two mentioned seem to be among the most difficult for carriers to complete because they either don’t have the time, or the skill set to implement them.
Microsoft developed the Operator Connect Accelerator in concert with a select group of technology partners that are either Microsoft certified SBC providers or ISVs. These partners are offering Teams API integration services and portals for the carriers, which will enable them to become Microsoft certified more rapidly and with little or no programming effort. The partners may provide other services, including “network as a service,” which will act as a way for one of these technology partners with an Azure network peering connection to offer this as a service to an operator that does not have an Azure peering connection. The net result is that carriers of all sizes in all geographies will be able to contract with an Operator Connect Accelerator partner to provide PSTN integrations for Microsoft Teams users, thus blowing open the door for hundreds more carriers to become certified to provide Microsoft Operator Connect services.
Why is Microsoft Promoting An Operator Connect Accelerator Initiative?
It turns out that the Operator Connect vision for easily and quickly provisioning PSTN telephony for Teams clients has been far more difficult for the carriers than Microsoft initially anticipated. The back-end operational support systems/business support systems (OSS/BSS) systems deployed by most carriers are complex and lack modern integration tools in some cases. That makes it challenging for carriers to build out the depth of integration required to embrace Microsoft’s API framework for services such as number provisioning and billing.
As presently constituted, even for some of the “certified” Operator Connect partners, most provisioning involves significant manual processing. As an aside, it is interesting to note that there isn’t even an automatic notification mechanism between Microsoft Teams and the operator to signal the operator when someone has expressed interest in their Operator Connect solution. To find these sales leads, the operator must log into their own Teams portal where these leads will be listed. Then, the operator will contact the person who has expressed interest via an email or an invitation to chat and discuss those needs in more detail.
What’s in it for Microsoft?
How about $1-2 billion in additional monthly revenue! Presently, a small percentage of Office 365 licenses are on Microsoft’s premium E5 plan, which includes the licensing to Microsoft Phone System, Microsoft’s cloud-based PBX replacement. Microsoft wants more companies to upgrade to an E5 license that includes Phone System or have them purchase an $8 per user/month Phone System license. Doing some quick math, if 50% of the current Microsoft Office 365 subscriptions upgraded to E5 subscriptions, then the additional revenue would total approximately $1.9 billion in revenue monthly (using list pricing with a $15 per user/month uplift price from E3 to E5). If the same number bought an $8 per user/month Phone System license (list price), then Microsoft would realize an additional $1 billion per month. So, the stakes and the opportunity are huge for Microsoft.
Removing the Friction for Carriers
As initially envisioned, Operator Connect would allow companies using Teams to quickly and easily provision PSTN calling for its users from within the Microsoft Teams administrator portal. Administrators could choose from a list of carriers providing PSTN service in any particular geography and immediately contract and provision numbers and enable these numbers automatically and instantly from within the Microsoft Teams admin portal. However, in reality, the manual processes involved to get contracts signed, phone numbers provisioned, and those numbers made available to customers via the Teams Admin Center can be lengthy and prone to human error.
Although Operator Connect Accelerator partners won’t be able to automate everything, it is a big step forward to removing the friction for both carriers and customers. Microsoft is also working with telcos to further automate their backend OSS/BSS systems. At least two of the existing Operator Connect providers can provision telephone numbers within 10-15 minutes.
Operator Connect Accelerator will help raise the bar, enabling more providers to deliver higher levels of service, faster.
Ribbon, A Microsoft Operator Connect Accelerator Partner
Before Microsoft’s announcement, Omdia was briefed by Ribbon Communications, one of several Microsoft Teams certified SBC providers and a Microsoft Operator Connect Accelerator partner. Ribbon has developed a provisioning and connectivity solution for carriers branded Ribbon Connect for Microsoft Operator Connect. Carriers can connect to Ribbon for both call control and provisioning automation. Ribbon’s goal is to give carriers portals and workflow automation to help reduce the friction in the customer ordering process and reduce the potential risk from human error.
Ribbon Connect provisioning journey

Figure 3. Operator Connect provisioning journey using Ribbon Connect for Operator Connect. (Image source: Omdia).

In this solution, Ribbon provides the following capabilities:
  1. A mechanism for notifying a carrier when a Teams admin indicates interest in that carrier
  2. A portal that a channel partner can use to provide the carrier with customer provisioning needs.
  3. A portal that the carrier can use to upload provisioned numbers, including configuration information for e-911 locations, auto-attendant numbers, etc.
  4. A portal that the user, a carrier, or the carrier channel partner can use to assign provisioned numbers to a particular Teams tenant (if there is more than one).
  5. An interface that allows the user admin to upload the provisioned numbers with their configuration information to Teams via Teams APIs.
  6. Notification mechanisms for customers and carriers informing them when the phone numbers have been successfully provisioned into Teams and are available for the Teams admin to assign them to user accounts.
  7. Continual monitoring of the network and other key indicators shows how the carrier’s service performs and is available to both the Teams administrator and the carrier.
  8. A streamlined option to securely connect calls to Azure/Teams using standard SIP trunks, Ribbon will provide MAPS connectivity to Azure as well as appropriate call signaling and media encryption.
List of Ribbon Connect portals and services

Figure 4. Ribbon Connect portals and services provided for Operator Connect. (Image source: Ribbon Communications)

We should point out that when a Teams admin selects an Operator Connect provider that is subscribed to Ribbon Connect, the SBC configuration using Ribbon SBCs virtualized and running in the Azure cloud are automatically provisioned and configured as well.
Carriers that subscribe to Ribbon Connect (or other Microsoft Operator Connect Accelerator partners) will be able to streamline and accelerate their Operator Connect certification because Ribbon automates many Microsoft processes, and Ribbon is already pre-certified for Microsoft Teams. There is a monthly recurring revenue payment from the carrier to Ribbon for the use of Ribbon Connect. In addition, there may be some one-time charges for configuring the customer portal in Ribbon Connect when a new carrier customer is initially onboarded. Simplifying Operator Connect integration, automating customer acquisition, and accelerating the provisioning time for customers are significant benefits to carriers.
Omdia Conjecture
Although Omida did not discuss future roadmap developments with Ribbon or with Microsoft, one can imagine the potential for similar capabilities with mobile operators via Microsoft’s recently announced Operator Connect Mobile. Indeed, such a platform would accelerate time-to-market for mobile operator partners and help Microsoft increase its average revenue per user.
We also believe that Microsoft’s own Azure for Operators division, formerly known as Metaswitch, will be an Operator Connect Accelerator partner using its Perimeta SBC, which is also Microsoft certified. We can see how this solution could easily be a component of some ISV offerings.