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Unified Communications and Network Reliability

Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) applications incorporate real-time telephony and video services, which are negatively affected by low throughput, high latency, high jitter, and packet loss. Other UCaaS services such as file sharing and email, are less impacted by those network quality indicators. If a company’s Internet connection goes down completely then so too does the ability to communicate and collaborate.

How to Ensure UCaaS Network Reliability

Most UCaaS companies offer multiple points of presence (a data center through which their customers access the UCaaS platform) across the world. Multiple points of presence allow UCaaS companies to sell their services across states, regions, countries, etc. Regulations in many countries also contain requirements regarding where data can be stored and how it can be supported. Multiple points of presence can also help a UCaaS company provide network redundancy in the event of an Internet and/or power outage.

What does UCaaS Network Reliability Mean?

At its simplest, network reliability comes down to network redundancy. And network redundancy ‌means that there are multiple paths that enterprise voice/data traffic when there is a failure in the network – that could be due to storm damage, fiber cuts, failed network equipment, human error, cyber-attack (e.g., DDoS), etc. Redundancy also extends into the data center and/or cloud where duplicate hardware is ready to take over running the software in the event of a hardware failure.

Simply on the network access side, multiple paths means that the enterprise is paying the same provider (or multiple providers) for failover links. So, if one network goes down, the other comes online instantly so that the business is not impacted. Alternative networks can include cellular links particularly with the advent of 5G technology which can provide high throughput and low latency.

An enterprise with a distributed workforce and/or employees who work from home should consider how those employees will access the UCaaS platform if their local broadband (or electrical utility) experiences an outage. Cellular networks are an adequate failover in many cases and uninterruptible power supplies / battery backups can be a stopgap for remote workers.

For UCaaS Network Reliability, Check the Service Agreement

With respect to the UCaaS company itself, enterprises should ask about how they will ensure that their UCaaS offering is maintained if the UCaaS company itself experiences an outage Most UCaaS vendors offer service level agreements (SLAs) in which they contractually guarantee a certain level of availability. Five 9s reliability – 99.999% availability – is the gold standard. Four 9s availability – 99.99% -- is also common.

Reliability may come with an added cost or certain levels of reliability may be bundled into different packages/tiers that the UCaaS company offers. It is also possible that if an enterprise has a workforce distributed across a country, region or the world, that the SLAs may differ by region. Also, the ability of those distributed employees to get access to reliable broadband service may also differ. Typically, the UCaaS vendor will only provide an SLA or other reliability commitment on things within its control. For example, the UCaaS vendor will not be responsible if the enterprise’s broadband connection goes down.

UCaaS reliability is important to an enterprise because the UCaaS platform is the company’s communications platform. It must stay online otherwise business will stop – collaboration among employees, direct communication with customers and suppliers, etc.

Network reliability is linked to UCaaS call quality, of course, and many IT leaders are struggling to create consistent user experiences within and across UCaaS company offerings. Some UCaaS companies are also adapting their software for native use on mobile devices such as smartphones. This is called fixed-mobile convergence and cellular can be used, as noted, for network redundancy particularly on a per employee basis.

UCaaS Call Quality

The telephony portion of a UCaaS platform is based on the Voice over Internet (VoIP) protocol. VoIP allows voice calls to be made over a broadband Internet connection – cable, fiber, cellular, fixed wireless, etc. – rather than over the public switched telephone network (PSTN). VoIP technology began in the 1990s. Provisioning, managing, and maintaining stable connectivity is well understood. Metrics such as jitter, packet loss and latency on the network are used to describe VoIP call quality.

Latency is the delay in the time it takes for the VoIP packets to traverse the network. There are three types of delay – propagation, handling, and queuing. Propagation delay is associated with the physical medium (fiber, cable, wireless frequencies) over which the packets travel. This delay is unavoidable. Handling delay refers to delays associated with how the packets are sent over the network. Note that multiple networks are typically involved in a single VoIP call. For example, a UC call over Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex, RingCentral, etc., typically goes over the local Wi-Fi network, to the wired network, through that wired network provider’s network and then gets sent across the public Internet (which is itself comprised of multiple networks) till the packets are routed to their final destination. Any number of handling delays can occur along that path. Queuing delays can occur when the VoIP packets are not prioritized over other types of IP data traffic – email, files, chat, etc. Note that UC calls/video/etc. can just as easily traverse the cellular data network, which can potentially add a different set of network reliability issues into the mix (e.g., poor cell coverage, LTE versus 5G, etc.).

Throughput: A Major Factor In UCaaS Call Quality

The throughput of the wired broadband network is also a factor. Although VoIP packets are not large relative to PowerPoint presentations, PDFs, or Word documents, an enterprise might handle hundreds or thousands of concurrent VoIP calls. Those calls add up and, when combined with all the other network traffic businesses send and receive daily – as well as real-time video calls over UCaaS platforms – a higher throughput can handle more total traffic. This article contends that the wide area network connection is the vital link to the cloud and cloud services, such as UCaaS. And this article discusses different methods of making network changes when the priority is on throughput and speed.

Latency: Another Major Factor In UCaaS Call Quality

But this is where latency enters the picture because VoIP and UCaaS-based communications are time-sensitive, which basically means that people immediately notice diminished call quality – voices sound robotic, garbled, out of sequence or otherwise difficult to understand. One culprit here is jitter, which is the term used to describe a time delay over the network. It can be caused by network congestion and sometimes changes in how the VoIP packets are routed. There are different types of jitter: constant, transient and short-term. One way to avoid or reduce jitter is to implement quality of service techniques such as queuing, compression, etc. Many VoIP endpoints (e.g., desk phones) have built-in jitter buffers which store a certain amount of incoming packets and if necessary reorder them to minimize jitter. As mentioned previously, prioritizing VoIP traffic can help maximize good call quality. This is typically done by tagging those VoIP packets and classifying them as “voice” so that each “hop” along the route knows that this voice traffic (which is sensitive to delays) gets priority over other types of traffic (email, files, etc.). From an enterprise perspective, having poor UCaaS call quality reflects badly upon the brand image, can negatively impact customer interactions and/or lead to unnecessarily tedious conversations (the classic “can you hear me now?” refrain popularized in Verizon commercials).

Summary: Tips to Ensure UCaaS Network and Call Reliability

The agreement with the UCaaS provider should include guarantees for voice/video quality, and the network should be monitored so that any issues can be proactively addressed. Note that the UCaaS provider’s responsibility for call quality may not extend to the quality and/or stability of your company’s Internet connectivity – meaning that they are only responsible for the network elements they control. If you’re in the market for UCaaS, ask the UCaaS company about how they go about maintaining and ensuring network and call quality on their platform.

Want to Know More?

Check out our other articles on:

  • How to Choose a UCaaS Provider for Your Business: Unified communications as a service (UCaaS) is a hot topic with many large UCaaS companies vying to become your modern UCaaS provider. A UCaaS company delivers solutions that can provide everything from plain old telephone calls, to instant messaging, to video and document collaboration, to email and calendar integration all within the convenience of the platforms of your choice.
  • The Leading UCaaS Providers of 2023/2024: The following article provides an overview of the leading Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) providers and what they offer in terms of features, functionality, integrations and/or partnerships.