What to Look for in VoIP VoIP technology and services are now nearly essential for every enterprise. This guide outlines the technology of today and what you need to know before you buy. JON ARNOLD BUYER’S GUIDE BUYER’S GUIDE What to Look for in VoIP 2 EXPLAINED HOW IT WORKS FEATURES THE BOTTOM LINE What to Look for in VoIP Voice over IP in the enterprise has clearly emerged as the successor to time-division multiplexing (TDM), offering businesses an overhaul of their telephony systems. In 2015, VoIP reached its 20-year milestone, so the technology has been here for a long time. But as often happens in technology, adoption has been slow. VoIP has been business-grade for many years. Its gradual adoption has reached critical mass, where most businesses now know about it and a growing number are using it. Before delving into the buying process, it’s important to cover the VoIP basics, especially if you’ve never used it before. VoIP EXPLAINED Let’s start by breaking down the acronym, which incorporates two distinct ideas. Voice over Internet Protocol represents the intersection of telephony and the Internet. Telephony is the primary medium for voice—but not the only one—and has long operated independently from other communication channels. This approach served businesses well, as there was no need to integrate it with anything else until the Internet came along. The Web has given rise to the Internet Protocol (IP), a set of standards that allows various forms of data to travel over a common network. Since legacy telephony—TDM—was not data, it initially remained separate, running on a dedicated voice network. The common denominator for IP traffic is packetization, which transports digital packets across the Web in a highly efficient manner. The information flows at wire speed this way, with virtually no cost. Because the Web is a collection of interconnected networks, the operating principle is for packets to be routed over the most efficient path that consumes the least amount of BUYER’S GUIDE What to Look for in VoIP 3 EXPLAINED HOW IT WORKS FEATURES THE BOTTOM LINE network resources. Since many paths are possible, traffic rarely flows in a linear fashion, often making multiple hops en route to the final destination. This approach is the polar opposite of TDM, which operates on the principle of a closed circuit between two parties. By having a dedicated connection, TDM calls are clear, private and secure. But those circuits cannot be shared while in use, and compared to IP, TDM is a highly inefficient model for managing network resources. This is a key reason why the cost of legacy telephony is so high. VoIP’s pioneers recognized the opportunity and worked on bringing these worlds together. Once they could find a way to packetize voice, it could be added to the IP data stream and, from there, dramatic cost reductions in telephony service became possible. Early efforts were plagued by poor quality, but as the Web matured and broadband supplanted dial-up service, VoIP overcame those issues. Today, it is a bona fide replacement for legacy telephony. HOW VoIP WORKS When purchasing VoIP, businesses must understand that two components are involved: the phone system and the service. They can be purchased together as a service, in which case there won’t be any integration issues since the phones will already be IP-enabled. As explained above, VoIP travels on the data network, and the phones must be IP-based for the packets to convert into voice signals. Legacy-based phones are built around analog or digital technology, but will only work on the dedicated voice network—not an IP network. Although many businesses have sunk costs in legacy phone systems that are still going strong, they can still use VoIP— so these businesses are not prevented from starting down this path now. To IP-enable these phones, you need an Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA) or comparable peripheral for each endpoint. ATAs aren’t expensive and provide a great bridge to continue using legacy phones until it’s time to replace them— along with getting the benefit of cost savings from VoIP today. For businesses that have no existing telephony system configured, going with a full VoIP service and IP phones makes BUYER’S GUIDE What to Look for in VoIP 4 EXPLAINED HOW IT WORKS FEATURES THE BOTTOM LINE sense. With phone vendors and service providers both transitioning from legacy to VoIP, greenfield opportunities have many options to consider. A different scenario could be a trigger event where the existing phone system needs to be replaced. Whether a breakdown occurs or capacity issues simply reach a point of no return, a change has to be made. This will likely lead to a wholesale switch for both the phones and the service. VoIP FEATURES Buying VoIP products requires careful consideration of a number of factors. VoIP vendors should be evaluated primarily by the following criteria: ease of use, definition of scope, existing network infrastructure and the possibility of future upgrades. Selecting a VoIP service provider requires careful consideration for two distinct reasons. First, you need to determine from whom you’ll be buying. In most cases, you will buy VoIP via a reseller or dealer— the channel—but in some cases, businesses buy VoIP direct from the vendor. Second, buying a VoIP phone system has more variables than a legacy phone system. In some cases, organizations need a full-fledged IP phone system, while others might just want basic IP phones. Furthermore, IP phones are increasingly bundled with other things, such as the VoIP service, broadband connectivity and SIP trunking. A comprehensive set of buying criteria will depend on the needs of the organization, but the four common criteria that apply to all VoIP phone system scenarios are VoIP features, scope of the service, network requirements and plans for future expansion. Considering features and functions should always be the starting point when you are ready to buy VoIP. To get full value, products should be compared with modern VoIP offerings rather than an organization’s existing TDM service. At minimum, VoIP must During the evaluation process, products should be compared with modern VoIP offerings rather than an organization’s existing TDM service. BUYER’S GUIDE What to Look for in VoIP 5 EXPLAINED HOW IT WORKS FEATURES THE BOTTOM LINE replicate legacy telephony, especially to ensure easy adoption among employees. The phones should have a familiar look and feel with the dial pad, preset buttons, handset, visual display and volume controls. Beyond this, however, VoIP supports several new features including ad-hoc conferencing, call recording, Web browser, presence indicator, Bluetooth support and more. Since these phones connect to the data network, there will be different power configurations. Some models will be powered by plugging directly into the power supply, but most will use Power over Ethernet. In terms of must-have VoIP features, the most important factor is ensuring the phones support the features being offered by the VoIP provider. Some phone vendors still maintain proprietary protocols, especially for SIP trunking, so choosing a vendor should not be done in isolation from the VoIP service. Another example is high-definition voice, which can be a great feature for the contact center or conferencing, but only if the endpoints can support it. Finally, the range of VoIP features varies by price point, and IP phone vendors offer a range of models to address different use cases. While most employees can manage with a standard phone model, executives might want higher-end phones. Contact center agents need models with good headset support. Warehouse employees need more rugged and/or cordless phones. And meeting rooms require conferencing phones. When developing a request for proposal, identifying your company’s various needs will be a key area for vendors to tailor their offer. THE BOTTOM LINE Once a business realizes VoIP’s potential, many questions may be raised—not just about the technology, but also its business value. New technology usually implies risk. But in the case of VoIP, that concern should be VoIP supports new features such as ad-hoc conferencing, call recording, Web browser, presence indicator, Bluetooth support and more. BUYER’S GUIDE What to Look for in VoIP 6 EXPLAINED HOW IT WORKS FEATURES THE BOTTOM LINE nominal. While many businesses are still learning about the benefits of VoIP, the technology is mature enough to replace legacy telephony. This consideration is important since the underlying TDM technology has served businesses so well for so long. When understanding the need for VoIP, this history is relevant because the bar was set so high. TDM is expensive, but it delivers outstanding quality and reliability. For IT departments, TDM does not pose any major network challenges, and for management, the business case has to be compelling to consider replacing something that works so well. VoIP isn’t the only way to boost employee productivity, nor is it the only reason to upgrade the network, but the use cases can be very strong. This largely depends on whether the decision to switch is driven by IT or management. The overall takeaway is VoIP can provide short- and long-term strategic benefits for the organization. Thinking about VoIP strictly as a vehicle to save money is a valid driver, but a narrow one that undermines the bigger picture value proposition. Businesses had no reason to think this way with standard telephony, but they do with VoIP. n JON ARNOLD is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and strategy consultancy based in Toronto, whose primary focus is providing thought leadership and go-to-market counsel regarding IP communications and disruptive technologies, like VoIP, mobile broadband, contact centers, telepresence/video, unified communications, collaboration, SIP trunking, cloud communications, session border controllers and social media. Arnold was named a Top 100 Tech Podcaster by GetVoIP.com and is frequently cited in both the trade press and mainstream business press.