Buyer's ChecklistBy David Strom | Posted 2008-06-02 Email Print
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Hosted IP telephony services let users sample benefits without overhauling existing phone systems.
What do you need to look for when shopping for hosted telephony services providers? First, find out what kind of network operations center they have. Ask if it is on-premises, how often it is staffed, and what kind of response time is promised and actually delivered.
Next, examine what kinds of quality-of-service (QOS) guarantees the provider offers, how these are measured and what they’ll do if they don’t live up to their promises. And what happens when a disaster or network outage occurs?
One vendor, Bandwidth.com, offers this guarantee: “If you are down for more than an hour, we don’t charge you for that month’s bill,” says Henry Kaestner, founder and CEO. Fewer than 10 customers have received refunds in the past year,.
Another question to ask is whether the provider requires you to terminate your existing Internet connection, or whether they piggyback on that connection. Some providers do one or the other, while others do both or only require termination for the larger accounts. There are advantages to both methods, depending on what kind of QOS guarantees you’ve been given and how much of your existing Internet connectivity you’ll need for your voice network.
You also need to determine if your IT-telecom staff can handle the upgrade to IP telephony. If your staff is unfamiliar with setting up QOS and virtual LANs, a consultant may be in order. Be careful how you calculate overall QOS, and be sure to include the end-to-end network path your voice traffic will travel.
“You want to consider whether all your network components are giving voice priority over other data packets, including switches, routers and other network infrastructure,” Mindshift’s Chisholm says. “The last thing you need is dropped calls, annoying echoes and poor-quality connections.”
Another option is to start with a branch office and see how it takes to the IP-phone system before rolling it out across the enterprise. “This is a good way to get started,” says Chisholm.
You also need to decide if you are going to integrate your phone system with your existing e-mail network. A “unified inbox” can be easy or difficult, depending on whether you have a relatively recent vintage of Microsoft’s Exchange and Outlook software, how many users want this feature and what kind of storage is available to hold the digitized voice mail messages.
Another factor is how much your provider’s long-distance calling plan will cost. Just because you’re using IP telephony doesn’t mean long-distance calls are free. Make sure you have sufficient minutes to cover your calling pattern. If unlimited minutes are offered, be sure there are no hidden costs or fees.
Finally, anyone investing in IP telephony will want to carefully examine their existing data network and evaluate whether it can handle Internet phone calls. There are many technical aspects of data networking that will affect call quality, including the type of wiring used to connect computers and how routers are configured. “We do the end-to-end solution and all the engineering, and just do Asterisk implementations,” says Chad Agate, CEO of NeoPhonetics, a Tinley Park, Ill., phone integrator.
Part of this evaluation will examine whether users need mobile-phone support for their new IP telephony. It is worth examining whether this will be critical for a particular set of users and whether they want to use integrated solutions.
Not every business is ripe for a hosted solution, says Chris Gatch, CTO of Atlanta-based CBeyond, which sells an integrated package. “It’s all about whether the PBX has the right features that map to your business processes,” he says. “Make sure it has the features you need and that you have the right network connectivity to maintain a reliable service level.”
If your network infrastructure is aging, or if you need to upgrade your Internet connection, it might be better to outsource your upgrade, he says.