It seems like everything is moving into the cloud these days - cloud storage, cloud accounting and cloud software. Cloud telephony is no exception but, as Breakthrough magazine found out when they spoke to Bryan Davis from Connect it, there are some significant reasons why you should be giving this serious consideration if you haven’t already.
Bryan, many people will have heard of cloud-based technologies, can you explain what it means when used in a telephony context?
I think the simplest way to describe the cloud is to imagine the computer you have in your office being moved somewhere else, but you still have a direct link to everything on it. But, because that connection is across the Internet you have a direct link wherever you happen to be - at work, home or while travelling. Of course, the computer you are accessing is also likely to be a lot larger and more powerful than the PC in your office, and it will be in an extremely secure location.
Cloud telephony, or hosted telephony, is very similar. Where a business with multiple users may have a phone system in their office building, a hosted solution takes the functionality of their system - typically a PBX (Private Branch Exchange) that manages the lines within a business - and moves it outside the business premises and connects to it over the Internet.
What advantages does a hosted telephony solution offer a business over a more traditional PBX-based system?
There are a range of advantages - lower costs, greater business continuity, significant flexibility, the ease at which a hosted system can be scaled and a whole raft of easily accessible functions.
How are the costs better than with a traditional approach?
There are several areas. If you are starting from scratch, the cost of setting up a hosted system is much lower than with a PBX-based system. There is considerably less hardware required on site, and, as a result, the setup time is often much faster. Plus, a common Internet connection can handle five concurrent calls. You would need to install three ISDN2 lines to give the same number.
Then, on an ongoing basis, the maintenance costs are a lot less. A PBX system will need routine maintenance and upgrades, typically part of a supplier’s maintenance plan. With a hosted system, this is all done remotely by the provider, wherever the system is hosted. It is no longer the end user’s responsibility, and it means their system is always up to date.
And how is business continuity enhanced?
Better continuity is derived from the remote nature of where a hosted system is based. A PBX system relies on the phone lines coming into the business where it is based, and of course the power supply in that building. If either goes down, the phone system does too. It won't become available until the phone lines and, or, power is restored.
With a hosted approach, the critical systems are running in a secure data centre with sophisticated power and connectivity backup protocols in place, so power outages are very unlikely to happen in that context. And if the broadband connection to your offices goes down, yes you would lose the ability to access your phone system over it, but, you could quickly access it through another Internet connection - in another building perhaps or over a mobile connection.
The flexibility comes into play in that scenario too. Any user, or maybe a system administrator at the business, can log onto their phone system through any Internet connection and make a number of changes. They could reroute the unreachable numbers to another number or office, or set up recorded messages, for example. In fact, a user may not even need to do that. The system could be programmed to do it automatically if at any time it detects a line is unavailable.
With a traditional system, using phone lines, you have to call the supplier and ask them to divert the calls. They can only redirect them to a single mobile number, and it can take some time to set up.
So you can ensure you never become unreachable. That’s a significant advantage. What other functionality can a hosted system offer over a traditional one?
The detailed call monitoring that is available through a hosted system is one of the more popular features. It provides a number of benefits. For example, in sales and customer service environments it is easy to track call volumes, call length, response times and other metrics. You can see details of any calls that were missed, and whether they have been called back, so calls need never fall through the cracks. And all of this can be tracked and reported by user, department or number dialled.
The reporting can also be tied in with unique numbers which can be set up to track things like responses to adverts. We did this for a client recently, and we contacted them to see how it was running a few days into the campaign. They didn’t think the advert was working very well. But when we looked into the reports we could see that they were getting, and missing, a number of calls between 8.30 and 9.00am, before their team started work. A quick change to their team hours and the advert was suddenly working very well for them.
In the marketing tracking scenario, you can also see the caller’s location. That can be a real benefit in identifying where an advert has performed at its best.
I can see there are many advantages to a hosted system. But, there must be drawbacks too?
The quality of the Internet connection is the factor that has the greatest impact on the service. And it is this experience that tends to put people off. However, we find that in most cases, it’s not as big an issue as people think it is.
We have been helping clients with hosted services since 2009, and it was available before that. In the early days, Internet connections were not as good as they are today. Most people’s experience of something similar to a hosted solution is with a service like Skype. If they tried that for a video call, especially a few years ago, they might not have had a great experience. That can put people off.
The reality is different, especially today. Firstly, a video call uses significantly more bandwidth than a voice call. And connections will often prioritise data types. Video data and things like emails can ‘bully’ call data and push it to one side, reducing its quality. But when we set up a system, we can ensure a portion of the connection is ring fenced for the call data, so nothing else will reduce its quality.
Secondly, overall connection speeds have improved since 2009. The average broadband connection speed is around 6Mbps today. A hosted call only takes around 150kB, so it's a tiny proportion and common broadband connections today can handle several concurrent calls with ease.
So the issues people may have experienced in the past are a lot less likely to be there today?
Absolutely, if someone did try this approach a few years ago and didn’t find it worked well for them I would certainly recommend that they take another look. Obviously, there are still some people who struggle with the capacity of their broadband connection, particularly if they need capacity for multiple concurrent calls. But there are some Government-backed schemes available that can help with grants and tax relief for the installation of dedicated leased lines.
The technology has come on a long way in recent years, then. How do you see it developing in the coming years?
Well, in around three years, Openreach are planning to stop installing standard phone lines as we know them today. The new lines will essentially be like a broadband connection and as a result, all phones, including home phones, will work more like a hosted phone does now. It will be a phased transition, so it will take time to filter across the entire network. But it will see a change in the capability of all phone systems.
When that happens, I think the move we see today - away from fixed line phones to mobile connections even for home use - may reverse somewhat. It will be driven by the flexibility and functionality that mobile, and hosted systems, have today being available through home numbers.
So our ‘home’ numbers will become much more personal and transportable, alongside the opening up of a host of new functions?
Yes, exactly. Couple that with the different ways the younger generations are communicating, and the growth in demand for faster access to information, and I think there are exciting times ahead.
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