One of the many areas where cloud innovation is having a big impact right now is business telephony services, perhaps more correctly called comms services, since they encompass unified communications (UM), as well as fixed mobile convergence (FMC).  These are concepts that have been talked about for many years – and implemented to a certain extent –  though they have traditionally been hampered by dependency on physical equipment. 

Cloud has removed those barriers and as well as giving end-user businesses greater choice, gone are the days of needing to invest in physical private business exchanges (PBXs), which are typically expensive to buy and maintain.  Cloud telephony is also a catalyst for new service providers to enter the market, or for existing ISPs or mobile firms to reposition themselves and expand their portfolios.  For instance, a reseller can now become a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), without needing to invest in and install their own networks; instead, they can choose to simply ‘rent’ the technology (in other words, Platform as a Service).

This is also proving the catalyst for more flexible pricing models, with options available to the smallest of SMEs to large enterprises and changing the way that businesses buy comms services, such as a ‘monthly right to use’.  They can also expect far more innovative features, because the cloud enables these to be deployed more rapidly, plus eliminate the traditional definitions of the telecom market.  Now, the end-user can be at the centre of the service delivery, not dictated around telephony devices, location, network nor apps.  More on that shortly.

These changing market dynamics are great news for businesses purchasing telephony services: never have they had so much choice. According to telecom industry experts The Cavell Group, the Western European market for cloud communications is set to grow by 17,337,538 users in the next 5 years (representing a CAGR of 24.64 percent).  Cavell also says that the UK is the largest Western European market.

The big switch off

We are also at an interesting juncture in the European telecoms market, with many PTOs such as BT planning to turn off their existing ISDN and PSTN services for good within the next few years.  This is a prompt for customers and suppliers to look at what is currently available in the cloud, simply because they will have no alternative but to switch to IP based services.  At the same time, many legacy PBXs and early IP-Centrex solutions are nearing the end of their life, generating interest in migration to the latest developments in cloud-based telecom services.

However, it is perhaps the sheer array of innovative features and services that cloud-based telecoms enable that is the biggest game-changer: true enterprise mobility; tighter integration with internal IT systems and applications; and far better collaborative tools; and a whole host of other services that benefit both an organisation and its individual employees.

For instance, users can have just one handset across both fixed and mobile access, either with one phone number or several phone numbers. All routing of services is handled by the provider, rather than on the customer’s premises.  With a cloud PBX, it becomes possible to access unified communications services via any internet-enabled device, within the office or working remotely, creating a single, seamless service.

Over a third of the workforce was mobile by 2016 according to Strategy Analytics and there is no reason why this trend should not continue, so this greater degree of freedom can result in tangible benefits, such as greater efficiency and time saved.

Over a third of the workforce was mobile by 2016 according to Strategy Analytics and there is no reason why this trend should not continue, so this greater degree of freedom can result in tangible benefits, such as greater efficiency and time saved. For instance, more calls can reach the right person first-time (thus improving efficiency and reducing the number of call-backs needed), or cost-per-minute savings can be achieved by automatic rerouting of mobile calls and apps via Wi-Fi when the user is in the office, rather than over the cellular network).

However, this does not mean that users cannot get away from incoming calls, chat streams, collaboration tools and other apps: in fact, they can achieve far better control over their accessibility, such as integrated voicemail management, with messages delivered to a centralised mailbox (not to an individual mobile or PBX/Centrex mailbox), with consistent forwarding rules and even email notifications with an audio file attached.

Another area of user control that is still quite new but expected to become very important is ‘user-driven presence control’, an OTT service. This removes the traditional approach of depending on apps like email calendar schedules and instead, users choose their preferences from the mobile device based on their status at that moment, such as whether they want to take a call, or to forward to a colleague, or simply let the call go to voice-mail.  Users can then decide whether to accept calls, forward them to a team member or department, or let them go to voice-mail, depending on the user’s selected state, which the rest of the team can also see.

So, does that mean we all end up with just one handset for everything?  That is certainly an option, with a mobile device becoming a gateway for users to manage all services, even with multiple phone numbers attached to that device. However, it is also likely that many companies will have a policy whereby users have two or more devices for the time being.

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Choosing cloud telecoms services

As an emerging market, many organisations are on a learning curve when choosing cloud-based comms services.  However, there are enough existing deployments in the market – particularly in the Nordics and mainland countries such as France – from which purchasers of these services can learn.  Here are some examples of ‘best practice’ experience, based on working with some of these pioneering end-user organisations:

Make sure that the service is a step forward – rather than just replacing old systems.  Use this as an opportunity to improve the way that employees communicate externally and internally, with better control, flexibility and access to more advanced services, such as fixed mobile convergence (FMC) and unified communications (UC).

Look for solid interoperability and integration support – such as open APIs and connectors to services and apps within the organisation’s existing technology stack.

Pricing that’s transparent and predictable – in other words, no hidden costs, such as maintenance.  Transparent and predictable pricing – e.g. monthly right to use with maintenance costs included.

Ability to scale and evolve – if the end user organisation grows, can the cloud comms package meet extra demand quickly? What about upgrades and further developments: is there a roadmap?

Reliability and ease-of-use – check that it is easy to manage, with ‘self-care’ options for users, rather than requiring training or complex set-up and configurations.  Also, what back-up is available for business continuity?

The right fit – some services suit SMEs better than large enterprises and vice versa, plus vertical markets may have extra needs (such as the education sector, which would benefit from reduced comms costs during holiday periods).  Do overseas offices need to be supported and if so, is that covered (for instance, ensuring that remote team members share user presence control and collaboration tools).

Clearly, there are a lot of factors to consider, but on the positive side, businesses buying these services truly are in the driving seat, with a growing number of service providers competing for their business, with increasingly attractive pricing models, greater innovation and services that revolve around users, not around hardware or software.