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Look Before You VoIP

For a battered telecom industry, VoIP appears as an oasis in a desert, but practitioners caution that it’s a destination providers should not journey toward without a worn roadmap.

“On the surface, it appears to be easy and plug-and-play; and it is not. A lot of people underestimate what it takes to deliver this service reliably,” says Rich Grange, president and CEO, New Global Telecom Inc. “The integration effort is huge. You have to deal with a lot of variables outside of your control. But it can be done and is being done successfully in a lot of places, and where it is being done well, customers love it.”

Grounded in expertise won from several years of performing challenging VoIP deployments for a wide range of service providers, NGT executives have boiled their experiences into 10 critical questions. The issues they have learned to handle - from security to network address translation (NAT) traversal to working with thirdparty endpoints - will be encountered by almost any service provider that wishes to deploy VoIP. It may seem obvious, but the first lesson is to try the service yourself. Even today, that lesson may be a sobering learning experience for some very savvy service providers. “We tried to do a demo at a major CLEC a couple of weeks ago,” says Dag Peak, sales engineer at NGT. “We had a phone and a computer, and were going to do a demo, and it became obvious that their network security policy would allow no traffic to pass for VoIP.”

Eventually, the group had to go across the street to NGTs hotel to complete the demo. “So they recognized that this network security issue is very relevant when you talk about deploying business services,” Peak says.

Some service providers fall into the trap of signing up for a service, such as Vonage, at home, and assuming that the VoIP deployment experience will be comparable with that of their customers.

“Until we showed up and said, “This is what it looks like,” they had not looked at all the complexity involved with this. I’ve seen plenty of light bulbs going on, and guys saying, “This isn’t that easy, and there are barriers, and that is why we are going with you guys,”” says Peak.

For that reason, NGT quickly responds to a customer inquiry with a real-life demonstration of typical service. “Three or four times a week, we get demo accounts and devices out to serviceprovider customers, so they can see, touch and interact with the same service that their customers ultimately will be using,” Peak says. “This shows them exactly what the end-user experience is going to be like and if it is going to work for their particular application.” Service providers can use the same strategy with prospective end-user customers.

Another common mistake is to assume that just because your ISP can deploy VoIP, you can deploy VoIP. They think, “How hard can it be?” says Peak. But ISPs have extensive experience with IP networks, which may not be true of a telco or CLEC, which know their customers but not the new technology.

10 Critical Questions To Ask Before Launching Into VoIP

  1. What market(s) should I target?
  2. What delivery models should I consider?
  3. How will I maximize customer acquisition?
  4. What else can I do to accelerate ROI?
  5. How can I be sure a solution will actually work?
  6. What are the biggest challenges in moving from testing to live implementation?
  7. What level of voice expertise will I need to acquire?
  8. What ongoing technical and service support will I need?
  9. How will I ensure scalability of back-office and delivery functions?
  10. Once I gain traction, how can I replicate service to expand my footprint?

Sometimes the only staffers who try the new technology are technicians. Those making the decisions about whether and when to deploy have little experience with VoIP. A senior vice president will recognize that other VoIP vendors are eroding the company’s customer base and will propose a response, which is to deploy VoIP. But that senior vice president is not sophisticated about IP engineering and may not even know about session initiation protocol (SIP), the dominant technology for VoIP going forward. “These decisions start high,” says Peak. “They think it is just an application on the network, and we’ll just turn it on.”

On the positive side, “for everyone who has unpleasant surprises, there is a customer that discovers it does things that they don’t know that it does,” says Mark Bolton, director of product development at NGT. “‘It can do remote office. Wow!’ and they can have their home PC work like the office phone. So, it’s the mobility, and some of the simple messaging [that impresses them]. Often, they had no idea that it can do that, and there are an equal number of guys like that, particularly at the senior vice president level.”

Some issues are beyond the direct control of NGT’s service-provider customers, such as the conditions at the end-users’ locations. “We go to a small office, and they want to deploy a business system to replace the PBX, and they have old Linksys hubs that they bought at Office Depot five years ago,” says Bolton. “We run into that a lot, and it is a big issue. The readiness of the network to accept this service is a big constraint, both in business and, in a different way, with residential users.”

Need More Direction?

PHONE+ and its sister publications xchange and New Telephony have teamed with New Global Telecom Inc. to cosponsor a 90-minute workshop, “10 Critical Questions to Ask Before Launching Into VoIP,” at the CompTel/ASCENT Spring 2005 Convention & Expo this month in New Orleans. The session, which will be held from 3 p.m. to 4:30, Monday, Feb. 14, will feature presentations by wholesale VoIP service provider NGT as well as two vendors that work closely with the company - hosted PBX software developer BroadSoft Inc. and NexTone Communications Inc., which makes VoIP infrastructure products for call routing and control.

For more information, visit CompTel/ASCENT online at www.comptelascent.org/events/new-orleans/

It is ironic that because residential networks are generally newer and smaller, they may support VoIP more readily. But all is not perfect serving residential customers. “We tell service providers to have a direct connection to us rather than the public Internet,” says Patrick Bowerman, NGT account management. “It’s not that public Internet connections are always bad, but they can be inconsistent, and some VoIP providers have learned the lesson the hard way.” Peak says “Some service providers have sold services at price points that didn’t meet customer needs and had to change the network.”

Network equipment, such as DSL or cable modems, can be bad or there may be a bad or dirty line into the house. “One of our sales guys put something on top of his modem, so [the modem] got overheated and the modem was dying,” says Bowerman. “But once those things are cleaned up, it’s not as bad [in residential].”

NGT recommends strongly that service providers institute a standard way to do LAN assessments to thoroughly map and understand the local infrastructure. Luckily there are some readily available software tools to do that, and NGT provides customers with guidelines and suggestions for good network practice as well.

Another issue is how to get CPE, such as IP phones and integrated access devices, out to end users in a timely manner. NGT suggests outsourcing that by finding vendors with delivery mechanisms ready. It also is possible to outsource LAN assessment, as several new service providers are looking to launch those services.

Links

BroadSoft Inc. www.broadsoft.com
New Global Telecom Inc.  www.ngt.com
NexTone Communications Inc. www.nextone.com


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