Cable folks, there’s an unusual opportunity waiting where you get to be a hero and make money at the same time. This golden opportunity is cable business telephony. That’s right – plain old telephone service, aka POTS, for the small to medium business (SMB).
As an industry, we’ve reached consensus that cable companies can and should serve businesses located near existing residential plant. Although the larger operators are working the business telephony market, most publicity and action has been around transport products, such as high-speed data and Gigabit Ethernet (GigE). This is great stuff, but is only a piece of the pie. All SMBs need voice telephony. Some estimates place the U.S. market at more than $5 billion per year.
Consider the customer that drives this market. Typical small business owners are too busy with trying to survive and grow to add telecom to the list of things to learn, understand and maintain. They desperately need help because all they want is cheap phone rates, reliability and enough features to serve the business functions they understand. Typical owners don’t have an IT staff and will understand just enough about computers to commit to a basic business PC or laptop equipped with an accounting system, spreadsheet, word processor, and some type of calendar/scheduler.
The problem for them with telephony is that there are too many choices. Most SMB owners would rather just plug phones into the wall like at home and get on with growing the operation they know best, but business telephony gets more complicated as the SMB gets more successful. Multiple lines may need an automated attendant, abbreviated dialing, voice mail, and line hunt groups for departmental coverage, just to name a few features. There are multiple technology solutions that an SMB can purchase to provide these amenities, but once a particular solution is chosen, it is usually difficult and expensive to change. Put on your hero hat Here’s where cable gets to be a hero. If we sort through the myriad options, we can put together marketing packages targeted to particular types and sizes of SMBs and save them the hassle of matching technical solutions to business needs. These packages need to be one-stop, pre-configured shopping for telephone systems, usage and technical support. We could even include evolution options for growth without forklift changes. If we can do this, we’ve already bested the incumbent telco and have a great shot at data and business video as well.
But first, we need to understand both the businesses of our potential customers and the technology options. I’ll leave business operational understanding to the marketing folks and will concentrate on technology. Tech options For telephone systems, we have two high-level choices for our product: network-based systems and premises-based systems.
Network-based systems are very similar to residential telephony in that all features reside in the service provider’s network, and the business owner only needs to plug phones into wall jacks. The service provider receives revenue from features, usage and support. This offering is called hosted (private branch exchange) PBX or Internet protocol (IP) Centrex. The advantage to the business owner is simplicity, and to cable, the fact that we already have most of the solution in our residential telephony products.
Premises-based systems require more than simple telephone sets at the SMB location. They come in two flavors: dedicated computers that provide features and access to lines for a number of phones, or high-end multiline telephone sets that each have a full set of software features that can be linked together. The phones and/or computer may be owned by the business or the service provider. If the business owns the hardware, the service provider gets revenue from usage, support, and possibly from licensing of software for the computer, which is called an IP PBX. Multiline sets with features are typically part of a different type of product, known as a key telephone system, but they can also be included in an IP PBX. The advantage of a premises-based system is that it is generally easier to introduce new features than in a network-based system. The disadvantage for a service provider is the need to support more equipment in the field.
The market for network-based and premises-based solutions overlaps, so an SMB could be served by either architecture. Both flavors are available to the SMB, direct from the vendor, through resellers, or from other service providers, including the incumbent teleco. To simplify life for the SMB, we need to survey our vendors’ alternatives, make the choices required for a full solution, and build them into a marketing package. Vendor offerings Multiple vendors to our industry offer products for network-based solutions. These solutions are very similar to our residential offerings and typically include embedded multimedia terminal adapters (EMTAs) for access and cable modem termination systems (CMTSs), servers, and routers at a headend.
There are several vendors for two- and four-line EMTAs that can grouped for use in business applications. Arris offers a 12-line version in a single package that includes an RJ21 jack and cable that can be associated with the punchdown connector block typically used in SMB premises wiring systems.
Cedar Point Communications and Cisco are the dominant players in the United States for cable telephony network equipment. Cedar Point has based its business solution upon its residential telephony offerings by adding features such as automated attendant, voice mail and hunt groups to existing Safari C3 switch software. Cisco’s offerings evolved from its BTS 10200 softswitch, which has been periodically updated with new releases including PacketCable and business features.
In the premises-based arena, there are also multiple vendors. Whaleback Systems and Cisco provide two examples of typical architectures. Whaleback uses a PC as a premises feature server and switch in an architecture where all off-premises calls go out as IP packets over a single cable modem. The system is an evolution from its Crystal Blue telephony product, with the cable operator rather than Whaleback providing public switched telephone network (PSTN) gateway and voice mail functionality and licensed feature software on a per station basis, along with technical and installation support.
Cisco has been offering business IP telephony for several years, and it targets small business with a 16-line system based on the UC 500 switch line and the 815 premises router. For larger SMBs, it routes both voice and data through premises-based Integrated Service Routers equipped with Unified Communications Manager Express software for telephony features. Eye on the ball As mentioned earlier, calling minutes are an important part of an SMB telephony package. Broadband telephony vendors are pitching voice over IP (VoIP) for business, using either the SMB’s telephone system or a softphone on a user’s PC or laptop. Here, most SMBs have little idea of the concepts of quality of service (QoS), managed networks and traffic engineering, so a big part of marketing a package that includes usage is to stress that in addition to being economical, telephone calls over our managed networks are orders of magnitude more reliable and clearer than calls over the public Internet.
Technical support is the third leg of an SMB technology platform. In addition to a knowledgeable call center staff, it should include a way to monitor end-to-end call routing and quality. At SCTE Expo this year, Whaleback had a good example in its OrcaVision system, which provides graphical network views of where packets are going within the network, with performance metrics for each leg.
Finally, a word of caution. Once in this business, it may be tempting to look really versatile by providing several configurations as choices for each business. Differentiating ourselves, however, lies with simplifying, not complicating, the life of the SMB. Justin J. Junkus is president of KnowledgeLink and telephony editor for Communications Technology. Reach him at email@example.com.