If the past couple of columns stimulated some thoughts on why cable wants to get into business voice telephony and the differences in business communications equipment, this column should keep your neurons flashing. We’re going to review actual cable operator small-to-medium-business (SMB) telephony offerings and the implications of this new market to field technical personnel. Be the customer When I started writing this month’s column, I thought it might be interesting to begin like a typical business owner looking for a solution to his business telephony needs. Since the Internet is the first place many SMBs go for information, I visited some Web sites. We’ll review the specifics of what I found in a bit, as well as some insights from long-standing market participant Cox. First, however, a bit of commentary is in order.

While I was searching, it soon became apparent that, as an industry, we are still pretty quiet about our business voice offerings. Since I live in cable, my searches were fairly specific – I keyed in a company name followed by "business telephony." Pondering this a bit, however, I wondered whether the average small business owner would even think about the cable company as a potential business telephony provider. A search for "business telephones" without a company name doesn’t even come close to cable. It mostly points to information on voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) – not carrier class IP telephony, but the broadband VoIP version – station sets, key systems, and private branch exchanges (PBXs). To be fair, it doesn’t send me to the telcos, either.

Maybe the logic is that business telephone service is sold by door knockers, telemarketers, and calls to the incumbent telephone company. Even so, given that almost everyone goes to the Internet first, the lack of a pointer to any of our cable operators who are actively providing telephone service surprised me. Cable offerings That being said, my focused Web visits showed that all the major MSOs have similar offerings, but availability varies by region. Most of the operators group business service offerings according to business size: small, medium and large. With respect to voice service, the main difference between medium and small is the addition of trunking options from a PBX.

In the small business market, we sell communications by the line, as many as required by our customers. Cablevision Systems calls its offering Optimum Voice; Charter‘s brand is Charter Business Telephone Local; Cox sells Digital Telephone; and Time Warner‘s brand is Business Class Phone. Comcast does not, as of this writing in August 2007, have a national product, but has published prices in Massachusetts for Comcast Workplace Digital Voice. Only Cablevision has any reference to a specific number of lines. Optimum Voice is available in a one- to four-line version or an eight-line "increased capacity" version.

On first look, the functionality of basic cable business telephony doesn’t differ much from its residential counterpart. An embedded multimedia terminal adapter (EMTA) is the interface between the cable company’s coax and the customer’s phone, and a basic feature set similar to residential (for example, call forwarding, call waiting, caller ID, speed dial) is included in the offering. The feature package difference is in less than a handful of business-specific features, such as hunt groups, account codes and enhanced voice mail, which are not required by all businesses.

This similarity between a small business and residential is one reason that Cox has been able to offer business telephony for several years now. Kristine Faulkner, Cox vice president of product development and management, told me Cox has been selling business service since the 1997 timeframe. She explained, "We launch residential and follow fairly closely with business." This early start has helped with small business penetration. About 20 percent of Cox-provided lines are for business service, and three-quarters of those are for locations with five or fewer lines each. Growing business Admittedly, as businesses grow, they often require and request a wider range of features for specific functions. These specialized features can be available as a hosted service for the set of lines going to a business. Cox, for example, offers Cox Centrex, with basic, attendant, call center and specialized à la carte features. However, offering these features is not a prerequisite to entering the market. "Businesses typically don’t use all the features of a Centrex offering," Faukner noted. "The key to success in this market," she said, "is working with the businesses to help them to become more productive."

This type of partnership extends from the sales process to service and support, where field personnel are the company’s interface with the customer. In their case, it often involves understanding the operation of a typical key system or PBX.

Bear in mind that in most cases we don’t sell or maintain key systems or PBXs. Thinking back to the August column, I would place that strategy in line with my suggestion that operators settle on one type of solution to minimize customer confusion. On the other hand, we do interconnect with these customer-owned systems, and our business customers demand end-to-end service. A couple of examples from Cablevision point out where a bit of extra knowledge can be helpful.

As part of its business offerings, Cablevision verifies compatibility of its network with the customer premises equipment (CPE). Although the variety of CPE in the field precludes full interoperability testing, part of the installation process is to verify system operation. Any troubleshooting of an initial installation is an end-to-end process that needs teamwork.

In addition, a spokesperson for Cablevision noted that for the business market, their company provides 24/7 support for network access, meaning anything from the EMTA outward. A customer with a service issue could therefore depend upon a tech to troubleshoot a dead line, but if the problem is determined to be within the customer’s equipment, responsibility to repair is with the customer. A complete solution is difficult without both customer and provider working together. Know the CPE Recent installer training I conducted confirmed the value of knowing at least some details of how customer-owned equipment works. The class covered all those issues related to bringing cable telephony service to the customer’s demarcation point, including how PacketCable works, how to interface an EMTA to trunks as well as lines, the types of connectors and locations where the cable company interfaces with the business, and signaling between CPE and the network. Although we discussed the functions and block-level architecture of PBX and key systems, post-class feedback asked for more details about typical CPE problems. The participants explained that nothing short of working with the customer to "make it work" was satisfactory, and knowing how CPE functions avoids any finger-pointing when there is a problem.

The bottom line for a tech is that although you can’t be expected to become an expert on each of the hundreds of customer-owned systems, it is necessary to know in general what they do, how they communicate with our network, and what may cause them to malfunction. If your training doesn’t include this level of detail, CPE vendor Web sites often contain documentation that includes a list of possible cures for trouble conditions. A visit to one or two sites can yield some intelligence that positions you and your company as a business voice solutions vendor, rather than as a commodity source.

Justin J. Junkus is president of KnowledgeLink and telephony editor for Communications Technology.

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