We live in an era where customer choice is top of mind. B2C (business to consumer) companies have to address consumers’ expectations to choose exactly what they want, when they want. Similarly, B2B (business to business) companies need to adapt to the personalization trend and allow customers to choose specific products and services that fit specific price, performance, and geography considerations.
We see an unbundling trend in the communications industry, on both the B2C and B2B fronts. Consumers want to unbundle internet service from TV and phone service, leveraging a traditional telco like AT&T for phone (if they still have a landline), an internet service provider like Comcast for internet, and a streaming TV service like Netflix, Hulu, or Sling for programming.
Similarly, businesses are looking to unbundle their communications services. Business VoIP technology is particularly ripe for unbundling as more organizations transition to IP-based solutions and more service providers enter the market.
Understanding the VoIP infrastructure landscape
The VoIP landscape includes a mix of hardware and software components that provide products and services such as VoIP-enabled telephones, IP-PBXs for transmitting and routing calls to VoIP-enabled phones, and SIP trunks to connect IP-PBXs to phone networks. Some VoIP vendors package these components together for an all-in-one solution. For example, some vendors package proprietary telephone hardware with IP services, often for a premium. For some businesses that are new to VoIP or have limited resources, this type of turnkey, multipronged solution may be beneficial. For other companies, unbundled VoIP solutions offer greater flexibility and control over pricing, but could come at the cost of functionality.
As businesses consider unbundled VoIP services, they should understand the layers of the VoIP infrastructure, the market players at each layer, and the pros and cons of unbundling.
The layers of VoIP infrastructure
VoIP may involve several kinds of technology, such as:
Hardware phones: For companies that want to use physical phones with their VoIP service, a number of companies, such as Grandstream, Polycom, and Yealink, offer VoIP-enabled phones. While these are hardware phones, they include built-in software that allows them to work with VoIP and offers features such as caller ID and conferencing.
Software/soft phones: In contrast to hardware phones, some organizations leverage software-based virtual phones that let users make calls through their computers. Soft phones can provide more flexibility than investing in hardware phones. They’re often bundled into a VoIP package by companies such 8x8 Inc., RingCentral, and Vonage.
IP-PBXs: VoIP users can leverage software-based private branch exchanges (PBX), known as IP-PBXs, to transmit and route voice and data communications to VoIP-enabled phones. Providers such as 3CX, Asterisk, and FreePBX offer solutions that interface with other components of the VoIP infrastructure.
SIP trunks: SIP trunks connect a IP-PBX to the internet so you can make calls. Providers like Plivo, Twilio, and Voxbone offer SIP trunking solutions.
A savvy company could buy VoIP-enabled hardware phones to put on-premises, pair the phones with an open source IP-PBX system, and plug in a SIP trunking service for a best-of-breed unbundled solution.
The bottom line is that a broad array of service providers address the VoIP landscape. No company owns a majority share of the market, so it’s worth shopping around to get the best mix to suit your needs.
UCaaS isn’t the be-all, end-all
Another alternative is unified communications as a service. UCaaS providers offer a cloud-based package of communication tools, typically with a white-labeled SIP trunking solution bundled as part of the service. While UCaaS can be advantageous for businesses looking to quickly transition from having a separate landline phone system, video conferencing system, and SMS system to one all-inclusive system, it generally lacks the level of customization offered by other options. Rather than being able to pick the specific technologies they need at the right price and right level of service, UCaaS customers may end up with a solution that falls short in certain areas or includes components they don’t need.
Moreover, there seems to be a dizzying array of UCaaS companies, with widely varied descriptions of UCaaS and terminology about optimal solution packages. First-time buyers (and even those pretty well-versed in the market) can be confused by the similar-sounding descriptions. Buyers should look past the nomenclature and assess the specific features and services offered by a UCaaS provider and compare them to unbundled options.
Unbundle your network
While UCaaS providers address a set of communications needs, it is possible for a business to plug a VoIP feature like SIP trunking from one provider into a UCaaS solution from another provider.
This growing trend, known as bring your own carrier (BYOC), allows businesses to use a VoIP provider’s platform to develop custom messaging and voice applications, for example, but also bring their own carriers for voice service and phone numbers. The benefits can be numerous.
Unbundling benefit #1 — cost savings
Some UCaaS vendors package VoIP solutions and charge a monthly subscription fee on a per-user basis. But not every business needs every feature within a VoIP provider’s package. Unbundling enables businesses to negotiate a lower rate by picking and choosing only the elements they use. Or, businesses might prefer a pay-as-you-go model to gain flexibility for scaling call volume up or down in certain regions or during different times of the year.
Unbundling benefit #2 — global reach
Another benefit of unbundling is global communications coverage. Not all carriers are equal when it comes to global reach and quality, so a business with multiple regional operations may seek a carrier that has points of presence (PoP) in the areas of the world where they do business to help ensure consistent call quality. By contrast, if your business is only in North America, you need not pay a premium for a carrier with PoPs on six continents.
Unbundling benefit #3 — redundancy
SIP trunking providers often work with multiple carriers and have redundant infrastructure so that if one area has an outage, calls can be routed through other infrastructure that’s still running. Unbundling allows organizations to choose SIP trunking providers that have a level of redundancy they’re comfortable with, rather than being locked into whatever a bundled solution offers.
Unbundling benefit #4 — call quality
Similar to the benefit of redundancy, businesses that unbundle can choose SIP trunking providers that work only with high-quality, Tier 1 carriers. Doing so helps ensure consistent calls connections and clear communications.
Some carriers offer least-cost routing (LCR), which means calls may be routed to whatever network provides the lowest rate for a particular time and location, regardless of connection quality. A focus on LCR often leads to less-than-ideal call quality and issues such as high jitter, one-way audio, dropped calls, high latency (connection delay), and lack of support for DTMF or CLI.
Unbundling benefit #5 — feature customization
In addition to cost savings and improved reach, unbundling can enable businesses to better customize their VoIP infrastructure with the technology , customer service, and compliance features that meet their business needs.
For example, a business that’s concerned about compliance can use a carrier that offers built-in features such as call recording or call logging for maintaining call records. Another business may want to use a carrier that has guaranteed DMFI support and CLI retention, and promised uptime.
Unbundling benefit #6 — VoIP hardware/software customization
Unbundling can also give businesses the ability to customize their hardware and software setups. Some VoIP providers offer all-in-one deals that include phones and other hardware, but businesses often want to bring their own hard or soft phones to save money or address unique business needs. For example, some businesses may prefer equipment that’s suited for conference calls, while others may prefer feature-rich desk phones.
Communicate with VoIP providers to understand your unbundling options
By taking advantage of unbundling, businesses can reduce costs and increase customization. Still, some businesses will benefit more from an all-in-one package, so it’s important to not assume that one approach is inherently better than the other.
Depending on your current telecom infrastructure, your in-house resources, and your business goals, you may be able to customize a package that fits your needs, or you may be able to negotiate an all-in-one deal that helps you come out ahead. Some UCaaS providers may be willing to unbundle certain services or reduce pricing by leaving off a few features that you don’t need.
As in the consumer telecom business, the power of choice in VoIP is increasingly shifting to buyers, and providers increasingly realize that they need to open up in order to thrive. If unbundling helps your business save money or gain control, take advantage of this opportunity to customize your VoIP infrastructure.
Originally published in slightly different form on GetVoIP.