SME VoIP Part Three: Service Provider Choices

In the third part of our VoIP for small business series, Richard Chirgwin looks at how to choose a service provider.

So, you've got the connection and chosen the kit. Now it is time to chose a service provider.

The third critical choice the SME will have to make for its VoIP implementation is the choice of provider. Here, "cheap and cheerful" isn't a sensible option, unless you don't mind your calls sounding like brand new mobile phone offers from overseas call centres.

So what matters in the choice of SME VoIP service provider?

Things you should look at include price; contract conditions; number portability; access to emergency service calls; standards and compatibility; and there are some basic due diligence checks that anybody can conduct on a provider.

Since the business VoIP choice is far more critical than the consumer's, the due diligence is very important, so that's going to occupy most of this article.

First, Catch Your Rabbit

The choice of provider needs to start with the question "can they provide business-class service?"

There is a large and growing body of providers with a focus on business, as you can find by looking at the Aussie VoIP List managed by Market Clarity (declaration of interest: I helped compile the earliest versions of this list, and still work as a contractor to Market Clarity on mapping work. However, I don't know of any other list that includes anywhere near as many providers in Australia).

In general, a consumer service isn't what you want, for two important reasons: if you access the service over the public Internet, you can't guarantee performance; and consumer VoIP services might not support large blocks of numbers associated with a single account.

For a business, you ideally want a direct path from your office to the provider - either because the VoIP service comes from your broadband provider, or because the two have a business relationship that keeps voice calls away from the public Internet.

Due Diligence 

If you're buying from a large, well-known organisation, you may consider skipping these checks. But if you don't know enough about the VoIP provider, there are some basic checks that are worth conducting.

Please note that this is general advice: I can't guarantee that following these checks will prevent trouble, but I can guarantee that you're at more risk if you don't go through the basics.

The first thing to do is to run a basic whois check on prospective providers. "Whois" is the database record of the provider's domain registration - for Australian registrations (.com.au), you can use Ausregistry or for US (.com) domains, you can start at Network Solutions.

The Whois search will tell you which company owns the domain (that is, the Website). From there, you can find out if the company that claims to own the Website actually exists, using the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, ASIC to check the company registration.

If the service provider claims to be a company, but isn't, then you can eliminate it from your investigations.

Likewise, some people offer services in Australia, but have no corporate presence here. There are good reasons to avoid buying VoIP without local contacts: first, the provider may consider itself not bound by Australian telecommunications regulation; and second, its local support may be limited.

If the provider passes the first test, the next step is the TIO's Website.

All VoIP providers in Australia must be TIO members -- but not all providers know it. There is a pervasive myth that VoIP isn't regulated, which means some don't bother with TIO membership. For a business service, this can be regarded as instant disqualification: if the provider doesn't understand its regulatory obligations, it's not serious. Also, you can't take a complaint against your provider to the TIO if the provider isn't a member.

Here, knowing the company's name will be useful, since the "brand" on the Website might not be the company name that owns the brand. If you search the TIO's membership list for both the "brand" and the company that owns the brand, you're more likely to know for sure whether the provider is a TIO member.

The TIO also publishes a regular summary of complaint statistics which is worth checking.

Contracts

The first and simplest question about contracts is whether you're able to see a contract - or at least a sample contract- before you're too far into the sales process. Ask any prospective provider whether its terms and conditions are available online, or if it will send you a copy.

Second, check the contract carefully, because some VoIP contracts include exclusions and rules about the use of the service that won't suit you. For example, there remain rules about "excessive use" of the service with some VoIP services.

Another vital piece of information the contract can provide is this: who are you dealing with?

VoIP supports a busy wholesale-retail-sales agency market, and the company selling and branding the service might not be the company delivering the service in the end. That's fine - but only as long as you know who your provider is going to be.

It's also important to check the jurisdiction of the contract. An international provider may put its contracts under the jurisdiction of its head office country, even though it maintains an office in Australia. If a dispute arises, that's a problem: do you want to have to work out the legalities of another country because your business was damaged by poor service?

And finally, the contract might also answer two important questions: does the service support emergency services calls (that is, calls to "000"), and are your numbers portable?

Emergency Services

Emergency service calling might or might not be a deal-breaker. It depends on whether you've elected to keep a PSTN line after you implemented VoIP.

If you're maintaining a PSTN service, then you don't need to consider the emergency services question, because the PSTN line will have 000 access.

However, if you're running a pure VoIP environment, then you need to check whether the VoIP provider supports calls to 000. Consider it an occupational health and safety issue: even though people argue that mobiles can take the place of PSTN lines in the emergency services question, you'll be less exposed to risk if your business can demonstrate its commitment to staff safety.

Number Portability

Businesses can put a real value on number portability. It's not merely a convenience: changing numbers costs money.

There isn't room to canvass all of the ins and outs of VoIP numbering. For example, a full explanation of ACMA's VoIP-specific number policies would take too long. It's simpler, and still accurate, to state that number portability in VoIP is relatively rare.

Generally, portable numbers will be associated with VoIP providers who hold a carrier license. However, you might feel this constrains the choice too far; that out of more than a hundred possible providers, number portability restricts your choice to a handful. There is a workaround. If your favoured provider can't offer portable numbers, you could consider acquiring a 1800 or 1300 number and routing that to your VoIP service. That way, if you change providers, you don't have to change numbers.

If you decide to go down the 1800 / 1300 route, remember to factor this into your cost calculations.

Standards and Compatibility

Assuming that you've already chosen the VoIP system you want to use inside your company, there aren't too many compatibility issues to consider with your provider - but those few that exist can make a big difference.

The first is to do with the codec you choose. There are dozens of different codecs in the VoIP world, but you'll want to know that the codec you enable on your VoIP system is supported by the provider you choose.

Pretty much any "open" VoIP provider - and almost certainly any business-grade VoIP provider - will support SIP, the Session Initiation Protocol. That's how your VoIP server will pass messages to the provider (such as your logins, incoming / outgoing call requests, and call status messages). If you're using an Asterisk system, it's also worth asking whether the provider supports IAX (the inter-Asterisk exchange protocol). If not, Asterisk is quite happy using SIP instead of IAX.

A couple of other technical questions you may wish to consider:

  • Fax -- If you have a fax-capable VoIP system, you'll want to know whether your VoIP provider is also able to handle faxes.
  • Failover - If there's a failure in the provider's network, what failover provisions exist?

 When you've got your shortlist of VoIP service providers, you're ready for the final step: comparing features, prices, and service models. We'll cover that in the next article in the series.

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