Do businesses need to pay for VoIP?

Free services offer VoIP to the masses, but are they reliable enough to use in enterprises or do they need pricey unified communications?

Despite the best protestations of Luther Vandross, the best things in life are not always free. Security companies would certainly agree with that, arguing free anti-virus software can never offer the same level of protection as paid for products.

Is the same true in other sectors? There is currently a debate raging over whether free apps are better than paid for ones: no cost versus increased functionality and no intrusive advertising. 

There are productivity suites like OpenOffice and Google Drive pitted against the traditional paid versions like Microsoft Office, or the option of paying hundreds of pounds on Photoshop or choosing a free alternative such as Gimp.

This dichotomy is nowhere more apparent than in the voice over IP (VoIP) industry. Can the likes of Skype, Google Voice and Hangouts and even Apple’s FaceTime provide businesses with the functionality, reliability and support of paid VoIP services from the likes of Cisco, LifeSize, Avaya, Polycom and Siemens?

The suppliers will, of course say no, arguing communication is such a vital part of business that it needs to be highly available and reliable, giving users that must-have peace of mind that it will not fail. 

Outages on the free services

And while no service will be available 100% of the time, users of free services such as Skype and FaceTime have suffered extended outages over the last few years.

In early April 2013, users of FaceTime, as well as Apple’s free texting service iMessage, were subject to around five hours of downtime. 

It was the latest in a series of outages for the service, most of which lasted no longer than an hour. Not too much of an issue for calling your friend on the other side of the globe, but it would be a real cause of concern for any businesses or individuals relying on the service for work purposes. Yet, at the time Apple’s status page simply said some users were affected. No details on what caused the issue or how long it would take to fix were released.

Skype too has had its troubles with staying online. A big outage took out the service for millions of users around Christmas time in 2010, which fortunately may have had a minimal impact on businesses as many would have slowed down for the holiday period. Another outage hit in June 2011.

However, in contrast to Apple, Skype was very open about the issue, providing users with detailed blog posts about what caused the outage.

It is incidents like this that show businesses cannot rely on free services for their VoIP needs, according to Andreas Wienold, VP of EMEA at LifeSize, a division of Logitech.

“You get what you pay for,” he says. “With high-end solutions you get a much better support package and the knowledge that your CEO can walk into a meeting room and have a 30-minute discussion with anyone, anywhere. That’s better than relying on a service you have not paid for.

The quality you get out of hardware-driven codec is completely different... If you run an international team you need this perfect detail

Andreas Wienold, LifeSize

“I would not use any of these [free] services for any business conversation with a partner,” Wienold adds. He said running the EMEA region means he is in regular contact with workers scattered across the region and relying on free services to talk to them when needed is not an option.

“I’ve already spoken to Australia, Bangalore and Singapore today and the quality you get out of hardware-driven codec is completely different; you couldn’t do it over software codec. If you run an international team you need this perfect detail.”

However, while they may be less reliable free services have one huge advantage: cost. The top-end Telepresence systems from the likes of Cisco and Avaya can costs hundreds of thousands of pounds and even at the lower end of the scale a significant investment is often required. That is something smaller companies and start-ups may not be able to afford.

Steve Blood, research VP at analyst house Gartner, agreed enterprises may well want the peace of mind that comes with having greater levels of support, but in many cases free services do the job.

“Skype and other free services can sometimes go wrong, but it’s good enough for most of the time,” he says. “And it’s a significant saving over using other ways of communicating. It’s difficult to complain about free.”

“But, from an enterprise point of view, it’s a bit like your website going down. There are levels of expectations around it, so I’d expect enterprises to use something they feel in control of.”

However that has not stopped many smaller businesses embracing free VoIP platforms. Speaking to Computer Weekly, Kristian Fischer, head of delivery in the UK at Tradeshift, said free services are good enough. The company has workers spread across the globe, from Copenhagen to London and San Francisco, and Fischer keeps in touch with his team via Skype and Google Hangouts.

A good connection is key

Free services are also used at Tradeshift to talk with customers; rather than being reserved solely for internal communications. Fischer disputes Wienold’s assertion that meetings held via paid services will be more productive because of the better quality.

“It’s all down to the connectivity [in] what room you’re sitting in,” he said. “If the connection is good, then Skype is just as good as anything else.”

“I recently had a Skype call from a coffee shop to someone in Japan. The image and the voice quality were perfect. But then I’ve also had calls when the connectivity has been bad. I don’t think the [free and paid] tools are that different in quality; it’s the connection that’s vital,” he adds.

Fischer seems to have been lucky with his Skype experiences so far. Beyond “irritation,” such as poor quality or users at other organisations not being allowed to install Skype, he has experienced no down sides. 

The lack of support, which paid suppliers cite as a major negative to free services, has not been an issue so far. Even if there were problems with the service, “a good, old fashioned telephone call” would suffice instead, he says.

However Fischer concedes that free services do lack certain functionality and, as a result, the company will be looking to upgrade to a paid-for service as it continues to grow, which is a path Gartner’s Steve Blood said many smaller businesses will take.

There is no doubt that free services are great for smaller companies that don’t want or need the expense of a paid VoIP platform. But as companies grow, the reliability and additional functionality offered by paid services will become more appealing and even more necessary.

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