Copper countdown

The copper switch-off is already underway. What impact is this having on the SIP trunk and phones market?

The clock is ticking ever closer to a new connectivity era and many observers say Covid has accelerated SIP migration too. Georgina Williams, director of voice and collaboration at BT Wholesale (pictured below, right), said momentum will continue to grow. “Salisbury and Mildenhall exchanges are already in the process of being decommissioned so from May, customers in those regions are no longer allowed to buy PSTN and ISDN services and they will need to have completed migration by the 22nd December.

“The good news is that the market adoption of IP has vastly accelerated over the last year. Covid has forced many businesses to reconsider on-prem strategies and many are now opting by choice to move to the cloud so that they have more flexibility and resilience.

“Businesses with complex PBX system set-ups might be fearful of upgrading due to the costs involved with swapping out kit and wiring but it’s critical because many exchanges will stop receiving support ahead of the switch-off, so it’s important to educate customers to ensure they aren’t caught short. To enable wholesale hosted voice solutions to flourish on the new all-IP network, channel partners should fill the knowledge gaps and ensure SMEs and corporate businesses alike are aware of the best solutions to fit their needs. The channel has a huge role to play here in educating businesses to ensure that they can incorporate new solutions into their business with ease and prepare for a future where all-IP is the norm.”

Dave Reynolds, managing director of Xelion UK, believes it is in the interests of the channel to make customers aware of the need to prepare. “However, some traditional voice resellers are conflicted because they make good profits from annual PBX maintenance contracts and want to exploit this lucrative revenue stream for as long as possible. But this opens their base up to more agile channel resellers offering hosted solutions.

“We have already seen the withdrawal from the market by major PBX manufacturers such as Toshiba and Panasonic. While it is possible to upgrade some legacy PBX systems to work with SIP trunks, it is hardly worth the expense, when hosted telephony offers so many benefits and involve little upfront cost or capital expenditure.

“While Openreach has a target date of 2025 for ISDN switch-off, copper cabling will remain in the network and it will be many more years before there is a wholly fibre network.”

Ben Merrills, CEO, Zapappi (pictured left), said SIP is an obvious choice for those who are starting fresh, and because of that, the copper switch-off has been driving SIP adoption for some time. “That said, those who have been on copper for the last 10 years will have heavy investment in on-premise infrastructure. However, what we’re starting to see now is resellers increasingly looking to convert their existing PSTN base, and for options that help ease that transition.”

Paul McCafferty, sales director at BDR Group, feels the pandemic has accelerated change. “Many resellers are educating customers about the 2025 switch off, but it’s vital that businesses aren’t being scared into the transition and can make the switch at their own pace. While we may want them to adopt higher margin services, we need to make sure they are definitely appropriate for the particular use-case.”

The copper switch-off programme is having impact in the market today, fuelling new opportunities, according to Mark Riddell, channel director, Abzorb. He said, “Resellers are helping to increase the awareness of it amongst their customers as this is a huge opportunity for them to grow market share and also for end users to benefit from the SIP, IP and hosted technology.

“Many customers are coming to the end of their contracts and naturally the switch off is impacting their decision making. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for flexible and remote working, and it is evident that everybody will not be returning to the office some time soon. So, customers understand that flexible technology is required now more than ever. Resellers are also making customers aware that they don’t need to ‘rip and replace’ existing technology and can migrate to IP and SIP at their own pace protecting their investment.”

For Paul Taylor, sales and marketing director, Voiceflex, SIP trunking is commonplace and has been replacing ISDN since 2010. “The key factors for a customer moving to SIP are either a new telephony application, a new data connection or they’re moving premises. With the advent of most telephony applications either multi-tenanted or single instant are now in the cloud. At Voiceflex we have changed not only the commercial offering, but also the network topology to adapt to the changing needs and requirements of the channel. In addition, feature sets have been replaced with connectivity footprint and reliability.

“We now have the PSTN switch off which accounts for 28 million analogue lines, many underpinning ADSL connections. This is a forced change, the whole of the UK will be end-to-end IP by the end of 2025, and this will generate renewed interest in the lower end of the market. Any forced change generates additional business.”

Resilience

The resilience of SIP solutions is a question that channel partners need to prepare for, but those we spoke to said reliability is not an issue. Reynolds at Xelion UK, said, “SIP trunking is now very resilient, especially if the provider supplies it as an end-to-end circuit without breaking out onto the public internet. Hundreds of thousands of enterprises of every size now use SIP trunks every day for essential business communications.”

It’s a similar story for Merrills at Zapappi. He said, “In the early days, SIP was only as reliable as the connectivity it was running on, which was for the most part low speed ADSL. A lot has changed in the last 15 years, both in terms of connectivity and the SIP infrastructures being run by carriers and SIP providers. Those improvements have made SIP and VoIP key parts of telephony infrastructure.
“Other improvements such as diverse connectivity mean that this should no longer be seen as a reason not to adopt SIP over traditional SLA based products. FTTC and FTTP provide excellent connectivity, as well as the ability for resellers to provide backup using 4G connections.”

McCafferty from BDR Group, said, “It’s a tried and tested technology that isn’t as dead-on-arrival as many people assume. There are ways to combine existing PBX hardware and cloud technologies to provide customers with all the benefits of a UC solution without the perceived risk and uncertainty of fully switching to the cloud. This can be a great half-step to assure customers and prime them for the full switch in a year or two, before the PSTN is permanently deactivated.”

Riddell at Abzorb, noted, “SIP is extremely reliable and is far more reliable than the traditional fixed line solutions. It is an intelligent technology that can be routed over multiple connections such as leased lines, ethernet, DSL and mobile. Providing customers with higher availability, and more effective and simpler ways of management and moves, adds and changes. Plus, it has failover routing making it a robust and reliant technology, which is important in the increasingly flexible world that we now live in.”

Taylor from Voiceflex explained, “A data centre is the cloud. A tier one data centre should have uninterrupted power supply, if the main power is down the UPS kicks in within one min, if not generators kick in within five minutes. Two DCs last year went down for 12 hours affecting thousands of businesses. At Voiceflex we had to rethink our topology based on the knowledge a DC could disappear completely for hours on end. Connectivity and diversity are key components, a channel partner should consider this when looking at SIP and ISP providers.”

Benefits boom

The biggest benefit is that SIP trunks are at least half the cost of a comparable ISDN circuit, according to Reynolds. “However, SIP trunks are essentially a transitional technology allowing VoIP telephony over the conventional PSTN telephone network. Session Internet Protocols were developed as an industry standard for initiating and terminating telephone calls across an IP broadband connection. SIP trunks provide routing for phone calls from IP systems to the traditional PSTN networks and vice versa.

“Handsets sales have been in decline for many years and the pandemic has accelerated this trend. More people working from home has seen a surge in softphone use. What is interesting is that the demand for headsets combined with the current challenges importing goods to the UK has created shortages for distributors, resellers and customers.”

Taylor added, “End users are not normally aware of the SIP service provider as the channel is providing an end-to-end service, blending all costs into a per user cost. Mid-market and enterprise tend to get more involved, in most cases they require a main and back up SIP carrier, network and either level connectivity will be a large part of the complete design.”

Factors to consider

Education and awareness can help drive adoption. Merrills said customers are not always aware that the reseller has access to a SIP platform that’s flexible and adaptable to their needs. “SIP Providers won’t always know what end-customers require, but resellers do. If the reseller has access to the right platform, they can ensure they meet the changing needs and demands of the customer.”
BDR Group’s McCafferty added, “For resellers, and just like the 2025 switch off, it’s about educating customers as much as possible and giving them the time to consider what is best for them, in line with your recommendations.

“For end-users there are always concerns around ongoing maintenance costs and whether the reseller has a full understanding of the hardware, its capabilities and limitations. So, resellers need to do that research, present confidently and be ready for any unexpected questions to prove their knowledge and expertise.”

Riddell advised that resellers can help customers by understanding more about the their business objectives, the technology they have and what they want to achieve. He added, “This way they can design a communications solution for their needs and requirements. SIP technology is a great cornerstone because it is intelligent and flexible therefore can deliver exactly what the customer requires.”

Reynolds, from Xelion (pictured right), pointed to key differentiators. He said, “Unfortunately, SIP trunks have become a race to the bottom on price with little visible differentiation between providers, but quality of service and business class service level agreements are still important factors to consider alongside reliability. Many offerings include bundles which for some will be of great value, while for others a straight pay-as-you-go rate can make more financial sense.

“At Xelion we encourage our partners to include a quality SIP trunk and broadband service as part of a total solution with our hosted telephony service. In this way partners ensure the quality of connection, so our service offers optimum performance – any solution is only as good as the weakest link.”

Merrills said resellers are often at the mercy of their SIP provider and can only take advantage of a limited feature set. “Not many platforms place the control back into the reseller’s hands enabling them to provide bespoke solutions. When a reseller is choosing a SIP provider, they should be looking to see what that provider can do to give them control and utilise features such as voice applications and real-time routing decisions. They can then build custom OTT services in the verticals they service providing unique value adds to their customers.”

For McCafferty back-up lines for home workers that rely on their ability to make calls should be a focus. “As should the obvious ones such as call recording, on-hold music, reporting and contact centre add-ons. But equally, resellers should be looking at the wider end-user operation and recommending the managed services that encompass all aspects such as cybersecurity, site security and backup and colocation.”

Voiceflex’s Taylor concluded, “The market has changed from SIP feature and benefit selling, to topology, reliability, and commercial viability. The feature set of cloud-based applications far out way on premise technology. With a full IP network by 2025 SIP as a protocol is the only option.”

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