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Telephone systems have evolved dramatically from the early days of public switchboards operated by humans. Due to advancements in digital technologies, the Internet and the rise of hosted PBX’s, telephone systems for business have more functionality than ever before. 

The term PBX generally applies to all types of telephony systems and stands for Private Branch Exchange which is a private telephone system used within a company providing multiple inbound and outbound lines, call routing, voicemail and call management features.

In essence, a PBX handles the routing and switching of calls between your business and the telephone network. A PBX is also known as a PABX which stands for Private Automatic Branch Exchange, but the term PBX is more commonly used.

In the past telephone systems routed calls over the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) which connects telephone lines, fibre cables, microwave transmission links, cellular networks, satellites and undersea cables to switching centres to allow for telephones to communicate with each other. A set of standards and protocols called the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) is used to create a dedicated connection between people for the duration of the voice call. 

With progress comes better voice for business

With the emergence of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), newer PBX technologies use the Internet to carry calls known as IP PBX vs. ISDN or analogue channels such as landlines. In the past traditional PBX technology and its functionality existed predominantly in the hardware, whereas modern systems’ functionality is provided in the software. This makes it easier to add more functions such as teleconferencing, video conferencing, Interactive Voice Response (IVR), integration with the PSTN to support analogue and digital lines, as well as VoIP protocols such as SIP.

What is SIP?

SIP is an acronym and stands for Session Initiation Protocol. Simply put it is a protocol that provides the signal for voice communication to take place. Without SIP you can’t make VoIP telephone calls, have multimedia conferences or share desktops, because it controls the beginning, middle and end of a call between one or more parties.

 

 

Functions of a PBX

The primary function of a PBX is to facilitate a professional process from answering a call, distributing it to the correct person or department and having the freedom to move between an organization in such a way that the client doesn’t have to call back to speak to different people.

A PBX is about connecting telephone users, keeping the connections in place until the call is ended or the user hangs up. With a PBX you don’t have to have one line per telephone per desk.

These days a PBX has become a tool to drive productivity by incorporating technology to manage the communication between clients and staff in a collaborative environment by integrating services such as instant messaging, voice and IP telephony, mobility, audio, web and video conferencing, data sharing, call control and speech recognition with non real-time communication services such as voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax. This is called Unified Communications also known as collaborative communications and Unified Collaborative Communications (UCC).

PBX’s provide many features such as:

  • A single telephone number allowing callers to be speak to any person in the company.
  • Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) which distributes incoming calls to specific employees or teams.
  • Automated Attendant allows callers to be automatically transferred to an extension without the interventon of a receptionist.
  • Call announcements play information to callers, such as company information or business hours.
  • Automated call answering, with a menu of options from which a user can select to be directed to a specific extension or department.
  • Hunting, where incoming calls are sent to a pre-set group of extensions or a pre-set numerical order.
  • On hold, placing callers on hold which waiting for the call called to answer.
  • Call forwarding when busy or out of the office.
  • Call waiting, blocking or do not disturb.
  • Recording customised greetings for any extension.
  • Conference calling.
  • Interactive Voice Response (IVR) allowing callers to use voice or keypad tones.
  • Internal transfer between extensions.

Types of PBX systems

There are different ways to deliver voice systems such as on-premises and virtually through cloud-hosted systems. It is worth investigating the various models with your PBX provider who will guide you to the right system for your business at the price level.

There are three main types of PBX systems: traditional/analogue PBX, Hybrid PBX and IP-PBX.

  • Traditional PBX’s are located on-premise at your business, using analogue lines and analogue extensions.
  • Hybrid PBX’s are also located on-premise at your business, but they have the capabilities of both analogue, digital and VoIP.
  • IP-based PBX’s exclusively use the Internet and can be either located on-premise at your business or hosted offsite on virtual servers.

Traditional Vs. Internet Protocol

Traditional PBX’s are analogue systems which use traditional wiring and are usually separate from your computer networking hardware.

IP-based systems use the Internet and are integrated into the same networking systems used for sending and receiving e-mail, web browsing, and other online functions. Using an IP-based system allows you to have all your communication needs handled by one provider, simplifying billing and support issues. With IP-PBX your data network is key; it must be able to handle the additional voice traffic and have the capability to prioritise voice over data.

Hybrid telephone system

Hybrid telephone models support older technologies as well as IP-based calling including mobile, landline, ISDN and VoIP calls. In the past telephone systems used handsets that connected to PTSN lines, modern systems now support SIP, ISDN analogue and digital. When choosing a telephone system it is important to ensure scalability, allowing your business to customize and grow into technology. If your PBX and handsets allow for analogue, digital and full IP technology, you will have a seamless transition to VoIP. PBX’s such as those offered by NEC are perfect for the small to medium business that need a telephone system that is scalable from analogue to digital to full IP technology.

On-premise Vs. Hosted PBX

Traditional PBX’s and hybrid PBX’s are always located on-premise at your business and come with an outsourced SLA depending on the contract chosen with the PBX provider.

An IP-PBX can exist as physical hardware or can carry out its functions virtually (hosted), performing the call-routing activities of a traditional PBX but through software.

IP-PBX on-premise

The biggest difference when selecting an IP-PBX on-premise is the capital outlay required – the investment in hardware and server room, as well as depreciation, insurance on the hardware and resource costs to maintain hardware and software itself. On-premise IP-PBX also provides you with the ability to integrate with other software systems your company is running and is ideal for bigger companies who already have the resources, infrastructure and bandwidth to host their own phone system, unified communications platform and VoIP.

IP-PBX hosted

With a hosted model, there is no investment in the infrastructure or maintenance costs as you pay an all-inclusive monthly price with a PBX service provider, who owns the responsibility of the entire telephone system.

With a Hosted IP-PBX, your Internet connectivity becomes the single point of failure or success. You need to ensure that you have the available bandwidth, speed and consistency required to ensure connectivity to the hosted system. That is why it is wise to have one provider responsible for your Internet and your IP-PBX telephone system.

Most companies are moving their telecommunications off of an on-premise PBX to a cloud-based system delivered via a Hosted PBX provider. In this article we take you through the business benefits of taking your voice to the cloud.  

Fully-Integrated Communications System

A report from the research firm Gartner points out that integrating a company’s communications with its everyday applications for business processes and workflows helps increase efficiency. Business tools that operate in the cloud are easy to deploy, enabling employees to stay connected whether they are in the office or on the go. In this way, the cloud provides a consistent business presence and helps to increase productivity with seamless access to CRM tools, email, instant messaging, voice and videoconferencing.

Cost Savings

Cost savings are a big benefit of cloud-based phone system.  Moving telecommunications off of on premise PBX to the cloud can be less expensive relative to monthly service rates versus that of a traditional system, helping to reduce costs and, ultimately, increase profitability.

 

Control Over Modes of Communication

A cloud system puts businesses in the driver’s seat, allowing them to pick and choose what features they need, with access to turn them on or off easily. Also, cloud solutions give employees anytime, anywhere access via a smartphone, desk phone or softphone to all their calling features. Even better, they can have real-time access to their critical business software.

 

Top Line Business Features

A cloud-based phone system would give small businesses access to the types of network applications that one would typically find at larger corporations. These include features such as a Virtual Assistant, Auto Attendant, Never Miss a Call or Call Center solutions.

 

Mobility and Ease of Use

Today’s workplace is increasingly mobile, and small businesses especially need to be able to operate from multiple locations. With a cloud-based system, small business employees have access to features that allow them to log in from anywhere so that they can be reached while on the go, giving customer-facing and revenue-producing employees greater control over their productivity.

 

 

Time Management and Efficiency

Web-based customer portals enable IT staff to manage their system more efficiently. With insight into the installation, service configuration, trouble tickets, training, billing and call analytics, this full access to a customer’s system and account allows them to spend fewer resources on project management and focus more on work that adds to the bottom line. Also, cloud solutions can easily integrate with other cloud-based applications, providing mobile employees access to all the features and functionality they need to work just as efficiently as if they were in the office.

 

Flexibility to Scale Up (and Down)

As a business grows, so does the need to hire new employees, open new offices and onboard new customers. This requires a communications system that can scale up — or down — as the need arises.

With a cloud-based phone system, businesses can add as many extensions as they need to accommodate heightened call volume, or, if necessary, simply call in to deactivate these extra extensions. Unlike traditional systems, businesses only pay for the extensions they need for as long as they need them.

 

Business Continuity

Working with a phone system “in the cloud” allows businesses to remain connected to their customers no matter the environment. A cloud-based communications system is likely to be unaffected by outside factors such as severe weather or other issues that may keep employees from getting to the office. With a cloud-based system, businesses can maintain a consistent presence — and access the tools needed — to keep things running smoothly.

 

Improved Customer Service

With the Virtual Receptionist (VR) or Auto Attendant feature, businesses can easily direct calls to various departments and even create greetings unique to a given department. For example, a business could set up a holiday greeting in advance (via the administrative portal) and pre-set it to revert to the non-holiday greeting on a specified date. It could also add an on-hold message about special promotions or commonly asked questions.

 

New Service Features Added Easily

During busy seasons, some businesses will add premium calling features to increase call-taking efficiency and maximise staffing. Call Groups, for example, allow incoming calls to ring on multiple extensions.

Call Queues provide a “dynamic waiting room” for callers that let businesses customize the on-hold experience and better manage call volume. Both help to decrease voicemails, missed calls and busy signals, enabling service to as many callers as possible.

With VoIP the system routes telephone calls over the Internet instead of the PSTN. What happens is that VoIP breaks down voice data into packets and sends them to the recipient across the most efficient Internet route.

There are some technical reasons why a business’s experience of VoiP is either good or bad.

Firstly, data is sent in packets and reassembled on the other side, however with voice the packets have to be sent in the same order as they were sent. Session Internet Protocol (SIP) allows for voice to be sent in order, as well as sent and received in realtime. In addition, it has to allow for two-way communication, not just one way.

Secondly, latency affects the quality of voice – latency is the term to describe the time it takes a data packet to travel to a local server and back again. This duration of time is known as latency and is recorded in milliseconds (ms). A single voice line travelling at 40 kbps must have a latency threshold of 50 ms. When sending voice through a wireless frequency or copper, it is much slower than fibre and therefore the latency is high which disturbs the voice call, often resulting in time lags and voice distortion.

Thirdly, Quality of Service (QoS) is required where voice either takes priority over data or voice is carried via separate connections.

Finally, the voice gateway either inside a PBX or as a separate gateway, converts the voice calls in real-time between the PSTN and an IP network. This means it decompresses the original voice packets into digital, then converts them into analogue so it can travel on the PSTN, and then back to digital again.

When choosing a provider for VoIP you need to ensure that high quality hardware is used with assurances for Quality of Service (QoS).

With a provider like Zinia our voice servers are on a closed private connection and do not go through the Internet, this means less hops are required to get to the voice server and back. In networking a hop is the number of intermediate devices data must travel between the source and destination. Data packets pass through bridges, routers and gateways and when it is passed to the next network device, a hop occurs. Because Zinia is using Layer 2 protocol not the Internet which is Layer 3, it provides a more direct route to the voice servers and back, which provides quicker latency, better problem resolution and stronger security. 

Small to medium sized companies

There are on-site IP PBX systems which provide the same high-end functions of an enterprise system at affordable pricing for the SME such as Zinia’s Hybrid NEC offering.

Hosted PBX and VoIP technology also provide small to medium sized companies with a cost-effective way to access the benefits of advanced telephone systems which were only accessible to large companies in the past. SME solutions like those provided by Zinia’s hosted service, deliver a PBX telephone system at an affordable monthly fee. This means no upfront costs on the PBX and no service, maintenance or call out fees. It also means your business can scale up or down, depending on your needs.

Selecting the right PBX solution can be challenging and confusing. How do you decide whether Hybrid, Full IP or Hosted is right for your business requirements?

To help you, we have compiled a simple scenario guideline for each solution below:

Hybrid PBX

Hybrid is always best for the simpler more price sensitive business. These businesses will get the full functionality of IP without having to spend heavily on user devices. Companies can mix and match based on the business requirements. For example, simplest users can get phones with basic functionality; a few first line managers get digital phones with a little more functionality or if you have a small helpdesk; and you may need a few IP phones for remote sites. A Hybrid system allows your business the flexibility and capability to change and grow into full IP as and when you grow.

 

Full IP-PBX

Full IP-PBX is for the business that has an existing network with cabling in place to handle voice. You may need to upgrade from older telephone cabling, move to a new location or have created a new network, whatever the reason your business can add full IP without duplicating on cabling costs.

Full IP-PBX is also for the business who need to implement UCC technology to improve productivity and growth in a collaborative environment by integrating services such as instant messaging, voice and IP telephony, mobility, audio, web and video conferencing, data sharing, call control and speech recognition with non real-time communication services such as voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax.

 

Hosted PBX

Hosted PBX makes sense for the business with very good, stable connectivity and that doesn’t want to outlay the capital expenditure required to get their PBX infrastructure up and running, nor incur any related costs. Hosted PBX provides a simple priced and budgeting model with no additional expenses.

Hosted PBX is also ideal for companies with a decentralized setup of lots of smaller sites (offices, branches, individuals). By having one hosted system all that is required is to add phones at the additional sites; there is no need to setup VPN tunnels with routers to connect sites to head office.

In addition, Hosted PBX also offers the capability to get the additional functionality provided by Unified Communications (UCC).

 

Budget required for PBX

Every business is unique with different requirements, therefore standard pricing is not available. Your PBX provider should be able to match your business need with the right product, with the right quality of service at the right price. When it comes to choosing a PBX, budget is a huge consideration but should never trump Quality of Service. 

PBX hardware and physical phones are costly and do require an upfront investment or monthly payment plan. However, the ROI can be high depending on your communication needs and the PBX selected.

Larger companies who need the benefits of integrating voice, mobility, unified messaging, presence, conferencing, collaboration, applications and more, require an enterprise system such as the Mitel Unified Communication offering.

Some PBX’s such as the NEC for small and medium sized businesses are easy to setup, manage and maintain, requiring no specialized resources.

Hosted PBX prices vary depending on the service provider and are based on the number of employees and the features your business requires.

On-premise VoIP also requires an upfront investment or monthly installment for the hardware and phones, as well as installation fees.

While IP PBX telephone systems require an investment in equipment and installation costs, over a period of time you may save up to 50% on your average phone bill.

If your business does not have the investment, resources or focus required to manage your telephone system, it is worth selecting a hosted option.

 

Reliability is key

Reliability is a key consideration when choosing a PBX service provider: you need the most reliable system for your business needs. Consider the cost of downtime should your telephone system not be available, what is the plan should you lose service and how quickly will you get the service back up and running?

With a full IP and hosted PBX there are no analogue lines, which means if the Internet is down, your telephone system is down. If the risk is too great for your business, you will need to build in redundancy. This means implementing two connectivity lines and routers with automatic failover.

In South Africa many companies implement a Hybrid PBX which enables them to have analogue lines as backup, should the Internet go down. In addition, the benefit of Hybrid PBX is that even if the Internet is down, employees are still able to communicate internally.

Your service provider should also have high a quality and robust data centre with reliable voice servers.

Your PBX provider should have the capability to supply and configure a managed device, such as a router or firewall, that will give priority to voice over data, should the load on your bandwidth become too great. Internally, managed switches should also ensure Quality of Service (QoS), giving voice a priority.

 

Availability of in-house, skilled IT resources

If you do not have your own internal resources, then you will need 24/7 support. Make sure you know how and who to contact for support and the time to respond written in your Service Level Agreement (SLA). In addition, you need to ensure that your provider has the skills and ability to do proper installations and configurations of the PBX.

 

Mobility

Most PBX’s come with some mobile functionality but you need to evaluate this against your current and future requirements. If you have a high amount of employees who use their smartphones or other mobile devices, you may need more capabilities than forwarding calls to their devices. With hosted PBX systems multiple offices can connect over the same system and not incur inter-office call charges.

It is best to choose a telecoms provider who has the experience to guide you to implement the right system for your business based on your needs and budget.

Research company Gartner defines unified communications (UC) products as “those that facilitate the interactive use of multiple enterprise communications methods. UC products integrate communications channels, networks and systems, as well as IT business applications and, in some cases, consumer applications and devices.”

Let’s explain that in plain English

Because there are so many different channels and methods of business communication, UCC brings all these communications together so that users can have a consistent experience across different devices and media types. This means integrating services such as instant messaging, voice and IP telephony, mobility, audio, web and video conferencing, data sharing, call control and speech recognition with non real-time communication services such as voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax.

The biggest issue when selecting UCC applications or a UCC platform is that companies often overlook the importance of employees. The reality is that people within companies often use their own mobile devices for work with their own cloud apps. And this extends to the desktop too. According to a survey conducted by Stratecast and sponsored by McAfee, more than 80 percent of employees worldwide are circumventing company policy to choose and use their own SaaS applications. What happens is that instead of company policy determining mobile apps and cloud services, individuals are using what they perceive to be better. This is what is known as Shadow IT.

The reason why Shadow IT exists is because employees have not taken to traditional communications and collaboration tools which are often difficult to use, lacking the latest features and behaving differently on different devices. Employees therefor turn to mobile app stores or unvetted third party’s public cloud.

There are two main challenges with this problem: security and data.

There is a security risk for companies because these apps operate outside of the enterprise data center, company security policies, compliance requirements and business analytics.

From a data perspective, when that data is stored in a personal cloud account vs. a corporate database, what happens to that data when an employee leaves the company? Or when the cloud app is purchased by another company? Data loss and the absence of data for analytical purposes can both be damaging to a company.

Unifying the user experience

UCC is therefore about bringing users back into the corporate fold, regaining control of your data, protecting company and data privacy, avoiding non-compliance issues and, most importantly, unifying users on a standard set of tools that promote better communications and collaboration.

The biggest success factor to a successful UCC implementation is ensuring that you provide a better experience that users will embrace rather than replace. It is about finding solutions that are simple to use, support a wide variety of devices and compare favorably with the cloud apps that employees are already using.

Employees wouldn’t seek alternatives if they already had a single UCC solution that provided the features they needed, such as unified messaging, intuitive interface, simple self-provisioning tools, file and desktop sharing, presence-aware IM/conferencing and the ability to make phone calls, video calls, send emails, start text chats and share files all from a single screen.This removes the need for employees to flip between multiple applications to do their work.

It also means teams can collaborate anywhere, on any device with the same set of tools and look and feel. In addition, collaborating with partners and customers outside the corporate firewall becomes much easier.

 

What features do users need from a UCC?

 

Unified messaging: Unified messaging allows users to access and manage their voice mail, email, and fax messages from their PCs or telephones. It allows businesses to enhance customer service with a sophisticated speech auto-attendant and call routing, and it simplifies ongoing day-to-day administrative tasks. A reliable messaging solution should fit seamlessly into your existing infrastructure and be deployed with third-party PBXs so that users on a mixed PBX network can be consolidated on a single messaging solution with a common user interface.

The Key features of a unified messaging system include:

  • The ability for message retrieval by phone or by email.
  • Voice commands where callers just say a name or department and are automatically transferred to that number.
  • Standard call flows and greetings in the same voice so that every branch office greets callers the same way.
  • Employees can easily connect with each other by speaking a name – whether they are in a conference room, in their car, or at their desk.
  • Ability for users to retrieve voice mails and faxes through the telephone or their email inbox.
  • Outlook plugin gives users the power to manage voice and fax messages from their inbox.
  • Provide fax senders with transmission status information to their email inbox.
  • For companies operating in a bilingual environment, the ability to provide service to callers in the language of their choice.

 

Intuitive interface: Intuitive simply means that a system is easy to use based on a user’s previous experience of similar systems they are familiar with. The user easily “intuits” or understands how the application works by seeing it and using it. While this is a subject much debated, it is really all about ensuring the UCC system you select is easy for employees to learn.

 

Simple self-provisioning tools: Think about self-provisioning as self-service. End users want to get tools by themselves without needing an IT person or service provider to do it for them. Giving your users some freedom, allows them to quickly download what they need without waiting for IT to respond.

 

File and desktop sharing: Users want to be able to share documents, applications and screen sharing on top of voice and video communications, to collaborate with others and work together on common projects. They want to do so easily on their mobile over the web without downloading any extra client applications to participate.

 

Presence-aware IM/conferencing: Presence-aware UCC applications allow individuals to connect quickly and easily with those they want to communicate with through a unified view of other user’s presence state; showing their availability, location and time of day across all their devices and integrating with their applications such as calendars, Instant Messaging, conferencing and telephone.

 

Single screen: A user wants to get the job done quickly and simply. Having one single screen to make phone calls, video calls, send emails, start text chats and share files, makes employees work faster – no more toggling between applications!

 

UCC in a single solution

Companies can deliver these features, and more, in a single solution, provided they choose the right UCC platform. In doing so, you will not only reduce the risks associated with Shadow IT, but also deliver on the promise of UCC:

  • Compete more effectively
  • Execute go-to-market strategies faster
  • Increase visibility into coworkers’ availability so issues get resolved faster
  • Connect subject-matter experts across the company
  • Improve communications with partners and customers
  • Provide better security that’s simpler to manage

 

In the past, companies that wanted a rich UCC experience needed to piece together various best-of-breed applications. This approach was expensive, time-consuming and, as Shadow IT has revealed, often less than complete. Today you have the option of choosing a pre-built and pre-integrated UCC platform that addresses all your needs, or that fits seamlessly with existing components to create a complete UCC solution. This pre-integrated, pre-validated approach frees IT departments to focus on what they do best, driving business innovation and productivity through new technology, rather than piecing together communications applications from different vendors.

An all-in-one UCC platform, such as the one offered by Zinia and Mitel, enables your IT department to be far more strategic, focusing on efforts that enhance the UCC experience to drive revenue and improve customer service. These efforts include:

  • Creating and managing enforceable security policies.
  • Migrating applications onto public, private or hybrid cloud platforms to optimize scalability and performance.
  • Consolidating UCC services to reduce costs.
  • Ensuring consistent access to UC apps from any location/device.
  • Providing training and troubleshooting as needed—but spending far less time on it than they do today.
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