Technology innovations tend to capture the imagination - and the headlines - but, says Lance Spencer, there's little point in providing bells and whistles if all a company wants to do is simply communicate first and foremost
Is it just me or is this decade just flying by? With 2008 just around the corner, it only seems like yesterday that companies were busying themselves with notions that the Millennium bug would wreak havoc on their computers and telecommunications systems. And God help anyone who was flying at the very turn of the century!
In between times, the subject of advances in voice telephony and Voice over IP (VoIP) has raised more crackles and jitters than anyone in our business could have expected. It's been nearly 120 years since the innovative American undertaker Strowger invented the telephone exchange, and just over a century later we are still finding more ways to fiddle around with his original invention.
Although technological improvements are being made for the benefit of customers, sometimes it's plain old telephony ("ah, POTs", I hear the telco veterans recall) that matters most. Yes, companies like to have telephones that work and furthermore they like to have telephones that offer the same experience they've had for decades. If their first experience of ‘new' technology is not a happy one, then bet your bottom dollar that they will shy away in future.
With a plethora of telecoms providers claiming they will help to improve business communications whilst cutting costs, it's a confusing picture for the end user. Poor old Strowger will be turning in his grave!
On a more positive note, the clever bit is that new and emerging communications technologies enable telecoms providers to offer end users innovative services that provide exactly what customers want with a whole lot else besides.
However, there's no point in providing bells and whistles if all a company wants to do is simply communicate first and foremost. This is particularly the case with smaller to medium sized businesses who now have the potential to get their hands on ‘grown up' telecoms technology but fear being bamboozled by all the complexity that comes with it.
Over the past two years Tiscali and other companies have been unbundling the local loop with a view to providing innovative services that end users understand and want.
For our part, we are on target to reach just over 800 exchanges by the end of 2007 and have a further target of 200 in the first quarter of 2008 to exceed 1,000. Beyond this the amount of additional coverage gained for business purposes is relatively minimal.
By deploying equipment in BT exchanges, it's possible to introduce services that provide the ‘basics' that end users need, e.g. a telephone line, but in a way which opens up a whole new world of telecoms potential if that is what they want. And in the majority of cases, once end users have confidence in the core technology, that's precisely what they ask for.
For example, Tiscali recently introduced an ‘all in one' service designed to enable resellers to deliver tailor made, competitively priced line rental, voice and data services over a single connection. WVLA - which stands for Wholesale Line, Voice and ADSL - is a wholesale, fully unbundled service based on the unbundling capability in BT exchanges. Resellers are provided with the line, full traditional voice services and an ADSL based data connection in one product.
It's the equivalent of taking the Wholesale Line Rental (WLR) service, Carrier Pre Select (CPS) and an ADSL connection all in one package. Resellers do not need a relationship with BT for this or any other part of the WLVA service.
Coming back to our head scratching end user, the key aspect here is that the user experience is exactly the same as with the services they've taken in the past. A degree in telecommunications network infrastructure isn't required and the commercial benefits are plainly laid out and understandable.
It's then up to the reseller to be as daring and as creative as they like, offering differentiated products to customers by expanding and diversifying their product portfolio. In fact, our experience is that the two go hand in hand. Once an end user is comfortable that the basics are in place, it's then a case that the end user and reseller can jointly discuss added value services such as IPCentrex.
Depending on the type of product offering, end users can then make their own choices about the level of sophistication and service required. For example, the ADSL component of the WLVA service is initially available in Standard and Business grades of service with the option of enhanced care. Product speeds range from 512Kbps to Max grade services. Voice is offered with a range of telephony features suitable for businesses and consumers. The line is provisioned with virtually all features enabled, allowing resellers to develop their own product bundles tailored to their customers.
And as well as creating their own product range out of such offerings, many features come free of charge to resellers. Combined with very competitive call rates available from wholesale providers, this provides resellers with the potential to offer competitively priced products while still increasing their margins.
Services such as WLVA are based on the latest Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) technology. This provides the ability to carry the next generation of data products, for example IPTV and telco grade voice services.
In the future, companies can expect to see the introduction of ADSL 2+ services offering speeds of up to 24Mb as they become available. There will also be investment in Wholesale Broadband Connect (WBC) as BT rolls out its 21st Century Network.
Another example of simplicity at the core is "Voice Ready" Broadband. Having introduced a ‘four line' version for smaller businesses earlier in 2007, we thought it would make sense to make the service accessible to larger SMEs so we introduced a ‘ten line' version towards the end of 2007. It's the first service to offer guaranteed voice quality over broadband with enhanced care and SLAs to support carrier class voice services.
Such guarantees in this service offering and others are important because smaller businesses (and particularly those at the ‘S' end of the SME spectrum) have often thought of themselves as being at the lower end of the telecoms pecking order. If as an industry we are to remove barriers to adoption then, as well as innovation, we must be prepared to deliver quality across everything we do.
Voice Ready is designed specifically for resellers wishing to provide guaranteed quality services to support real time applications such as Voice over ADSL, Video Streaming and Video Conferencing. ADSL Connectivity is ideal for service providers with an existing network infrastructure and who wish to overlay additional network capabilities such as Local Loop Unbundled services.
Voice Ready Broadband is the first service of its type to offer Service Level Agreement (SLA) backed, guaranteed voice quality over broadband with enhanced care to support carrier class voice services. The SLAs are on latency, jitter and packet loss, all of which are crucial to the quality of a voice call over a single broadband line. These guarantees mean that resellers can offer cost effective alternatives to traditional PSTN and ISDN based services.
Other benefits to resellers include low cost interconnection with network infrastructure at 100Mb, 1Gb and 10Gb, industry-leading product development of new technologies such as ADSL2+ and the ability to provide differentiated services in the marketplace.
As we edge towards the end of the ‘naughties', reflections on this past decade will show that despite criticism of the telecoms industry, on the whole we're actually pretty good at delivering innovation. Ok, it can take us a while to get there, especially if products such as Voice over IP are over-hyped, but successful change doesn't always happen overnight, especially where a monopoly continues to be untangled.
Companies of all shapes and sizes are benefiting from telecoms unbundling, product innovation, service guarantees, and perhaps most importantly the ability to present new products in a way that end users understand them. Now that must be putting a smile back onto Mr Strowger's face.
Lance Spencer is Tiscali Business Services Product and Marketing Director, and can be contacted via