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Quality Of Service Is The Starting Point
To be successful with VoIP, solution providers first need to manage the quality of their customer's network by shaping network traffic. Tools such as Bandwidth Controller, NetEqualizer and Cisco Systems' P-Cube are crucial in determining the level of service across a network.
However, figuring out how network devices should perform requires a deep understanding of resource distribution across each device. These tools can only help identify some of that throughput.
The best course may be convincing customers that they need to get rid of their dumb hubs or at least figure out a way to circumvent them. These devices don't function well in a converged network because they cannot track or guarantee packets. The next step is installing QoS routers and switches.
Fortunately, with a hosted service, solution providers don't need to worry much about the service backbone. VoIP service providers can add more bandwidth at their end if and when a customer requires it. A hosted VoIP service just becomes another network device for solution providers to manage.
Solution providers only need to worry about two factors that affect a hosted VoIP solution—not having enough broadband Internet bandwidth and attempting to place the phone system on too large a network, which complicates matters considerably.
When it comes to broadband capacity, you need to check with the service provider. Packet8's Virtual Office only uses about 30 Kbits of bandwidth per concurrent call. This is an extremely small footprint that shouldn't impact Internet access for most small businesses.
Broadband Reliability Is Important
But solution providers also need to worry about the reliability of the Internet service provider.
"The biggest issue we're looking at in small business is how reliable their Internet carrier is," said Mike Russell, division merchandise manager for the Business Solutions Division of Office Depot, a Packet8 reseller. "If the Internet goes down, their phone goes down. That's always a concern."
When it comes the customer's network, priority should always be given to voice. The old rules of setting up networks can apply here. For instance, if e-mails are delayed, the impact is minimal. But if the bandwidth is low and users start absorbing the bandwidth dedicated to voice, it is immediately detectable by the human ear. That is not acceptable.
While solution providers can put prioritization on VoIP, they do not have to lock down the network. They just have to guarantee that the bandwidth is there when VoIP needs it. The limits must be well understood before deploying this solution. For instance, adding hosted VoIP on a 128-Kbit DSL network with five users surfing the Internet all day will not produce a reliable voice service.
Customers have to be willing to upgrade or be willing to starve the network pipe to get high-quality audio. Since packet prioritization is a service that many small solution providers are offering nowadays, it is easy for them to analyze their customers' networks before offering a hosted VoIP service on top.
Complications can arise when trying to put VoIP services on a large network because then you have to take into account bandwidth requirements of all the applications and devices. And many advise keeping the network to a minimum of 15 or so extensions. That's often not a problem for small businesses. Those companies with more than 15 employees are often working out of multiple locations, which simply means working with a number of smaller networks that can easily handle VoIP service.
In addition to ensuring network and broadband capacity is in place, solution providers have other opportunities for adding value. For instance, hosted VoIP solutions can lead to videoconferencing, which would require more bandwidth and more network services.