Is Hosted Voice Finally Ready for Prime Time?

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June 01, 2014
Telephony
Dan Phillips - dphillips@dare2i.com
DianeEstner- destner@sddsystems.com

I drive a car, as I’m sure you do. I know that some cars I’ve driven are better than others. Some are faster; some have more power, more leg room or more towing capacity. I know it requires fuel to make it run, and the better the gasoline used the better it runs and the longer it runs. I know it requires routine maintenance, but I can’t tell you what the engine block is made of, how much horsepower it has or what the gear ratios are. When it comes down to it, does buying a hotel phone solution require a different understanding than my knowledge of cars?

There are at least two answers to this question. Some hoteliers will respond by saying that they don’t need to know what’s under the hood to make a hosted solution work; they just want to know that it is dependable, will keep working no matter what and is a good value. Other hoteliers will want to know about all of the feature sets and if there are new ones that premise-based phone systems don’t have. They’ll want to know about costs, both CapEx and OpEx, and they’ll want to know how an analog phone will work on an IP network and more.

First, we might need to define what hosted really means. Some might think that deploying a hosted voice solution means there is no phone-related hardware required on site in the hotel. This is not true. The real question is, exactly how much hardware is required in the hotel? Some providers will state that their solution is truly hosted because the only hardware required at the hotel is a voice gateway, while other providers will require some onsite servers. If the hotel opts to retain its analog guestroom phones, even more equipment onsite will be needed. What hosted may really mean is that all telephony functions, including voice mail and call accounting, are hosted in a central location and that all voice traffic in and out of the hotel goes through that location. The ultimate goal with a hosted solution is to be able to buy voice as a service in an operating expense mode versus requiring a hotel to purchase expensive equipment up front and become a pseudo phone company in their own right. Remember Centrex?

Several companies over the last five years or so have entered the hotel space with hosted IP voice solutions. In the early days, many of these services were not necessarily favorable when compared to traditional, premise-based PBXs. Some of the biggest issues had to do with reliability. These hosted solutions relied on Internet circuits that many times already existed within the hotel, and were being used for HSIA to the guestrooms. There were problems with keeping those circuits up, with contention between data and voice, and with quality of service for voice traffic resulting in very poor sound quality. If shopping for this service today, one of the first factors to determine is if the provider is carrier class. This means that the provider ensures full survivability and network reliability that offers five 9s, meaning that its network is up 99.999 percent of the time.

“Switching to above-property solutions requires everything gets transmitted up to the cloud and back down. Popping up a guest check-in screen is fine if it gets delayed a half second or so – but not voice,” said Frank Melville, president of PhoneSuite. “A solid HSIA connection with plenty of bandwidth is crucial – as is a clean internal LAN architecture. We’ve seen several hotels implement a hosted solution without doing a VoIP stress test or architecture modification in preparation for a hosted voice solution. Quality suffered, tempers get short, and the customer must fall back to a premise-based solution.”

PBXs in hotels started back in 1984 so we’ve had decades of experience when making purchasing decisions. Maybe it’s time to rethink the basis of how we purchase voice services and what we use to calculate against the ROI.

Carol Guerra, vice president of global marketing for Thing5, said, “There are strategic advantages and long-term value created with (a) cloud-based solution set. The fidelity of data, ability to integrate smartphones and ease of customization of call routing provided by (these products) cannot be achieved with traditional PBX products and telephone services.”

Jim Bailey, director of business relationship management, global technology for InterContinental Hotels Group, knows there are options out there. “Strong credible hosted voice solutions are now available,” he said. “Ensuring that critical guest features (E911, wake-up calls, etc.) are survivable and securing a strong protective SLA agreement are paramount. I’m very pleased to finally see this shift in hotel telephony as a managed service.”

We are familiar with the different features, from two-line speaker phones to broadcast voice mail messages, from automated call distributors to programmable keys, and from wake-up calls and message lights to hunt groups and call busy routing. But, there might be a few new criteria to analyze before purchasing voice as a service. Some of these include survivability, redundancy, E911 (fire life safety), security, analog phones, existing equipment, hospitality integration, SIP trunking, future upgrades, scalability, Web-based call management, call quality, service level agreements and pricing.

The Bottom Line on Hosted Solutions
Steve Bearden, director, information technology for Marriott International said his company is all in. “Marriott is getting out of the hardware business and is 100 percent focused on hosted solutions for voice,” he said. “It has taken a while for quality hosted PBX solutions for hospitality to become cost competitive but that time has come."

Is it time to stop deciding on what technology you’re going to purchase and instead compare service providers and service level agreements? Rather than purchase one big box that has to talk to another big box in a computer room in the basement, is it time to strategically determine what cloud-based middleware will enhance your communications beyond what has been? Is it time that recurring costs are stabilized instead of fluctuating? Is it time to be able to change directions on a dime instead of acting like the Titanic? It is prime time for hosted voice.

Dan Phillips is a partner at Dare to Imagine, a company specializing in technology consulting for the hotel industry. He can be reached at dphillips@dare2i.com. Diane Estner is vice president global account sales for SDD. She can be reached at destner@sddsystems.com.

 

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Criteria to analyze before purchasing voice as a service

Survivability. Will the system continue to work if the lines to the hotel are cut, or, if the network goes down? Will the system include local battery back up?

Redundancy. What happens at the hosted site if the data center servers running your voice solution go down? What happens if the fiber is cut? What happens if the voice gateway in your hotel stops working?

E911 and Fire Life Safety. Is this a feature that is included? How does this work if calls are leaving the hotel and going to the hosted site before they go out to their intended destination?

Security. This solution is carrying your voice traffic over the Internet, is it protected? How secure is the data center from hackers?

Analog Phones. How does the system support legacy analog phones in the guestrooms? How does it handle turning on and off message waiting lights? How does it interface to the PMS to turn phones on and off? Do the housekeeping codes still work? What happens if a wake-up call is not answered?

Existing Equipment. What, if any, existing voice-related equipment needs to stay? Needs to be replaced? What if, for example, the hotel wants to retain its call center solution; will the new service integrate with it?

Hospitality Integration. Does the service integrate with hospitality-specific middleware to support and enhance the PMS and other required hotel telephony feature sets needed?  Does it integrate with a reliable recognized hospitality middleware platform such as Tiger TMS’s iCharge, or SDD’s hosted JAZZ Fusion?

SIP Trunking. These systems don’t use traditional voice lines like PBXs do; they use something called SIP trunks (session Internet protocol). How are these priced? Is long distance included?  How are international calls billed? How do we ensure that there are enough talk paths for busy times? Do calls from one hotel extension to another hotel extension take up a talk path, or does it stay internal to the equipment on site?

Future Upgrades. Are all future upgrades included in the monthly fees? Since the voice solution is hosted at a central site and is servicing multiple customers, upgrades should be provided across the network with no incremental increase in cost.

Scalability. If a hotel company wanted to put more than one hotel on this service, can the hosted site accommodate this? Could multiple hotels then share resources and drive costs down further? What other advantages are there in having multiple sister hotels on the same voice platform?

Web-based Call Management. Can hotel staff easily get access to call data, call accounting, night audit functions and wake-up call reports? If needed, can trained hotel staff easily make changes to call routing?

Call Quality. What assurances is there that call quality remains high on both ends of the call? Is it monitored?

Service Level Agreements (SLAs). What types of coverage are available? What types of response time? What is the definition of “emergency?” Is there financial accountability by the provider for any loss in service?

Pricing. Is there a CapEx required? Are the monthly fees fixed or variable? Are there differences in the price relative to varying service packages? What is the term of the contract? In case of termination, what equipment will be owned by the hotel? 

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