Finding your way in the world of telecoms

The Federation of Communication Services gives a broad look at the rapid development of communications in recent years, taking into account how users needs have changed.

How do you ensure that you have the phone service that suits the needs of your business?

Fifteen years ago, the answer would have been simple; in a new office you would have gone to BT and asked them to supply you with a phone line, or taken over the one that was already there. Ten years ago, you would have weighed up the different offerings between BT and C&W.

Then came deregulation and the Internet – today the world is a different place and businesses have options to choose between dozens, if not hundreds of different suppliers, who will talk packages and bundles, SIP and FTTx. It’s no longer just a phone line, it’s also your internet connection and your staff’s whole way of working and you will be bombarded with new terminology that can sometimes be overwhelming.

Since the privatisation of BT, the number of communication providers (CPs) has grown year on year – to the point where Britain now enjoys the most open and competitive telecommunications market in Europe, if not the world. We have the communications regulator, Ofcom, to thank for this situation. Ofcom took a deliberately light touch approach to de-nationalisation, and encouraged competition at the reseller level by splitting BT’s resale operations from its underlying network infrastructure. This enabled all CPs to access price‑regulated wholesale connectivity to the infrastructure layer via a legally separate subsidiary company – Openreach. 

Openreach looks after the network (made up of a mix of old copper and new fibre) that supplies the country, but different providers can offer many different options for bringing connectivity to the workers in your office or, indeed, those out and about on business.

Inevitably, with market maturity, demands have increased for greater customer control over Openreach’s investment plans, and there is greater concern about its continued relationship with the BT group. 

The right communications services
Providing telephony services to public sector organisations and local councils will usually be done via a tender process. Many government departments will be using the PSN Procurement Framework, but, however you approach a potential seller, it is vital to look at the underlying offering and the service wrap that is being offered to ensure that you are getting the best deal.

Many CPs offer bundled services, that is, they will provide your phones and broadband, saving you the hassle of dealing with two different companies. Some will specialise in either one or the other, and some will have IT maintenance services included.

Companies of all sizes should consider the needs of the users: are phone users desk based or mobile? Is the main internet use downloading information or is data uploaded regularly or in large amounts? Is speed of internet more important than the amount of data downloaded – or vice-versa? Do you carry out video conference calls, where good connectivity and low latency are important?

Phone options will be many and varied; using the internet to carry your calls (VoIP) means that remote workers can make calls and be called by customers on the head office number or DDI, improving customer perception and keeping costs down. It is taken as read that call menus, diverts, out of office and other call answering facilities will be included today, but keep an eye on the security issues (more later) and also be aware of what might happen to your phone service in the event of a power cut.

For broadband options, there are again many choices. High Speed Broadband, running over the copper network (ADSL2+) will bring speeds up to 24 megabites per second (mb). BT’s offering of Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) means that fibre will be run from the exchange to the green roadside cabinet nearest to your premises, but the last leg, bringing it into your building, will be on traditional copper. FTTC‑enabled areas will run at speeds of more than 24mb, often referred to as Superfast Broadband.

BT is working to use new technologies to get ever higher speeds from the last bit of the copper network: G.Fast will offer Ultrafast speeds of over 100mb. But a new group of providers is also entering the market, known as the ‘AltNets’ these are companies that will run fibre to your door and offer you uncontended, synchronous (same upload and download speed) fibre services often at Gigabit speeds (1000mb). Some cities are now working with AltNets to build fibre rings which will allow businesses direct connectivity to fibre and faster internet speeds.

The reach of the Altnets is wide and varied; deployments currently offer service to two million premises and are on target to reach 20 million by 2020. Solutions are provided for both urban and rural premises and the difficult to reach last five per cent by geography.

What can I expect as a minimum?
You may have heard the promise of ‘fast broadband for all’ made in the Queen’s Speech. By this, the government is essentially talking about speeds of up to 10mb (download only) and the decision to raise the current Universal Service Obligation from its current level of 28.8kb (set in the days of dial-up ‘narrowband’ internet services).

This promise is aimed mainly at consumers, but many businesses take the view that 10mb is adequate for their needs. Businesses need to define their requirements as clearly as possible, in order to get the phone and broadband connectivity to best match those needs.

You should bear in mind that where you are offered 10mb, that it is likely, in practice, to be contended by up to 20:1, that is, you are sharing it with others in the same area, which will slow down your speed of access. For business and public sector clients, making strategic investment decisions based on the promise of a connectivity level you many never be able to access in practice is an important consideration.  

How much will it cost?
As well as an array of service options being available, there will be a similar range of costs. Obviously businesses need to work to budgets, but packages provided for business are not going to be at the rock bottom ‘all you can eat’ prices offered to consumers which are, in truth, a loss‑leader to encourage them to buy value-add subscription sports or entertainment packages. 

It needs to be seen as part of the entire cost/benefits package, not just an end in itself. Prices may vary according to speed offered and/or amount of data downloaded. For the higher prices, you should expect to be getting better support agreements and higher levels of performance. When you’re running a business, drop off broadband might mean an entire department is unproductive for part of a day, and remote workers unable to function at all.

What about security?
You would not buy yourself a computer system without putting firewalls and antivirus software on it. In the same way, you should consider the security of your phone system. If you have a switchboard, which most companies will, either real or virtual, there are certain measures you can take to lock it down and ensure that fraudsters cannot hack it and make calls – for which you will be liable.

Look for a provider who will explain to you the security measures they have put in place and that you should follow to protect your switchboard from being hacked.

How do I find the right provider?
Hopefully this article will have given some pointers to the sort of questions you should be asking potential providers. Knowing what the needs of your business are will help you get the right comms package. Do not let sales-folk blind you with terminology – if you do not understand what they are trying to sell you, it is probably not right for you.

Federation of Communication Services (FCS) members provide services to businesses throughout the UK and are signed up to trading ethically. You can probably find one local to you and this will help provide confidence that you are not dealing with a large, faceless organisation.

Ofcom is the regulator for CPs and has various pages on its website which provide advice for businesses about what they should look for when finding a provider:

Further Information>