Centrex, IP Style

New IP telephony offerings sport feature sets to call home about--and pricing that will let you do so, even if home is across the country.

July 7, 2003

13 Min Read
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But if you also want to access voicemail, place calls from your browser and gain easy Web conferencing and instant messaging capabilities, look no further than an IP Centrex service. For a small-to-midsize business torn between maintaining a PBX and outsourcing, the cost will likely be on par, but IP Centrex will offer you more features (for more on how to choose, see "The Business Case"; and for an overview of a company with a mix of Centrex and PBXs, see "Fidelity Matches Phone Service To Employees' Needs").

To determine just how far IP Centrex has come and what features providers are offering, we asked GoBeam, ICG Communications, MCI and Verizon to participate in our tests. Only Verizon declined our invitation, citing "huge" internal costs to support the test.

Service Providers' Top 10 Requested Appsclick to enlarge

Testing 1, 2, 3

We asked the providers to supply us with a phone and access to their switches so we could look at features and functionality. Each participant sent us a Cisco IP phone, though the providers support a wide range of phones, including those from Polycom and Pingtel.

Our worst-case test network used an unmanaged ADSL connection. We set up a single public IP address at the router, while the rest of the network was privately addressed with static and DHCP-assigned addresses. Because the broadband connection was unmanaged, the phone traffic had to contend with our e-mail, FTP and HTTP packets for bandwidth. Internally, the calls were forced to compete with NFS (Network File System)-mounted partitions providing MP3 and MPEG-2 files around the network.

A caveat: Because IP Centrex is still relatively new, coverage areas vary widely. GoBeam offers its service directly only on the West Coast but wholesales to carriers, including Verizon. MCI's coverage is nationwide. ICG falls in between the two, with a service area that cuts a swath across the country. As for pricing, most plans vary by region, and the price you pay will depend on your needs. For example, you can save money by reducing the number of included long-distance minutes. GoBeam also offers an attractive flat-rate option.

After making free long-distance calls to friends, co-workers and anyone else we could think of, we decided GoBeam has the best interface and functionality. For smaller businesses or those not ready for the IP Centrex plunge, check out "Don't Want Centrex?".GoBeam not only snagged our Editor's Choice award, it did so handily. Note to GoBeam's CEO: The folks who designed the service's Web front-end applications deserve a lot of the credit. Accessing the features of our phone was quick and painless. Everything is set up clearly with tabs, though we got a little lost while configuring the phone. Once the configuration was completed, we found using the phone less complicated.

GoBeam sent us a Cisco 7960 IP Phone connected to GoBeam's own phone system. The 7960 came up on the first try without any help from us. GoBeam was a bit concerned that our public address was assigned via DHCP by our broadband provider, but this didn't seem to bother the phone at all. The company also thought we might need to place the phone in the firewall's DMZ, but we didn't. Our first call was to GoBeam to tell it we were good to go!

GoBeam calls its Web application the Dashboard, and we logged in directly from GoBeam's home page--no need to remember a long URL. Once logged in, we could access all the phone's features with just the click of a tab. (Having a large screen helped too--we didn't have to scroll all over the place.)

The main tab presented us with the most-used features: How To Reach Me, access to contacts, conference calling and call logs. The How To Reach Me feature was especially well-thought-out: Depending on who was calling, it could be configured in different ways by instructing the softswitch what to do with calls. For example, you can have all calls sent directly to your voicemail. You can even leave a list of numbers for the service to try if you're not at your desk. This eliminates having to change your voicemail message every time you step out of the office.

GoBeam Interface

click to enlarge

Conference calls also can be set up from the main page of the Dashboard. We quickly created conferences by manually entering the phone numbers of the attendees, but we could have pulled them from our directory. Once all the participants were entered, initiating the call was as simple as clicking the Join All button. (The next sound you'll hear will be your own phone ringing to include you on the call.) GoBeam also has included Latitude Communications' Meetingplace for creating and attending scheduled calls. Conference calls can be created quickly by setting the date and time. You can also choose to have them recur on a regular basis.

Unified messaging is not forgotten in the GoBeam world. A Messages tab keeps track of your voicemail, e-mail and faxes. Each message can be deleted or forwarded. If the message is voicemail, you can click on the caller, instructing the phone to dial and connect to the person who left the voicemail.

For breaking down service utilization, GoBeam's vPBX service provides separate usage logs for each employee or telephone; an administrator can check these logs from his or her administrative account.

On the directory front, GoBeam provides a form that let us quickly add contacts to our personal or corporate list. For those who rely on Microsoft Outlook for e-mail, GoBeam has an Outlook add-in that connects the Outlook directory to your GoBeam directory--saving you a lot of work if your contact list is large.

GoBeam operates its own data network and has connections to major long-distance carriers. Office-to-office voice calls are kept on the GoBeam data network, while calls to external or non-GoBeam sites are converted to TDM traffic and placed on a long-distance carrier network at the first opportunity. GoBeam says it has plans to provide unlimited domestic long distance or included long-distance minutes per month, with usage over the included minutes billed at reasonable per-minute rates (see rate info at www.gobeam.com/html/service/flat.html).GoBeam vPBX, unlimited local and long distance starts at $36.95 per user for 100 users. GoBeam, (800) 278-7114. www.gobeam.com

We tested VoicePipe first and were immediately impressed with the voice quality on our unmanaged network. Although we did not rate these products on voice quality, we have to say that we were very pleasantly surprised. ICG's service is aptly named.

Like MCI, ICG sent us a Cisco 7940 IP phone to connect to our network. And like GoBeam, ICG connected us to its internal network so we could see the directly populated employee list. With the phone connected, we had a dial tone in a matter of seconds. Our first call--which came within minutes--was from an ICG engineer calling to see if the phone was working and if we were having any problems. Nope, it worked like a champ. Like GoBeam's implementation, ICG's service had no problems dealing with our network setup.

We had one hiccup, though, caused by the configuration being fat-fingered into the switch: Our phone could not find its directory server because the IP address had been entered incorrectly. A quick call to ICG had the problem solved in a matter of minutes, and we could see the entries created on the Web site from the telephone.

ICG's Web interface is even simpler to use than GoBeam's and offers much of the same functionality--voicemail, directory services and conference-call setup. Conference calls are easier to set up with GoBeam's service, however.

For reporting, ICG's logs lumped all the calls together instead of breaking them out into outgoing, incoming and missed, as GoBeam does. However, the logs can be sorted based on call direction, date and time, person or length.

VoicePipe Interfaceclick to enlarge

As for call management, we could set up particular actions based on the time of day for select incoming calls. For example, you can send calls to voicemail automatically, which is great if you don't want to be disturbed during customer meetings. ICG also lets you forward calls to a remote number, such as a cell phone number if you're out of the office, but it can forward to one number only and cannot try several numbers, as GoBeam's system can.

ICG began offering the service in Denver and now provides it in Atlanta; Dallas, Houston and Austin, Texas; northern and southern California; and the Ohio Valley. ICG has its own MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching)-enabled, OC-48 backbone and keeps voice calls on its data network as long as possible, even if the call is not meant for another ICG-serviced telephone.

VoicePipe, $4,398 monthly for 100 seats basic VoicePipe service plus a $1,250 nonrecurring setup charge, with a 3-year term. ICG Communications, (888) 424-1144, (303) 414-5000. www.icgcom.com MCI (formerly Worldcom) showed us what kind of IP Centrex service a large carrier can provide, and frankly, we were disappointed. MCI sent us a Cisco 7940 IP phone for our testing, along with an account and phone number tied to one of the company's test groups, but not to the rest of the company. This left the phone on its lonesome, with no access to an employee list.

Although MCI touted its service's ability to operate over Internet connections not provided by MCI, its service couldn't handle our connection without a little intervention. The solution MCI provided required the telephone to know the public IP address of our router's WAN interface. This normally wouldn't be a problem, except that our public address is assigned by our service provider via DHCP. Inputting the IP address into the phone is a quick process, but if we had to do this every couple of days whenever the address changed--and we could no longer place or receive calls until we completed that task--it would be a major annoyance. Neither GoBeam nor ICG had this requirement.

MCI's Web interface was rather difficult to get to because it required us to log in and then click on a link to get to the area for managing the phone. In general, we had to go through more pages to get where we were going. Once there, we were given a choice of seven buttons. Most of your users will use four main selections: the change options for Find-Me, call forwarding, and voicemail and phone-book access. During our tests, access to this Web site was slow, with pages sometimes taking minutes to load. MCI acknowledged the problem and said it is moving the site to different servers soon.

Advantage Interfaceclick to enlarge

MCI's Find-Me options rival those found with GoBeam's service but are harder to configure and use. Routing can be set up to locate you at as many as five different numbers, though unlike GoBeam's service, Find-Me can't be set based on who's calling you. MCI's documentation does mention a call-acceptance setting, but we didn't have access to it during our tests. Turning on Find-Me was a time-consuming process, problematic if you're trying to leave the office quickly. Calls also can be forwarded to a preset number or voicemail, though having this feature and Find-Me as separate entities seems strange.

Voicemail is managed and sorted similarly to ICG's setup, letting the user sort messages by phone number, caller, date, status and length. You can't see a log of incoming and missed calls, though. Also missing from the Web interface is a conference-call setup feature.

MCI's Web interface seems designed more for traveling users to listen to their voicemail and change preferences than as a desktop utility to enhance the IP telephone.

MCI Advantage, business-grade service starts at $35 per simultaneous call/line with QoS and $1,100 for a T1 of dedicated Internet access. MCI, (800) 465-7187, (703) 886-5600. www.mci.com

Darrin Woods is a Network Computing contributing editor. He has worked as a WAN engineer for a telecom carrier. Write to him at [email protected].Post a comment or question on this story.

If you think Centrex is your granddad's phone system, get a load of the new IP telephony services sprouting up. They offer a wide selection of features sure to boost your users' productivity; detailed reporting; and the advantages inherent in outsourcing, such as no PBX to manage and a predictable monthly cost. We think those attributes make now the right time to give IP Centrex a look.

GoBeam, ICG and MCI sent us phones, which we proceeded to use on a nightmare of a test network. We figured, if the quality is there in this worst-case scenario, most customer setups will be gravy. At the end of our testing, we found GoBeam's stellar usability enough to take the Editor's Choice prize. ICG had a respectable showing, and MCI's nationwide coverage area is a point in its favor.

Digital Convergence Resources

white papers & research reports

books"VoX Popular"

"It's Time To Take a Look at SIP"

"Dial 1-800-Plug Holes"Maybe IP Centrex isn't your cup of tea, but you still want simple-to-use packetized voice. There are several options available, from companies such as CBeyond and Vonage, that place an IAD (integrated access device) at the customer premises. Analog handsets are then connected to the IAD, which packetizes the call and places it on a data network. These services are designed for companies that have five to 100 employees and want to continue using analog phones while enjoying the convenience of IP. CBeyond offers several business plans for data, voice, e-mail and conference calling.

Vonage, which primarily serves the residential market, says it is adding more business customers each month.There are two predominant financial drivers for companies moving to IP Centrex services: increased user productivity, thanks to advanced features such as smart redirection of calls, easy conferencing and a single pot of e-mail, fax and voicemail messages; and lower support costs due to simplifying phone moves, adds and changes. In addition, some conventional benefits of outsourcing apply: freeing your people and capital to build the business rather than maintain a PBX; a fixed monthly cost; scalability; and no worries that pricey hardware will become outdated.


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