- Enterprise VoIP platforms provide UC functionality in a single system - TechTarget
- G Suite for business adds enterprise voice, IT controls - TechTarget
- 'It's an arms race': Inside the war on robocalls - Yahoo Finance
Posted: 07 Jan 2019 12:00 AM PST
The telephone is likely the oldest technology used in most offices today. Many enterprise organizations rely on common telephone functionality as their primary form of communication. But, with so many communication methods available, some business leaders are questioning the need to upgrade and maintain their VoIP platforms as a mission-critical business component.
For organizations in the early stages of researching the need for a modern, enterprise-grade telephony platform, this is a great place to start. Let's first examine what voice over IP (VoIP) is and how it has evolved.
The evolution of the business telephone to VoIP
The first business telephone systems consisted of an on-premises server known as a private branch exchange. Original PBX platforms used analog technology and connected to the phone company's public switched telephone network (PSTN) using analog circuits, such as plain old telephone service lines, or analog T1 circuits. The analog PBX was later replaced with digital technology. This provided a higher-quality call and enabled organizations to easily add business-oriented telephony features, such as voicemail, conference calling and shared lines.
Right around the time phone systems transitioned from analog to digital, data networks became popular within the enterprise. Because computer networks used IP, while analog and digital PBXs used proprietary communications methods, it meant businesses were forced to manage two separate physical networks -- one for voice and another for data.
With few exceptions, most businesses today use a combined voice and data network that runs VoIP for calling. Connectivity outside the office commonly uses either legacy digital T1 circuits or more modern Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP trunks, to the PSTN using session border controllers.
VoIP can be deployed in one of three architecture models. First is the on-premises model, where an IP-aware PBX server is located directly on the corporate LAN. This model is similar to what's used in legacy analog and digital PBX systems. The second model is a modern SaaS VoIP system, where management, call and session control reside in the public cloud. Finally, some organizations are opting for a hybrid cloud architecture that combines both on-premises and cloud-based operation and management.
Enterprises trending toward mobile-first methodologies
As business needs change, so must the technology used to support business operations. One change that's evolving VoIP deployment architectures even further is a shift toward mobile workforces. Instead of requiring employees to work out of a corporate or remote office, mobile users can opt to work from their homes, a coffee shop -- anywhere they can access the internet.
Mobile workforces provide employee flexibility, improved work-life balance and potential cost savings for the company. This desire to shift users away from the corporate office has created a mobile-first mindset within the IT department. With a mobile-first mindset, technology decisions are made based on catering toward remote and mobile users, as opposed to employees that work out of a physical corporate location.
Previous VoIP systems were designed and built with a corporate-first strategy. Thus, we're beginning to see a shift away from on-premises deployments to SaaS and hybrid cloud deployments. Let's examine all three architecture models in more detail.
VoIP architectures: The pros and cons
Despite the move toward mobile-first technologies, on-premises VoIP architectures remain the dominant enterprise deployment model. This architecture consists of one or more communications and session border controller (SBC) servers deployed on the corporate network. Desk and conference phones reach out to the VoIP communication server and register to it. Once a communications channel is established over the LAN using IP, local servers manage call setup, teardown and routing. If a call needs to be routed to the PSTN, the communications server will typically forward the call to an SBC that acts as the facilitator between the private VoIP network and the PSTN.
On-premises VoIP platforms generally have a hefty upfront Capex price tag, because the on-premises VoIP communications server, SBCs and any desk and conference room phones must be purchased upfront. From an Opex perspective, this architecture model only requires payments to one or more PSTN service providers the organization partners with to provide external dial tone to the rest of the world. Additionally, most enterprise organizations will opt to purchase hardware and software support plans from the VoIP vendor they choose to deploy.
Large companies that can benefit from economies of scale are most likely to purchase, implement and operate their entire VoIP platform on premises. That means the IT department likely operates one or more private data centers and hires well-trained staff in the area of VoIP administration. On-premises systems also benefit from having most users working within the local LAN, as opposed to working remotely. Because remote users are required to access the VoIP communication server that's managed within the local LAN, they must access the corporate network using technologies such as IPSec or Secure Sockets Layer virtual private network (VPN).
Lastly, all security surrounding the VoIP platform is fully developed, deployed and maintained by corporate staff. Larger organizations sometimes prefer to manage data security themselves, as opposed to relying on a third-party.
SaaS VoIP architectures, on the other hand, provide opposing pros and cons when compared to on-premises counterparts. For one, because the communication server resides in a public cloud, businesses don't have to pay for communications servers or SBCs as an upfront capital expense. Instead, they pay for user licenses as a monthly, annual or multiyear operational expense. The cloud provider manages the necessary VoIP servers as part of the license agreement.
Another benefit of a SaaS model is administration duties are significantly reduced. With on-premises products, an IT department must hire one or more VoIP admins to manage the day-to-day operations of the telephony system, including firmware updates, platform patching and internal call-routing configurations. All of these tasks are offloaded to the VoIP service provider in a SaaS model. Additionally, all platform security is managed by the provider. This can be beneficial for companies that don't have the required in-house skills to do it themselves.
That said, in the long term, as a company grows and requires more licenses, there will come a point where the cost of paying for a SaaS VoIP will become noticeably more expensive. Therefore, small and midsize organizations gain the most benefit using a SaaS model when looking solely at price.
Cloud-based VoIP platforms are more mobile-friendly compared with on-premises systems. Capabilities such as call signaling, setup and routing are handled by a server located on the public internet, so it really doesn't matter where end users reside. Nor is any type of remote-access VPN required. Additionally, most cloud-based VoIP services specifically cater to users on the go, with features such as softphone apps that can be downloaded and installed directly onto smartphones and tablets. While softphones are really nothing new, added care has been put into SaaS VoIP platforms for companies seeking a mobile-first strategy.
Clearly, there are benefits with either the on-premises or SaaS VoIP architecture models. In some instances, however, a business finds a combination of the two models is best. This is known as a hybrid cloud VoIP architecture. Midsize businesses that can benefit from economies of scale -- yet prefer a cloud-managed model -- are likely to choose this architecture.
In a hybrid model, the communications server still resides on the corporate LAN. However, the hybrid model provides many of the cloud administration and remote user benefits found in the cloud model. Additionally, much of the underlying infrastructure security is handled solely by the service provider, while some VoIP platform security options can be managed by the customer. Thus, hybrid models bridge the gap for companies that don't fit perfectly into on-premises or SaaS products.
The market for VoIP platforms
Voice telephony using VoIP technologies is simply one communication method in a much larger unified communications (UC) portfolio platform that most enterprise vendors offer. Other communications tools and application integrations may include the following:
The current UC market has split into two major groups that offer on-premises and SaaS deployments. VoIP vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Avaya and NEC have well-established on-premises VoIP product platforms. While these vendors may also offer SaaS or hybrid cloud options, they aren't considered major players at this time in the cloud collaboration space.
Newer entrants into the VoIP market, such as 8x8, Fuze, Microsoft, RingCentral and Unify, are all looking to establish themselves in the SaaS VoIP market. The SaaS market is driving new innovation -- and new revenue streams -- and is where the most competition resides today.
Cisco and Mitel are two vendors that have well-established and popular platforms that cater to those seeking on-premises or cloud deployment models. Both vendors have been in the enterprise VoIP space for decades and timed the SaaS and hybrid markets appropriately to provide customers with a cloud offering that rival the new upstarts.
Voice communication continues to maintain its mission-critical status in the enterprise, despite the plethora of add-on collaboration tools available, such as chat and web meetings. In most cases, a robust and flexible VoIP platform as part of a full suite of UC tools is an absolute must-have.
Posted: 11 Apr 2019 12:00 AM PDT
Google has launched a business phone system and released in beta several enhancements to its products for collaboration, messaging and web conferencing in G Suite for business.
The introduction of Google Voice for G Suite at this week's Google Cloud Next conference plugs a gap in the vendor's enterprise portfolio. At launch, the cloud service offers fewer features -- and comes with a smaller partner ecosystem -- than telephony systems in Microsoft Office 365.
Google has certified one series of IP desk phones for Google Voice: the VVX series from Poly -- formerly Plantronics and Polycom. Because it offers only basic features, the service should appeal to small businesses and small teams within a larger company.
Google's voice service supports voicemail transcription, call forwarding, auto attendants and e-discovery. It also gives IT administrators a console for managing phone numbers and tracking usage.
Google Voice for G Suite is available in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland and Austria.
G Suite for business adds data residency, IT controls
Although G Suite fares well in the small-business market, Google has struggled to win enterprise contracts against competition from Office 365.
One weakness of G Suite for business had been that it did not give enterprises control over where to store their data. That changed this week with the launch of data regions for G Suite, a feature introduced in the preview last summer. Businesses can now distribute storage of their data globally, or keep it on specific servers in the United States and Europe.
"The most interesting feature for large companies will be the data region capability," said Jeffrey Mann, analyst at Gartner. "Not being able to define where their data is stored has been a major objection for G Suite."
Google still needs to show its products can work for enterprises with a mix of cloud and premise-based technology, said TJ Keitt, analyst at Forrester Research. Microsoft, in contrast, has already proven itself to businesses.
"Part of the challenge for Google has always been how IT departments within larger companies view Google's offerings, versus what they're familiar with from a company like Microsoft," Keitt said.
Hangouts Meet, Hangouts Chat and Google Assistant
Google added live captioning to its web conferencing platform, Hangouts Meet, and said the app would soon support meetings of up to 250 people. The vendor also added to Hangouts Meet a live broadcasting feature, with support for up to 100,000 viewers.
Microsoft has said real-time transcription for Microsoft Teams would launch in public preview soon. Last month, it launched a live broadcasting service, with support for up to 10,000 viewers.
Google will soon launch in beta support for Hangouts Chat within Gmail, letting users IM in the bottom left corner of the email dashboard. Hangouts Chat -- a team collaboration app similar to Slack -- will replace the consumer-focused messaging app Hangouts, which Google has supported in Gmail for years.
Meanwhile, Google has added the AI voice interface Google Assistant to the G Suite calendar, so users can perform basic commands -- like querying upcoming meetings -- with their voice.
"I expect that Google -- who has impressive AI [and] machine learning, is now sharing a much stronger narrative and has added new enterprise customers -- will continue to make a more compelling case for enterprise consideration," said Wayne Kurtzman, analyst at IDC.
Posted: 08 Mar 2019 12:00 AM PST
I got a call from an unknown number this week. I always send them to voicemail, where they leave me "an important message" about how they can lower my APR or get me an amazing business loan.
But this one was different. It was a real person and he said, "you called me!"
I was confused. I hadn't called him, but I've written about the plague of robocalling enough to know that a spammer must have spoofed my caller ID when they called him. (Spoofing is when someone calls you using a number that looks familiar but is actually fake.) I called him back and we talked about it for a moment. He said he had called "me" back because he thought it might be important given our numbers had the same area code.
Robocalls have always been annoying, but this felt like it had crossed a line by impersonating me through my number.
This happens a lot. According to data communications firm Transaction Network Services, one in 4,000 people will have their number hijacked by robocallers, which leaves many of them feeling like they have to change their numbers.
Because of all of this madness, fewer people are answering unknown numbers. The phone has just cried wolf too many times.
Add-on anti-spam tools from companies like Nomorobo or YouMail or the other 80-plus apps and tools may work well for some people. And businesses are rolling out a special caller ID with more information. But anyone who owns a phone awaits the day when a full, automatic network-based solution will stop annoying calls.
The big question: when is this finally going to happen?
First off, it could be a whole lot worse
"There's not now or will ever be a single silver bullet solution to this problem," says Kevin Rupy, vice president of law and policy at USTelecom. One of Rupy's big tasks these days at the trade group is essentially to fight robocalls. In his spare time, he has a group that helps phone providers trace back illegal callers and refers them to the FCC for fines.
Though it may not seem like it, carriers, industry groups, the FCC, and the FTC are making a difference. As Rupy puts it, "It's an arms race." We may be getting more and more irritating trash calls, but a higher percentage is being blocked as the industry evolves and adapts.
Various different spam identification and blocking technologies are in place across the industry at different levels, often in partnership with specialized companies that can closely track the shifts.
"I think what's really important is that a lot of voice providers are now partnering with these app service providers to deploy these services not at the consumer level [like apps you can download] but at the network level, by the carrier embedding these services with their offerings," Rupy says. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, for example, all partner with services that help label and/or block spam calls, like Hiya, First Orion, and Sequint.
A portion of the industry's power has come from the government's newfound priorities. In November 2017, the FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai, who has made fighting robocalls his mission, gave phone companies permission to block four types of calls.
The first type are calls from inbound-only numbers. For example, the IRS never calls out on some of the phone numbers it uses. So any call made with that caller ID can automatically be considered fraudulent. Other kinds that can now be blocked: invalid, ridiculous numbers in weird formats or clearly fake numbers like 1-000-000-0000 or 1234567 can be canceled. The last two kinds of blockable calls: numbers that haven't been allocated to carriers and numbers carriers haven't yet assigned.
"If those numbers haven't been allocated, they shouldn't be making phone calls," says Rupy. So far, tons of these calls and numbers have been blocked by major carriers, preventing at least a portion of harmful IRS scams.
This is not as good as it sounds, an industry insider told Yahoo Finance. Despite the amount of media attention, there really aren't that many big, large scale scam/spam campaigns for things like the IRS or others, so the impact is small.
Furthermore, number allocation and assigning is bureaucratic and potentially slow, meaning that a number may be thought of as "unassigned" or "unallocated" by one system while being completely legitimate and actually belongs to a teacher in Nebraska. Since many carriers want to avoid these unintended consequences, they're less willing to block.
The blocking permission also leads to another question: when do you block? Perhaps there is a consensus around scam calls. But annoying, legal calls from politicians or telemarketers? How do you make sure a school closing call isn't considered an unwanted robocall?
The whack-a-mole situation
In March 2017, T-Mobile became the first major carrier to launch a blocking assault on robocalls with a network-level tool that screened and blocked calls.
"We were the first, and for a long time the only, major wireless provider to deliver free scam protection to all our [non-prepaid] customers with Scam ID and Scam Block," T-Mobile spokesperson Katie Recken told Yahoo Finance. (AT&T says this is "inaccurate" because it launched AT&T Call Protect in December 2016.)
These products told customers automatically when a call is likely to be spam, and the blocking feature simply allowed a user to block all the suspected calls.
Soon after T-Mobile's innovation, however, something happened.
There had been plenty of neighborhood spoofing before, with scammers faking caller ID so it looks like they have your area code and possibly also your central office (the second three digits in a phone number).
But after T-Mobile started blocking millions upon millions of spam calls, neighborhood spoofing appeared to evolve into something far more advanced.
"Verizon estimates that for its wireline and wireless networks between March 2017 and August 2017, neighborhood calling patterns increased by approximately eightfold," the company wrote in a letter to the FCC. (Verizon is the parent company of Yahoo Finance.)
The company told the FCC its hypothesis: bad actors were able to bypass blocking techniques by spoofing the last four digits of the outgoing caller ID number with random numbers. In addition to the neighborhood spoofed area code and central office code, the random numbers made it far more difficult to stop — some numbers are used just once.
Like a mutating virus, spammers evolved to conquer the barriers put in place.
This explosion in neighborhood spoofing aggravated the problem significantly. According to one industry source, Voice-over-IP-protocol (VoIP) has made spoofing so easy that some spoofers use a different number for each call. And with so many randomized numbers flying around similar to real area codes, the chances of hijacking some unsuspecting customer's number also exploded — that's what happened to me and so many others.
Because the numbers aren't actually owned and operated by the scammers, this makes blocking far more difficult. For example, my number has been used to make spam calls, but it would be a disaster for me if Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and the others decided my number was spam and put it on the blacklist.
One industry insider at a large carrier told Yahoo Finance that fear of unintended consequences for customers prompted extreme caution when it came to blocking, without some form of authentication to beat the spoofing. Doing so, the insider said, could just cause the bad guys to spoof more.
The solution in the works
The playbook for solving the robocall problem – or reducing it to a manageable degree – has been written.
It's called STIR/SHAKEN.
During the Obama administration, the FCC organized a group of stakeholders called the "Robocall Strike Force." The solution that the Strike Force promoted was addressing robocalls by tackling spoofing. And to beat spoofing, the caller ID faking, which is not difficult to do, says Rupy, authentication is key.
STIR/SHAKEN is a protocol phone companies are being encouraged to adopt that uses certificates to verify that a call came from a certain phone. Essentially, a carrier "signs" a call that goes out with an encrypted key, and the receiving carrier decrypts it and checks to make sure it's legit. If the certificate doesn't match up, the call could be labeled or blocked.
The timeline for STIR/SHAKEN? According to a November letter to the FCC from Verizon, the company expects calls to be "signed" by the STIR/SHAKEN authentication technology in 2019. Parts of Verizon Wireless's platform are already STIR/SHAKEN-ready, the company wrote, and it expects the rest of the wireless system to be ready in the first half of this year.
T-Mobile is also on track, having announced STIR/SHAKEN readiness in November 2018. "We are ready today to peer with others that have adopted the FCC-recommended SHAKEN/STIR standards," the company wrote the FCC in November.
AT&T's timeline has it testing the exchange of signed calls with Comcast and two other anonymous carriers in the second quarter of 2019, and then rolling out the system to sign all wireless calls in the third quarter of 2019.
On its face, this sounds like the end. But a close reading of the letters shows the ways cracks could form. Just because one company signs its calls with the proper authentication doesn't mean that another company will sign their calls properly or bother to check the authentication from carriers that come in.
Other questions emerge, since it's the service providers themselves which sign calls. When can a provider not sign? What if only some companies cooperate? A call is passed off through many different companies and systems in its journey from one ear to another.
Some companies like AT&T noted these concerns in their letters to the FCC's Pai.
"It will take enormous commitments on the part of each company for SHAKEN/STIR to achieve its potential and restore consumers' confidence that they can answer their telephones without being subjected to illegal robocalls," AT&T wrote in its letter to the FCC. "The timeline necessarily is dependent, in significant part, on factors beyond AT&T's control, including coordination with other voice service providers."
"This is where the rubber meets the road," one insider told Yahoo Finance.
Verizon, in its letter, highlighted another issue – companies signing calls they aren't supposed to, after the framework is implemented.
"Some unscrupulous voice providers routinely look the other way while originating millions of calls that they know or should know are illegal,"Verizon's counsel wrote to the FCC. "Voice providers must have meaningful processes in place to void originating illegal robocall traffic or traffic that is unlawfully spoofed."
Though this golden solution exists in theory, no one knows the impact it will have. Will one bad apple spoil the whole bunch if most companies make a goodwill effort in its spam-fighting but a few small players look the other way and allow spam? It looks like we won't know until 2020. All we can hope for now is that it will be enough to make a difference.
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