A Sea of UC

3 Mar 2013

I attended the Channel Partners conference in Las Vegas last week. This was my first time attending this particular event, but was not disappointed. Channel Partners is a well run channel oriented event. The theme is largely service providers and carriers targeting resellers and agents. The exhibit floor was an impressive collection of vendors and carriers with diverse WAN services and solutions.

As mentioned, I had not been to this show in the past due to various conflicts. This is a show of CLECs, bandwidth, and long haul. I focus primarily on UC. I really wanted to go this year because the cloud is shifting the boundaries between premises and network. In a word, UC is becoming "nebulous." As the service providers get into UCaaS, a show like this is morphing into a UC show. The exhibit hall was a sea of hosted UC solutions.

Channel Partners could easily be described as a UC conference, yet I didn't see a single premises-based system in the exhibit hall. Everywhere I turned was another booth full of phones and banners promising a compelling UC benefit. It was a sea of UC, probably more so than most conferences I attend (I attend a lot). There were a variety of exhibitors beyond service providers that cater to the channel such as manufacturers of phones, routers, and gateways plus distributors, master agents, and data centers.

Most of the UC service providers I spoke with were using technology from BroadSoft. This includes Alteva, AT&T Alliance Channel, Bullseye Telecom, CBeyond, CenturyLink, Comcast, MegaPath, SimpleSignal, Sprint, TelePacific, West, XO, and many others. Each has slightly different packages, prices, and bundles. There were other commercial platforms powering solutions too such as Ingram Micro-Cloud (Cisco HCS), Broadview (Mitel), and CallTower (Lync). Of course, the some providers exhibiting were using home-grown independent platforms such as Star2Star, RingCentral, ShoreTel Sky, and Thinking Phone Networks.

It is becoming very hard to truly understand and compare the differences between these services. Most of the conversation is about features, which remain fairly similar, rather than architecture or operations. Most use the same Polycom phones. Few publish any type of objective measures, share the number of 9s, or even their churn rate. Although SLAs are becoming more common, they weren't exactly visible or used as a compelling differentiator. Yet, all of these providers believe they are offering unique services (and probably are).

What is also interesting is this segmentation by conference. Lots of hosted UCaaS solutions, yet none of the premises vendors with hosted services (Avaya, Digium, Mitel, NEC, Siemens, or ShoreTel) were exhibiting. Although ShoreTel Sky did a host a lunch and learn session.

At a conference like this, the channel proposition, not so much end user concerns, are the key differentiators under evaluation, but those too were difficult to ascertain. Some are over-the-top, some are bundled with bandwidth solutions, some are bundled regionally and others nationally. Some include hardware, and some offered integrated mobile services. I was just trying to take in the menu, if I was a VAR looking for a business partner, it would be difficult.

I've heard an estimate over nearly 1,000 U.S. service providers are now offering hosted voice in North America. That means it is critical to focus on the differences, not the similarities. Not interested in learning the basics of simultaneous ring. Coincidentally, BroadSoft also announced its results last week, fairly strong in general, but the firm lowered its guidance suggesting growth is slowing. It doesn't appear the cloud is slowing in general, but perhaps the market is maturing, and maybe BroadSoft is feeling pressure from competitors.


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