The Other Voice Channels

13 Sep 2010

The majority of voice systems are procured through indirect channels. The old term was "Interconnect," the provider interconnected branch equipment to the carriers. Other terms include Dealer, VAR, Systems Integrator, and Solution Provider. Yes, there are slight nuances, but for the most part they all describe channel partners that resells, installs, and supports voice systems. As a result of new technologies and the notion of convergence, several new channels are emerging. And these non-traditional channels deserve some recognition.

For the past 50 years, voice dealers were more or less dedicated to voice. They were heavily specialized around one or a few vendors. The specialization was two-fold; comprehensive certifications to deliver authorized vendor solutions, and broad experience with aligning customer needs to voice technologies and applications. But not all vendors require such heavy certifications, and the esoteric nature of voice systems continues to decline (auto attendant programming was performed from a telephone keypad in some cases).

Convergence is changing the model. And while most of the conversation on this topic is how traditional voice partners are transitioning their businesses and developing broader solutions, new channels for voice system sales and support are rapidly emerging.

Consider Toktumi, a hosted voice service. This isn't a name that comes up frequently in UC circles. The service gets high marks from the likes of eWeek,, and It works with a popular iPhone and Blackberry application called Line2, the New York Times wrote "It can save you money. It can make calls where AT&T's signal is weak, like indoors." If interested in learning more about TokTumi, check with one of its resellers such as Dell Computer., a virtual number service aimed at start-ups. Grasshopper gets plenty of attention from the media, but its largely off the radar of UC traditionalists. Deloitte put them on its Fast 50 Rising Stars list. The company has also been recognized by CNN, Business Week, and GigaOm.

The voice channel just is not so clear any more. The days of being able to draw clear lines between the various roles of the telecom channel are long gone. At best, use a pencil, but just about every layer of the channel's supply chain now has the potential to be competitors. Hosted voice technologies illustrate the point. Hosting voice is attractive to carriers, hosted IT providers, CPE manufacturers, even customers. Businesses have many more choices for their voice needs, and many of these choices don't have trucks and ladders.

Here are some of the emerging voice channels:

Managed Service Providers: Many businesses are migrating to a managed services model for their IT server and desktop support needs. Managed Service providers, typically savvy in Microsoft and Linux typically offer management and support services cost-effectively delivered due to various agent and monitoring tools. Data Network Group in Colorado transitioned from break/fix IT servers to managed services, charging flat monthly rates instead of by the hour. The company recently added customer premise voice equipment to its portfolio. Its customers can, for a flat monthly rate, obtain all the server, desktop, and telephony service and support. Data Network Group does sell telephony equipment, but prefers to package all the hardware into a monthly managed service package.

Internet Dealers and Retailers: There are two models emerging for voice on the Interent. The traditional box mover and resellers that create and support highly customized solutions implemented and managed remotely (see SuperVAR). While both extremes exist, these models are also merging. in Michigan is a good example, the company creates custom multi-vendor voice solutions with sophisticated automation and monitoring products. Only a handful of e4Voip's customers are actually local, and those that are - don't need to be. e4voip offers a variety of brands as well as a storefront. offers VoIP products from Cisco, Avaya, ShoreTel, Aastra and others. sells premise systems by 3CX, Aastra, Grandstream, Rhino, Digium, and Talkswitch as well as several hosted services and Polycom endpoints. now offers unified communication solutions from Avaya, Fonality, and Toktumi.

Mega Retailers: For the most part, the mega retailers are keeping it simple. Costco offers a key system that supports up to 20 phones. Staples sells several multi-line systems. Residential wireless multi-handset systems are increasingly found in small businesses. Several office retailers offer headsets and speaker saucer phones, some sell circuits and long distance plans.

Service Provider: The market for hosted telephony and unified communications is growing. Some of the CPE makers are creating special partner programs for service providers. Broadsoft primarily sells its solutions to service providers. The service provider space includes traditional dealers, traditional carriers, traditional IT hosting providers, and cloud based solutions. Platforms include off-the-shelf proprietary IP PBX systems, CPE systems optimized for muti-tenant deployments, and open source freeware platforms. As a result, the service provider space is a complex concoction of skills, capabilities, and "authorized" statuses that threaten to make the term "service provider" meaningless. Currently, a service provider can be a garage based start-up, a major international carrier, a cable TV company, or a specialized VoIP brand such as Vonage or Magic Jack.

Virtual Number Provider: This is a slightly different angle on hosted voice services. One that is growing in popularity and could ultimately morph with hosted voice and/or carrier services, but currently remains separate. Virtual number services such as GrassHopper and Ringio generally don't actually provide phone service. Only phone numbers with various enhanced services. These providers, which may provide unified messaging, CRM integration, and auto attendants - typically don't resell any hardware. Thus it is easy for vendors and distributors to ignore them. However, they do become the primary voice partner for their customers. Virtual number services usually reduce the need for on-site service and hardware.

Web Services: Google and Skype are also interested in voice channels. They are each quietly building business focused sales and delivery channels. Google's channel is centered around its Google Apps offering which includes a premium version of Gmail and its related Docs applications. The Google Voice offering, which was recently integrated to Gmail, is still not integrated with Google Apps, but it's just a matter of time. Skype just announced its channel program. Skype has a reasonably broad set of UC capabilities and intends to build a channel centered around its Skype Business Client, Skype Manager, and Skype Connect solutions. These channel opportunities are attractive to partners that provide custom related applications; in UC speak that's CEBP potential. Though its been a while, Siemens Enterprise Communications once demonstrated how it could become a web service by making its technology available on-the-fly via an Amazon Webstore.

What is most fascinating about these various channels is how separate they really are. Broadsoft doesn't exhibit at enterprise voice shows, and Avaya skips the shows aimed at IT managed service providers. Each of these models have their own forums, favorite websites, major vendors, and approaches to the market. In other words, these channels are not even directly competing with each other. At least not like Fords and Chevy's, more like Fords and bicycles and buses. The customers have more choices and as the adage goes, every business needs a voice solution.

These disparate channels don't speak the same language, but can all fill the role of the primary voice partner. It creates multiple opportunities and challenges for voice vendors, to straddle the various channels and attempt to meet the needs of very different go-to-market approaches.

Dave Michels is principal of Verge1 and blogs regularly at



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