*This is part 1 in a series of 4 blogs.
Considered by many to be the next stage of the direct routing and “Bring Your Own Carrier” (BYOC) revolution in communications, Operator Connect is taking the world by storm. Operator Connect is essentially a simplified way for companies to access the communication capabilities they need, from the providers of their choice when using Microsoft Teams as their UCaaS environment.
Operator Connect provides the operator with deeper integration into the Teams platform, so they can streamline the Teams phone experience for end users. The result is an efficient approach to networking, provisioning, management, and reporting via APIs.
By offering Operator Connect access, vendors can ensure they’re ready to compete in a world where Microsoft Teams is gaining extensive ground as a communication hub. Already, there are 270 million daily active users on Microsoft Teams, and the number is rising.
Leveraging Operator Connect, like accessing any new business channel, requires careful planning and preparation.
Here are some of the most common challenges our customers bring to us when making the transition into the Operator Connect space.
Challenge 1: Choosing Operator Connect Over Direct Routing
In the last couple of years, a growing number of companies have begun to shift their workplace “hubs” away from the telco environment, into a productivity and collaboration-first space. The UCaaS stack for many brands is now built inside of environments like Microsoft Teams, where staff members are already spending much of their time while working in a hybrid world.
While these tools generally offer internal communication solutions already, providing access to the PSTN is a different challenge. Though vendors like Microsoft offer monthly dialing plans, for most enterprise companies it makes more sense to stick with an existing vendor or traditional communication provider, offering TDM/SIP trunk support.
This rising trend prompted Microsoft to offer two methodologies to business leaders hoping to connect their PSTN through a preferred carrier. The first is to use SBC technology in a “direct routing” service. Direct routing offers a simple path to flexible communications, which is why the majority of companies accessing UCaaS through Teams rely on this path.
However, even direct routing has its limitations. Direct routing can have a number of complexities many businesses don’t want to deal with, from managing, configuring, and maintaining trunks, to troubleshooting common problems with integrations. As a result, Microsoft introduced “Operator Connect”, a secondary PSTN connection option giving customers the choice to integrate their own carriers into Microsoft Teams, without the technical challenges.
Compared to direct routing, Operator Connect offers:
- Service provider operations integrated into Teams, reducing the admin work for the end user
- Potential cost savings offered by a “pay-as-you-go” pricing structure
- More opportunities for growth with extensive global coverage
- Better quality of service and SLA solutions enabled by Azure/Teams data center access
Challenge 2: Operator Connect vs Operator Connect Accelerator
As interest in flexible communication solutions for Microsoft Teams continues to grow, Microsoft continues to roll out new variations of Operator Connect to suit different carriers.
One such new developments in the ecosystem is Operator Connect Accelerator, designed to strengthen the value and adoption of Operator Connect.
When Microsoft introduced Operator Connect, the idea was to simplify access to external communications for end-users within Teams, with delivery and billing systems from an Operator integrated into the Teams environment.
The challenge is this integration required upfront investment by the operator and it could take months to integrate. Service providers can have multiple operations and billing platforms spread across its platform, each of which requiring an integration with the countless APIs Microsoft has implemented to bring the Teams admin center and operator systems together.
When properly implemented, Operator Connect can automate and simplify the process of configuring numbers and billing between the service provider and Teams. However, operators are primarily responsible for handling the integration process themselves, which can be a significant workload.
The Operator Connect Accelerator Program (OCA) moves the challenge of integration out of the hands of the operator, and into the hands of approved partners providing SBC technology. Transferring the complexity to a partner means operators can enter the Operator Connect landscape faster, and more efficiently, with fewer potential issues.
Let’s look at the difference.
With Operator Connect:
- The operator is primarily responsible for all the integration and API development
- Operators are also responsible for all the onboarding activities for new customers
- You must work with Microsoft to complete a complex peering setup
- Operators are required to coordinate with SBC vendors separately for SBC setup
- The operator needs to plan for redundancy depending on geographical coverage
With Operator Connect Accelerator:
- You’ll receive a white glove service delivered by OCA approved partners
- Your partner will be responsible for handling all the application development, integration, setup, peering configuration, and redundancy requirements.
- Operators can potentially access additional support for application maintenance, network support, and SBC controls
- Operators may be able to choose to be involved with the overall planning and management of the connection
By choosing Operator Connect, an operator will incur upfront costs and months of integration activity before rolling out the service. However, by choosing Operator Connect Accelerator model, the margin will be eroded, which the operator will have to assess in the decision-making process.
Challenge 3: Preparing for Operator Connect Onboarding
As valuable as Operator Connect can be for communication providers, it also has its challenges. For our clients, time to market is a common concern, because the Operator Connect program requires a significant amount of planning, preparing required resources, and aligning coordination between different teams.
There are also many operators already queued up and waiting to get into the Operator Connect environment.
Many operators have the core skills for managing voice in house, but don’t have the resources necessary to create complex integrations required for a smooth Operator Connect integration.
The onboarding process requires significant focus and consideration to avoid common problems which could otherwise hold back your Operator Connect deployment and lengthen your time to market. Ultimately, operators need to:
- Conduct a geographical assessment: Assess the target countries where you’ll be implementing your Operator Connect support, the peering locations, and the required partnerships needed to allow for peering interconnection
- Create the right teams: You’ll need certain teams to support the progress into Operator Connect. This will include a development team for integrating APIs, security team to end-to-end security planning, and a networking team for enabling peering within the Microsoft network
- Network planning: Microsoft Operator Connect will only support certified SBCs, so evaluating your current SBCs and if they do not meet the requirement, implementing an SBC upgrade is a crucial first step in integration process
- Onboarding process: You’ll need to plan your onboarding process for Operator Connect, which includes going through the approval process and getting certified. But tekVizion can help you navigate through this process to make it easy for the operator
- Monitoring and support: Microsoft Teams is a CI/CD environment where team is continuously being updated. The operator provides the access side and support to the customer. Operators should prepare for some form of continuous testing of the service to proactively monitor and provide support to end customers
Challenge 4: Expanding Worldwide
One of the major benefits of accessing telephony through Operator Connect or direct routing for end users is the ability to access more global regions. For operators to stand out from the competition and earn a higher number of clients, it often makes sense to add as many additional regions as possible, to support a host of clients.
However, adding additional regions to Operator Connect has its challenges. The process will involve planning for each peering location, outlining the facilities required, connections, redundancy, and disaster recovery strategies for each environment.
In most cases, Internal Validation Testing (IVT) is also required for each separate country. The IVT will include basic inbound/outbound calls, transfers, long call duration, resume/hold, and simultaneous ringing scenarios too.
Anomaly detection mechanisms need to be included by the operator for the monitoring of new regions, to preserve an ongoing, positive experience. Continuous testing is also necessary for monitoring KPI and SLA parameters. To successfully increase their footprint worldwide, operators will need to:
- Assess markets for growth: Take the time to assess the available markets which may be worth expanding into. The assessment process can include looking at everything from potential partnerships to customer base, number of competitors, and available offerings, like Operator Connect Mobile, or conferencing
- Scheduling: Notably, operators will also need to be prepared for the fact that deploying new peerings may take time. The right strategy will need to be implemented to ensure companies can perform according to the correct schedule
- Increased API coverage: Increased coverage of APIs may be necessary, compared to the standard 4 mandatory APIs which are a must-have for onboarding. This will allow for better customer onboarding experiences
Challenge 5: Forecasting Growth and Capacity Planning
For any operator investing in the opportunities provided by Operator Connect, growth will be a clear goal. All operators will want to ensure they can reach and support the widest variety of customers possible. However, sustainable, secure, and consistent growth will require significant planning.
Companies will need to choose regions and countries for their expansions carefully, considering not just the peering requirements, but the local regulations and compliance guidelines too. It’s also worth considering the number of competitors in the industry, and how you can differentiate your service with strategies like:
- Exceptional onboarding: A great customer onboarding experience will help to ensure you can build a powerful foundational relationship with your clients long-term
- Service assurance: Accessing tools for the proactive monitoring of issues, peering circuits, and more through continuous testing. Troubleshooting will be essential for fixing SLA issues fast
- NOC team: Every region covered by Operator Connect will need to be supported by the right expert team, around the clock
- Additional offerings: Expanding into different Operator Connect environments could help some operators to compete more effectively
- Extensive planning: Before deployment, companies will need to understand the traffic moving through the peering circuits, and how they can prioritize specific types of traffic. VRF may be necessary to ensure the traffic is contained in the Azure network
- Monitoring: Ongoing monitoring will be important to maintain a consistent level of service for customers. Monitoring traffic, bandwidth consumption, and ordering additional peering circuits may all be crucial
In many cases, vendors will also need to invest in the periodic maintenance of circuits. This will help to preserve ongoing availability, allow for failover testing, and ensure better customer loyalty long-term.
Challenge 6: Preparing Variables and Planning for the Future
As the Microsoft Teams landscape, and Operator Connect continue to evolve and expand, operators will need to take a dynamic approach to success. APIs in the ecosystem undergo periodic changes, and new APIs will need to be introduced to cover additional functionalities. Operators will need to watch carefully for innovations relevant to their customers.
As new solutions emerge capable of delivering a better experience for your target audience, you’ll need to be able to implement these changes rapidly.
Delivering a consistent experience will also mean keeping track of document versions. There are several documents consistently handed over to operators to ensure a powerful and reliable Operator Connect program from end-to-end. Operators will be expected to stay on top of version changes and understand them as they occur.
When the operator is in the process of onboarding new customers, Microsoft will also mandate timelines in which the operator is expected to implement changes mentioned in the documents and new APIs. The operators must keep track of this timeline and work towards it effectively.
Looking ahead to the future, it will also be crucial to consider the impact of onboarding new users when implementing new Operator Connect features, like mobile and audioconferencing. Not all markets will require these additional options, but some of your users might.
The impact on the time to market may be significant. Additional configuration will be necessary for both solutions, and testing arrangements should be made. Operators might want to consider going Generally Available with calling, and adding additional solutions more gradually.
Powering Your Operator Connect Strategy
Operator Connect represents one of the more powerful tools in the Microsoft communication ecosystem today. However, like any new go-to-market solution, operators thinking of getting involved with this new concept will need to invest in significant planning.
Having the right strategy in-mind for how you plan on bringing your service to your customers, and maintaining the quality of that service long-term will be crucial.
On top of an excellent plan, the right support will be a must-have. Ensuring you have a team on-hand to guide you through the process of implementing Operator Connect and onboarding your customers will be a critical part of ensuring success.