Hello Readers, I hope you’re well!

In this post I want to talk about a new service which is available from about 22 providers currently. It’s called Operator Connect and it just became generally available.

All Operator Connect Providers

First, some background

I want to start by reminding you that there are many ways to turn Microsoft Teams into your telephone system. And by that I mean getting calls to and from the public, to new or existing numbers you own. These are (by their release date):

  1. Calling Plans – This is where you buy new or port in your numbers and let Microsoft host them and provide you with dial tone and the ability to make calls. This is now available in about 33 countries.
  2. Direct Routing – this is where you use a physical or virtual session border controller or voice gateway and connect it to new or existing PSTN lines or SIP trunks and/or your existing voice infrastructure, contact centres, local devices such as SIP phones, fax machines and more. Then you connect that SBC to Microsoft Teams over the internet.
  3. Operator Connect – This is the new service that only just became generally available after a short period of public preview. Operator Connect is a program for telecomms operators in different territories which allows them to provide voice services to Microsoft Teams.

You’re probably going to assume that Operator Connect is just Direct Routing for Telcos. And I guess that’s correct to some extent. However, Direct Routing is just a mechanism that can be used to connect an SBC to Teams. Literally anyone can do it. I have Direct Routing set up from two SBCs of different brands. Both are connected to SIP channels from one or more providers. I use it to test stuff mostly.

The barrier for entry for Direct Routing is that you use a certified session border controller from one of the 20 (at the time of writing) vendors. You can buy one and DIY it or hire a service provider to do it for you. You can put it in your broom cupboard, a data centre or the public cloud. Some service providers will even host it for you, either as a dedicated appliance or as part of a multi-tenanted service delivered from infrastructure shared between many.

And while you can use one or any of these methods to get Direct Routing set up for your business. You do need to be careful with your decisions.

The DIY approach

If you are going to DIY it, you need to make sure you know what you’re doing. If you do then great. Knowing how to do it is just the start. If you’re going to host that SBC on-prem you need to think about availability. So that means constant internet and power when you need it. It also means you need resilient connectivity to your line provider. And this always means you need multiple SBCs for Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery.

If you’re going to get someone else to do it, you have the same considerations if you put them on-premises.

If you are going to host in the public cloud, you still need to think about BCDR. So that means two or more virtual SBCs and resilient telco connectivity. This means you need SBC licensing that covers both instances. Hosting and running costs that cover both instances. And a telco that can and will allow you to connect those hosted SBCs to their service over the internet. And not all do. This is (they say) because they want to control the media flow and put it over their connectivity. And while 10 years ago I might have said this is crucial, I think its less important today. This is because your calls via Teams go over the internet in most cases. The only way they don’t is if you’re sitting next to a physical SBC connected to ISDN lines and using media bypass to keep your media local. And very few do this.

What about service providers?

I might be biased because I work for a service provider. But I believe that unless you’re an expert that’s done it a thousand times before, there’s no way you can match a good service provider at their own game. If you used to and have gone back to the enterprise, that’s different. But things change fast. A good service provider employs dozens of experts that are trained and certified and share their experience and knowledge within their own team. They adapt to issues and learn from each other. As new issues arrise, they are on the front line and learn to deal with it.

But, not all service providers are the same. I won’t labour this point. But I can’t stress it enough. Do your homework and make sure they know what they are doing. We’ve all heard horror stories and seen countless examples of cowboys out there at all levels. From small to large outfits and even some telcos.

In any case, there’s a lot to get right. The SBC configuration, the connectivity and the SIP service all have to be done right.

Calling Plans then?

While Calling Plans do make it simple and easy to get voice set up in Teams, you do have to think about the cost. Calling Plans are a license from Microsoft which is required for every user that needs to make or receive calls from the PSTN. It doesn’t matter how much or how little they need to make calls, they still need a license. Microsoft offers two main packages. Full calling plans which offer 1200 domestic minutes in the UK and Europe, and 3000 in the US. If you want to call internationally, you buy an international plan that gives you 600 minutes to international numbers. There are also smaller calling plans such as the calling plan 120 which offers you 120 minutes a month of domestic only calling for a discounted fee. These minutes allowances for calling plans of the same type are shared between all users with the same plan. So 100 users with the full calling plan share 300,000 minutes a month. If you have a handful of users that hammer the phone and the rest that make occasional calls, that could be enough. If none of your users make a lot of calls, the 120 minute plan might just be enough for you. It is incredibly helpful if you have your previous bills and know what you need.

The point is have a look at your requirements and compare the overall cost of the licensing to alternatives. If the maths works out in your favour, the next consideration is features. Calling Plans are simple to set up. Buy and assign licenses to users, reserve or port in numbers, assign them to users or services and start making/receiving calls. I’m paraphrasing of course, but that’s the gist.

While it is simple, that simplicity also means that it doesn’t have much provision for complexity. You can’t plug your fax machine into Teams, or your door entry phone or all of your analogue common area phones. For that you need additional hardware, like an ATA which connects to an SBC. And if these devices use the same numbers you just ported to Microsoft it means you either need new numbers. And new lines or SIP trunks. So you’re back on-prem, at least in part. So maybe you might as well have gone with on-prem in the first place.

Where does this leave Operator Connect?

I said above that Operator Connect might seem like another way to get Direct Routing. But it’s more than that, and less than that at the same time. Operator Connect is really a certification program run by Microsoft. Operators apply to join the program and start a process to get certified. I don’t know first hand all the hoops they much jump through to get certified. One requirement is connectivity between the operator and Microsoft. Of course you’d expect things like resilience and reliability to be there. The ability to support scale probably. And I would expect there would be a requirement to have a robust support service.

What’s in it for the Operator Connect provider?

They get listed as a provider and become available in the marketplace for a customer to choose. They also get to use some APIs that mean they can add numbers to your tenant and provide voice services almost invisibly. It’s just like calling plans in that regard. Once you choose your provider, accept their offer and they get you provisioned, it’s exactly the same. Your numbers show up, you point them to users or services and they can start making and receiving calls. There are no voice routing policies or voice routes to configure. Calling just works.

So what’s not to like?

Well I don’t know yet. I’m in the first few days of trying out an Operator Connect provider. So far so good. At least for me. I’ll be documenting my experience in a future post once I’ve used it for a bit.

I’ll start here though. From what I can tell, Operator Connect offers the simplicity of Calling Plans at the cost of renting some SIP channels and numbers, and paying for what you use in terms of call minutes. Some might also offer bundles as well. So on the surface, OC could be a lot cheaper than Calling Plans. The downside though is that because Operator Connect providers integrate to Teams at the API level, it means that they won’t be able to easily offer you any kind of hybrid connectivity with your PBX or your on-prem analogue or SIP devices. So you’ll still need something for that. So just like with Calling Plans, you’ll need at least some Direct Routing.

What should you choose?

I’ll give the consultant answer. It depends. There isn’t a right answer for every customer. All of them are valid. One will be better for your business. But you might need to mix and match. The beauty of it is that you can mix and match. You can have calling plans in one office or country, operator connect in a dozen others, and direct routing in offices that need it for complexity or regulatory reasons. You can even mix and match for the same office if you need to.

My best piece of advice. Do your homework and work with a consultant or a provider with many consultants. Document your requirements and have an open mind. Teams absolutely can be your PBX. And you have choices on how to make that happen. And now you have one more choice than you did yesterday.

That’s all folks. Thank for reading