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microsoft teams, WebRTC

Microsoft Teams Phone System, Direct Routing, and SBCs, a journey. (pt.1)

Introduction

If you are frustrated by how difficult it is to associate external phone numbers and SIP services (Session Initiation Protocol, the defacto signaling protocol for VoIP) to Teams users, this may be of interest to you. In this article, I will break down my journey from initial research of Microsoft’s inbuilt calling features to the implementation of an external Direct Routing solution using primarily open-source resources. If you are a Microsoft Teams direct routing and SBC (Session Border Controller) aficionado, you might decide to skip this one.

We understand that Microsoft Teams is intrinsically connected to Azure AD (Active Directory) and Microsoft 365, and therefore requires licensing and some training to manage. It can be a complicated beast. That being said, adding phone numbers and calling would seem to be something that Microsoft would have enabled by default? I mean, why would anyone want their customers to jump through hoops to get a phone number for their Teams account? A loaded question to be sure, let’s unpack it.

Getting Started

Recently I have been helping some of my friends, colleagues, and even my son’s teachers get more familiar with Microsoft Teams. I am quite impressed with how far this product has come in recent years. The old Skype For Business app was never my thing, it just felt clunky, but this new Teams app, it’s pretty good! 

The one question I am hearing a lot is, “How can I get a phone number from my existing phone system into Teams?”. It’s been a while since I have looked at this but I was hoping Microsoft had a simple way of enabling basic calling from an external SIP source. I then had a flashback going back several years, I remembered that the process for adding SIP trunks to Skype for Business was arcane and wrought with utter frustration. I was hoping that had improved. Spoiler alert: it has improved, but not by a large margin, especially if you are moving from one Microsoft platform (eg. Skye for Business On-line, Or SfB On-premises) to Teams.

Setting up Microsoft Business Voice and Phone System in Teams

After a bit of research, and familiarizing myself with Azure AD, 365, licensing mechanisms (and Power Shell) and Teams, a few things became clear;

1) Managing policies & licensing is done via Azure Active Directory, the 365 admin center, Power Shell, and Teams Admin.

2) Teams user management is done primarily in Teams admin

3) Calling plans in Teams are fine but not what I would describe as competitively priced.

4) Enabling external phone services is not trivial. 

To expand on that last point, things get much more complicated when you are migrating from existing Lync, Exchange, or Skype for Business Online or on-premises deployments. Microsoft has plenty of information on the topic on their website, so I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details but suffice it to say, you really need a certified Microsoft shop to help you with this.

Enabling Phone System in Teams

To enable calling using Microsoft’s own phone services, we needed the Business Voice License and a Calling Plan license for each user. These are extra costs per subscriber over and above the other 365 fees your organization would need. Then, you can add numbers via the Teams admin console, but ensure you have the correct licensing and policies in 365 admin or you will not see anything. As you can see, there were none available… in the entire United States…

Most shops that are deploying Teams calling have an in-house admin that will know their way around the licensing. For this demo I am using a trial version of Microsoft Office 365 — Enterprise 5/E5, (you can get a trial here) so I can feel the pain from ground zero. 

After a bit more digging, I found out I had not attributed the proper license, of course. Once I had the configuration in proper order, I then saw locations and numbers. I added some numbers to the account and then provisioned them to the users. After a few calls, I was satisfied it was working as per expectations. The admin could pick some number, associate them with users and the number would propagate to the end-user. 

A friend of mine was keen on using Teams to make calls, as his team was using it daily for internal communications. What he wasn’t keen on was paying roughly $22/user (USD)+ extra monthly 365 licensing costs per user. Which is what spurred on this whole journey. Now that I knew what was possible and what it costed, I shifted gears to research any potential support for SIP trunking in Teams, something Microsoft calls Direct Routing.

More on “Microsoft Teams Phone System, Direct Routing, and SBCs, a journey” in Part 2, to be published next Monday!


I hope you found this article interesting.

If you have any questions or comments or want your own SBC for Direct Routing, get in touch via erik@snapsonic.com or give us a call 1.877.897.1952

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The lines between UCaaS, CPaaS and Cloud Communications are blurry


The various teams in your organization have similar and at the same time very different needs. Sales teams generally request integration with Salesforce and revenue operations tooling. Marketing, integration into toolsets like Hubspot and Marketo. Product teams need a feedback loop that will provide insights into usability and trends for customer use cases identifying gaps and popular (and unpopular) features. Customer Support needs integration into ticketing and help systems. Customer Success needs tight integration with success platforms tied to customer experiences and outcomes. All of these teams need reporting that delivers clarity on progress with established KPI/OKR targets in mind.

The implication here is that managing all of these well is a tall order for any growing business, but your communication strategy can’t take a back seat, it needs to be a first-class citizen. After all, it’s the first thing your customers will interact with to communicate with you!

Your cloud communications strategy will tie into all of your organizational disciplines, and there needs to be enough flexibility for your teams to grow. So how will you decide which providers or platforms suit your company’s needs best?

One would think it could be relatively simple. This process might start with one question; “Do you need deep feature integration and do you have developers in your command?” If the answer is no, your decision just became a whole lot simpler, meaning you should look at a turn-key offering. In reality, it’s not that simple. The lines between UCaaS, CPaaS, and Cloud Communications are becoming blurred.

Cloud Communications Platforms or CPaaS (Communications Platform as a Service) providers enable APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces for developers. Simply put, APIs equate to a toolset for developers that can be used to integrate features and functionality into web and mobile applications. In the comms space, this might be represented as SMS, Voice, Video, AI, Data Analytics, Fax (yes, fax still exists), etc. Some of these platforms also have professional services teams that can be retained for development projects. For some larger customers, platforms offer the best solution as it generally offers more flexibility and allows for a more tailored approach. The approach also requires more planning and coordination as services /features need to be built before they can be used. At the very least, a good customer success group is likely a requirement.

UCaaS / Cloud Communications Service Providers provide various services that are ready to consume by their business customers, there is no development required. Not to say that these companies do not offer APIs as well, many do, but it’s not what drives their business.

These services are generally less flexible. The providers that do provide APIs generally limit it to the features available in the existing offering. These cloud offerings generally take the place of several disparate systems, some of which used to be maintained onsite at the customer location(s). These services are the product of constant innovation in business phone systems. Early in the 21st century, we had analog phone systems that were circuit-switched and were bound by wires. Those systems either died or evolved into VoIP systems that were packets switched with layers of translation for interoperability with the systems of old. Now we have multi-modal and feature-rich cloud services that encapsulate Voice (desk phone, mobile, desktop), Video (single, multiparty, mobile and desktop), Text (ott + translation for SMS) and some form of Artificial Intelligence offering.

Even with all of these features, many larger enterprise companies require white-glove treatment with well-managed onboarding as their workflows and use cases can be complex. This means a CPaaS offering might be more applicable for their use cases, as long as the features are there to support all their use cases.

SMB (Small Medium Business) to SME (Small Medium Enterprise) seem to gravitate towards readymade offerings enabled by cloud communications service providers.

There are many great vendors to choose from on both sides of the fence and many times they are used in combination to serve customer’s needs.

As a demonstration, we can take a look at any larger enterprise customer that might have a need for a business communications system. It must accommodate administrative, sales, support, and customer success. They all will likely need Voice, Video, and Chat supplemented by some smart AI to help them reduce manual laborious tasks or augmenting their workflow. Many organizations have made a considerable investment into their customer workflow, including call center systems and networks and with that in mind, the customer is not interested in hearing about ripping and replacing equipment and networks. In this scenario, you might select a CPaaS for the call center component and potentially leverage a Cloud UCaaS (Unified Communications as a Service) offering for the business comms requirements.

Regardless of your needs, now could be a good time to be considering improving efficiency, optimizing and upgrading systems, and adding some feature enhancements. There are plenty of options and providers to choose from, all of which are competing fiercely for your business.


What tools do you use today and how are they working for you? How often do you use AI or video/web conferencing as part of your daily routine? If you prefer sharing your comments or questions privately, feel free to shoot me a text message or call anytime: (877) 897–1952 (Note: All calls will be recorded).

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The future of #wfh & distance learning

AI, VR, AR, MR at work and school


These new technologies will play a material role in helping teams work together. Today, AI is playing an interesting role in conferencing and call center applications performing duties like transcription and providing sentiment analysis, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Stowe Boyd recently wrote a great article, “The Fall of The Silos, The Rise of Self-Organizing Teams”. In the article, he states “The 2020 workplace will be more productive and engaging for workers and employers thanks to new technology that enables better personalization and adaptation to change, according to a recent ADP report. ADP posits that: isolated, siloed approaches to getting work done will be supplanted by teamwork; that the work experience will be personalized through artificial intelligence and other technologies, which provide employees with a “have it your way” work experience; and businesses and teams will become more agile as they strive to keep pace with technology.”

I have found a few examples of commercial offerings that support at least the beginnings of what Stowe writes, out in the wild.

Testfire Labs, a small upstart in Edmonton has created Hendrix.ai, a service that offers AI-driven transcription services that anyone can invite to any calendar event.

Salesforce is also making use of AI in a new service that has been recently launched at Dreamforce 2019 called Einstein Voice Assistant, part of their Einstein Voice offering.

According to VentureBeat, Einstein Voice Assistant is more than just a glorified transcriber. Users can update Salesforce records and create tasks using natural language requests, or tap Einstein Vice Assistant to navigate through Einstein Analytics dashboards and surface metrics like open service cases and performance guidance. Plus, thanks to native integration with popular voice assistants like Google Assistant and Alexa, Einstein Voice Assistant can deliver a daily brief of “key priorities” like upcoming calendar appointments and team pipeline updates.

Dialpad has also rolled out “VoiceAI” providing transcriptions and sentiment analysis, mainly for contact center calls.

Cisco is empowering it’s WebEx Assistant with more capabilities via their acquisition of Accompany. Cisco described a scenario to show how AI and the smart use of data can help Webex improve on conference calls:

When an employee walks into a meeting room, she is automatically recognized by the system, which reads her calendar, spots a scheduled meeting and asks if she wants to join it. The worker says no, she needs to call someone else first and gives her colleague’s first name only. Webex guesses who she’s trying to call, using data and AI software to cut the number of options for whom to dial.

VR at work and in the classroom

You can be sure remote work will continue to evolve as VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) technology becomes more accessible and less cumbersome. AR and VR applications already enable team members to work alongside each other in the same coworking VR room but in fact, are separated by thousands of kilometers.

Dataview VR — The Glimpse Group

An early example of this is Dataview VR (video), and Social VR (video), products created by The Glimpse Group, which are very interesting preliminary steps towards an immersive virtual office experience.

Matt Mullenweg (Founder of Automattic), had an interesting chat with John Vechey of Pluto VR about how VR will become the conduit for virtual coworking. Here is the video promoting the alpha release of Pluto VR on Steam, a promising future indeed.

Immersed VR also recently released a VR Coworking application, which I will be checking out soon.

We at Immersed are announcing the newest addition to our multi-monitor VR app, Virtual Co-Working. Remote professionals can now work in a virtual coffee shop (and other virtual co-working spaces) with thousands of other remote workers all around the world!

Immersed — VR Coworking

If we are going to talk about VR (Or MR — Mixed Reality), we can’t exclude Microsoft and Hololens. Now 4 years old, Hololens is targeting business applications as a core focus of the offering. Last year they made a bold statement about fixing Video Conferencing and referenced Hololens. This year, they demonstrated Hololens 2 (MWC 2019) business applications such as mechanical repair, medical training, and digital media creation. The most compelling demonstration was on a holomeeting concept, where 2 participants we interacting with and discussing a 3D object, although this capability is not available yet.

Hololens 2 — holomeeting demo

Another interesting example of MR (Mixed Reality) at work that is available today is Help Lightning. Check out their intro video below where they show a remote field technician helping an onsite technician troubleshoot an installation, very interesting real-world application:

[vimeo 259194214 w=640 h=360]

MeetinVR gets a mention here, I could not find anything on their offer but I did sign up for their early access program.

We have a ways to go to where the VR experience feels natural in a virtual office and classroom setting. Headsets need to be much smaller, lighter and more akin to AR glasses versus the VR welding goggles we see today. I am sure we’ll get there.

Until then, we have plenty of remote work and work from home tools to draw from to get the job done, which are getting better each and every day.


Please share your thoughts with us. Is your company pursuing remote work? If you work in a distributed company now, what tools do you use today, are they working for you? How often do you use video/web conferencing as part of your daily routine? If you prefer sharing your comments or questions privately, feel free to send me a text message: (877) 897–1952 (powered by SignalWire)

None of the ideas expressed in this post are shared, supported, or endorsed in any manner by my employer.

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