How unified comms rose to the challenge of 2020

Keeping connected has been a key point to business survival during the pandemic and luckily, despite the incomplete infrastructure nationwide, Irish companies fared surprisingly well

The pace of change we’ve seen over the last year in terms of communications has been remarkable

There may not be time to draw breath yet as much of the country waits to open up their operations again, but it’s worth reflecting on the impact the last 12 months has had on unified communications (UC) and overall network capabilities.

Despite the frustrations many have had over the year of lockdowns, we need to be thankful for one thing: it happened in the 2020s.

“Obviously, there’s been a massive swing towards remote working and there’ve been a lot of businesses who had to change their entire modus operandi overnight. Some of them were obviously prepared, some of them were not,” said Michele Neylon, managing director of Blacknight Solutions.

“A challenge for a lot of companies was actually getting their hands on equipment – because when things went crazy last year, there was a mad rush for things like webcams and laptops. Then, with the logistics problems, the supply kind of dried up and the prices skyrocketed. It made for an interesting few weeks.”

In recent years Blacknight branched out into offering broadband to help those in remote areas access a decent connection, but this year it has officially launched the service.

“We’re having a global pandemic in 2020/21, as opposed to 2005 or 2006. We’d have been in a much worse situation 10 or 15 years ago,” said Neylon.

In the mid-2000s the technology simply wasn’t there, particularly in relation to internet connectivity.

“A lot of businesses that have been able to survive over the last 12 months simply would not have survived. There’s no way they could have done it because the connections just weren’t there,” said Neylon.

“Nowadays, in most parts of the country, there are reasonable, usable internet connections available. Then there are all the tools that we have, from everything from video conferencing to being able to collaborate on documents using tools like Microsoft 365. A lot of things are much easier and much more available now.”

Fortunately most of us were in a good position to handle the technical challenges of a global pandemic, but the pace of change we’ve seen over the last year has been remarkable.

Three noticed this with its cloud-based UC platform, a work in progress which has been built over some time. Covid-19 has seen the platform come into its own.

“We built a cloud-based UC platform seven years ago and have been talking to customers about it as we’ve taken it to the market, and that was good,” said Karl McDermott, head of connected solutions at Three.

There was a good uptake, according to McDermott, but pre-pandemic he found the business was still spending a lot of time talking to customers about it, how it would benefit companies and how it would enable much more productive working. Progress was good but gradual. Then Covid-19 happened.

Nicola Mortimer, commercial director of Eir Business Photo by Chris Bellew/ Fennell Photography, Chris Bellew/ Fennell Photograph

“I’d say within a week, everyone knew exactly what UC was, they knew exactly how it was going to change the business. And anyone that didn’t have a platform in place put something in place very, very quickly,” he said.

“Suddenly mobility became the most important thing. And the best way to get mobility was to have a cloud-based service, so we were absolutely out the door then. It was the right product, in the right place, for what was happening at the time.”

Right time, right place has been the source of success for Blueface over the last year. The telephony company has experienced growth both in its personnel and in its business over the last year as a direct impact of remote working.

Moving your telephone services into the cloud can be a daunting task. Most would say their first reservation was about how secure the system was going to be – but for those who have taken the leap, they have never looked back.

“What Blueface does differently is we own and operate our own network, we have all the security certifications, meaning that your voice is your own, and no one else’s – no one can intercept. One of the most important things I think is making sure you’re being secure and have the ability to collaborate while not losing business,” said Joe Roche, head of marketing at Blueface.

One of the main issues of moving the telephone system to employee mobiles for remote working is the fear that people are always switched on, but it doesn’t have to be this way – with the correct system in place, your business hours can stay the same.

“A lot of people are getting business landlines on their mobile phones. As a matter of fact one of our biggest-selling products is our soft client, which is your business landline on your mobile phone,” said Roche.

“You don’t even need a landline, and it separates work and life a little bit more. It means that when you’re dialling out, people will immediately assume that you’re a business.”

This isn’t just an advantage for big businesses – it also transfers to the micro businesses that we have seen popping up in converted horse trailers or retro van conversions.

Having a landline number to call gives your business a more professional edge, while giving you peace of mind that you can switch off at the end of the day without alienating family and friends on your private number.

As the country begins to open up in the next few months firms need to prepare for the move back into the office, warned Nicola Mortimer, commercial director of Eir.

“From a people point of view, you can kind of get your head around it – but from a tech point of view, you need to have the required infrastructure in the office and also operating in the home,” she said.

“For the office environment you might need to put in better devices for conferencing, better screens, better visual aids, so that if some people are in the office and some people are at home, they actually get the same type of experience.”

Mortimer said some of Eir’s customers are already planning ahead and looking at how they are going to offer a blended structure while still having everybody work together.

Businesses may need to invest in a Polycom conference unit or upgrade TV screens to allow for video conferencing and web conferencing.

“The majority of us were working in an office at one point – and it’s about how we get back to where some of us are, and some of us aren’t, at the same time,” said Mortimer.

In order to support this blended communication, the quality of connection is going to be important. This is where SD WAN will come into play. While it’s not an option for everyone at the minute, having the ability to prioritise certain features on your network will enhance your connectivity experience.

“You can actually combine both the 5G environment and fixed environment using SD WAN. It gives you that flexibility – you can prioritise which link is used, allocate the bandwidth accordingly, depending on what you want done first,” said Mortimer.

SD WAN allows you to be efficient with your network so you’ll be able to allocate fibre to video to ensure you get faster speeds, and applications like email can be supported by mobile.

“It’s not early days – there are definitely more and more customers considering it and moving towards it. It is beyond early, but it hasn’t become ubiquitous, and the reason why it is not everywhere is because a lot of companies have already upgraded their systems,” said Mortimer.

Karl McDermott, head of connected solutions at Three Photo by Naoise Culhane

If you are looking to upgrade, then SD WAN is certainly something worth investing in as it gives you greater efficiencies.

To search for these efficiencies, look no further than Data Edge, which has been at the sharp end of technology for 30 years. It is a supplier of Spirent network testing technology, which the company considers ideal for those looking into SD WAN.

“We’ve been working with Spirent for over 20 years and that would be at the very forefront of emulating SD WAN scenarios. SD WAN is a very complicated way of essentially joining up multiple technologies to then get an overlay connection between sites, and the Spirent equipment is very, very good at testing and stress testing and creating those sorts of scenarios,” said Paul Phelan, chief executive of Data Edge.

“We help telcos report on their capacity planning and their usage of the big telecom networks. Basically we supply and provide support on network management systems that monitor the usage of the general backhaul telecoms network.”

In addition to its work on bandwidth technology, the company is involved in 5G.

“With modern 5G base station antennas, the technology is kind of the same, but what you’re getting more and more is one single device having multiple parallel antennas into it. Your phone will no longer just have one antenna, it will have several of them,” said Phelan.

“The importance then is timing, so even though we’ve been working on telecom timing equipment for 20 or 30 years, we’re really popular now with the cellular companies as they’re putting the 5G to the test to make sure that the timing is working. 5G technology isn’t rolling out very fast and it’s because there’s a lot of technical bits that need to be joined up – it’s an evolution in itself,” said Phelan.

AI also plays its part in improving the comms experience – as Hewlett Packard enterprise company Aruba, which specialises in networking solutions, know all about.

“This is something we have been working on for quite some time because we see AI as making, certainly from an IT professional’s perspective, making them all a little bit smarter,” said Simon Wilson, chief technology officer at Aruba Britain & Ireland.

“One of the things AI was really good at, is spotting the kind of patterns or anomalies that would be very difficult for the smartest engineers to spot. AI can scan all the data, continually looking for these anomalies and patterns, and can point out things that maybe even the users don’t know is impacting their performance and point those things out to the IT team very early in the cycle.”

This allows the IT team to make quick adjustments to a configuration, or spot the early warning that a device is about to fail.

“Of course, it relies on the fact that you do need a decent data lake, a decent source of data for the AI to feed on,” said Wilson.

“The fact that Aruba has been doing this for quite some time, it has given us this ability with a large data lake. We have over a million devices out there in the marketplace that we can leverage and apply the AI algorithms to help spot these problems.”