Small Business / Enterprise / VoIP / UCaaS / IT Purchase Process

The Ultimate Guide to UCaaS in 2020

Rob Rodier
Regular old VoIP is becoming a thing of the past. Given the newfound importance of video conferencing, instant messaging, and CRM integration, UCaaS (unified communications as a service) is now all the rage. The global UCaaS market is expected to grow at a 29% CAGR to become a $79B market by 2024. So what’s the deal with these services anyway?

UCaaS represents the next generation of hosted VoIP services. Based in the cloud, these solutions aim to bridge traditional telephony and conferencing functionality with instant messaging, collaboration, video conferencing services and more. Additionally, these products often integrate broad functionality into adjacent applications such as CRM tools and other productivity suites.

The importance of integration yields an interesting dynamic in that we have traditional telecom companies expanding to build software, while at the same time traditional software companies are expanding into offering telecommunication services.
This post is going to look at 9 different UCaaS solutions that fall into the 3 different category segments:
  1. Traditional telecom provider offerings
  2. Purpose built UCaaS providers offering only UCaaS services
  3. Traditional software company offerings

If you’re looking at buying UCaaS at some point in the near future, you’ve come to the right place! Let’s help you understand the market.

Different flavors of UCaaS, compared

All 3 segments of UCaaS offer potential advantages over one another depending on end user needs and environments.

The traditional telcos have the ability to provision services over their own private networks. If you look at how CenturyLink and AT&T market their services for example, they incorporate the virtues of private network deployments heavily into their marketing. By deploying across their own networks, they do not rely on the public Internet (inherently best effort) and therefore can guarantee extremely high service levels and quality.

Many of the purpose built UCaaS companies have been in the game for a long time and have evolved their products considerably on the software side. These solutions are flexible and typically offer a plethora of integrations that allow them to be seamlessly incorporated into a wide variety of environments and applications. Additionally, the better ones have made investments in peering arrangements that allow for voice and video quality that, from a practicality perspective, rival the telcos private network offerings.

The newest entrants are some of the best known software companies in the world: Google, Microsoft, and Zoom. These companies argue that their productivity and collaboration suites like Office and GSuite are already heavily entrenched into organizations of all sizes, so why not just enable voice services and functionality to be delivered through them? Additionally, some of these offer the ability to integrate existing PSTN services so enterprises can migrate to their platform without breaking existing carrier agreements.

Another interesting question to keep in mind as you read this guide: does your business still need a desk phone? Some organizations will have no need for traditional telephone hardware to clutter their desks, while others will demand dedicated handsets. Some businesses may have receptionists who need hardware with lots of buttons, and salespeople who don't. As a result, all of the solutions being discussed offer the ability to support traditional telephone endpoints or rely on a combination of software clients and/or mobile phones.

Traditional Telco Offerings

While Verizon’s UCaaS offering is technically available to SMB, it is really a solution that large distributed enterprises will most appreciate. Not surprisingly, Verizon touts their global network as their biggest differentiator and offers a 100% SLA and availability in over 100 countries. Additionally, the Verizon solution is FedRAMP authorized, HIPAA compliant and integrates with both Salesforce and Microsoft Office 365 as well as DropBox, WebRTC and Zapier. This solution will appeal to large multinational firms who have complex voice and integration requirements and in many cases will already rely on Verizon WAN services. However, it should also be noted that Verizon also has a SMB focused UCaaS solution that leverages the Broadsoft platform for smaller customers who reside within Verizon’s LEC footprint.

Verizon also offers the ability to integrate NICE inContact and Genesys Integration contact center solutions for large distributed call centers.

Verizon UCaaS at a glance:
  • Platform: Cisco HCS
  • Seats: 300->25,000
  • Compliance: HIPAA
  • Major Integrations: Open API, Oracle, SFDC, ServiceNow, Zendesk, Google, WebRTC, Zapier
  • Footprint: Global
  • Pricing is mostly done on an individual case basis

CenturyLink is no stranger to VoIP, however they only released their Engage product in early 2020.

Focused on SMB, Engage offers flexible voice services with an option to be delivered over CenturyLink’s own private facilities-based network or the public Internet. When CenturyLink deploys the service end-to-end by also acting as the ISP, customers get assurances on voice quality that rivals the traditional PSTN. Where this solution really starts to look appealing is for a multi-location enterprise where mission critical offices may reside within CenturyLinks footprint and can be delivered over their private network with additional sites being integrated into the system by connecting over third-party ISPs. This solution starts at around $20/mo per user, and can also support call and contact center types of environments at an additional cost. Most interestingly, enterprises can opt into this service without entering into a long term agreement and the pricing remains competitive.

CenturyLink Engage at a Glance:
  • Platform: Proprietary
  • Seats: 1-500
  • Compliance: None
  • Major Integrations: “Leading” CRMs
  • Footprint: National, global soon
  • Pricing starts ~$20/seat

Windstream is a good example of a traditional telco that has evolved considerably over the last decade and now not only operates as a rural LEC, but has also become a major player in the enterprise services space through various acquisitions. Windstream has a decades-long track record of deploying premise-based and VoIP-centric telephony and has their own badged employees in most major markets as well as a nationwide facilities-based network that their services can be provisioned over.

Windstream technically has 3 different UCaaS offerings through Broadview, Avaya and Mitel but focus most of their go to market efforts on the Broadview solution which was one of their recent acquisitions. The Broadview platform offers native call center functionality while leveraging Zoom for meeting solutions and videoconferencing. There are also a variety of pre-built integrations available such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and even Alexa. Windstream is the only provider in this guide that offers tiered licensing model which averages daily peak seat counts over a 30 day period. Seats start at around $24/mo.

Windstream OfficeSuite UC at a glance:
  • Platform: Broadview
  • Seats: 1-5000
  • Compliance: HIPAA, PCI, SSEA-16
  • Major Integrations: Open API, MS Dynamics, Sugar, Netsuite, SFDC, G-Suite, Slack
  • Footprint: National
  • Pricing starts around $24/seat

Telco Offerings - The Verdict
The big telcos offer business of all sizes options for deploying UCaaS end-to-end with network, installation, and service all coming from a single (but perhaps disliked) entity. These solutions are most compelling for organizations that leverage (or wish to) the same ISP at all of their sites and want to deploy UCaaS as an additional service and appreciate guaranteed quality of service levels. Verizon stands on its own for global enterprise environments, while Windstream and CenturyLink Engage will appeal to smaller US centric organizations.

Purpose-Built UCaaS offerings

RingCentral and their products have come a long way over the last 5 years. Once a low cost residential grade solution, RingCentral now touts one of the most robust and well connected communications platforms in the world. RingCentral offers solutions viable for businesses of any size, including enterprise.

RingCentral’s solution checks the box on an extensive list of compliances including HIPAA, PCI DSS 3.1 and SOC 2. RingCental’s list of integrations is also extensive and they offer NICE InContact Integration for contact center. RingCentral also has their own ASN and extensive global peering with over 200 ISPs in order to maximize service quality over almost any connection. RingCentral also has power partnerships in place with AT&T, Avaya and others that provide customized flavors of their service.

RingCentral is a solid choice for a wide array of businesses, especially those with stringent compliance requirements such as healthcare, financial and government.

RingCentral UCaaS at a glance:
  • Platform: Proprietary
  • Seats: 1 to >25,000
  • Compliance: HIPAA, HITRUST CSF, SOC 2, SSAE 16, PCI-DSS 3, NASPO, FINRA Cyber Security and likely more
  • Integrations: Open API, Oracle, SFDC, ServiceNow, Sugar, Zendesk, Office 365, SFDC, Box, DropBox Google and Alexa
  • Footprint: Global
  • Pricing starts around $24/seat with video

Nextiva is a born-in-the-cloud, purpose-built UCaaS platform that is geared more towards SMB users. Nextiva touts themselves as the largest privately held UCaaS provider in the US and offers a 99.999% SLA which is higher than most of their competition.

Part of Nextiva’s strategy is to go beyond integrations (they do this too) and provide immense amounts of functionality through their own NextOS platform. NextOS is both capable and powerful and can act as a CRM and report on various business analytics. Nextiva’s platform truly drives digital transformation within the SMB sector by allowing for SMS, chat, email functionality and even internal team surveying and project management functionality. Nextiva offers numerous integrations and is HIPAA compliant.

Nextiva makes a compelling value proposition to companies that are early on in their digital transformation journeys and are looking for a partner that they can grow a comprehensive strategy with.

Nextiva UCaaS at a glance:
  • Platform: Broadsoft
  • Seats: 1 to 250
  • Compliance: HIPAA, PCI, SOC 2
  • Major Integrations: Open API, Microsoft Dynamics, SFDC, Sugar, Office 365 and a proprietary integration tool called “Go Integrator” that interfaces with many different types of DBs
  • Footprint: National
  • Pricing starts around $20/seat

Based in Silicon Valley and born as a VoIP carrier in the early 2000s, 8x8 is the world's largest pure-play UCaaS provider and offers local telephone numbers in over 125 different countries. 8x8 plays strongly across enterprises both large and small and is often especially appealing to organizations with between 50-15,000 seats. Additionally, 8x8 is the only company in this guide other than Windstream that has built a proprietary contact center solution that can be deployed alongside their core service platform offering.

8x8 supports numerous compliance frameworks as well as integrations into major software applications like Outlook, NetSuite, SFDC MS Dynamics and Zendesk. 8x8 has built an impressive global network with extensive global peering to ensure enterprise grade voice quality across the globe. 8x8 has also invested extensively in making their platform self service which contributes to them being able to offer one of the lowest starting prices in the group.

8x8 UCaaS at a glance:
  • Platform: Proprietary
  • Seats: 1 to >25,000
  • Compliance: HIPAA, FISMA, PCI-DSS, Privacy Shield, Cyber Essentials, ISO 9001, ISO 27001, UK ATO
  • Major Integrations: Open API, Microsoft Dynamics, SFDC, Sugar, Office 365, Slack, Zendesk and Hubspot and many more
  • Footprint: Global
  • Pricing starts around $12/seat

Purpose-Built UCaaS Offerings - The Verdict
While the telco offerings are great for organizations who have utilized the same ISP at most of their sites, these purpose built solutions are great for companies with complex voice needs that are using a wide array of site connectivity providers or leverage SD-WAN technologies that incorporate multiple ISPs at each site. 8x8 is an easy blanket recommendation in this group as their platform is straightforward, easy to use and available almost everywhere. For smaller companies, Nextiva’s NextOS covers a lot of ground and may even be able to act as a centerpiece to a digital commerce strategy. RingCentral’s product is outstanding and should be considered for larger organizations who may not fully understand their needs and who may also be concerned with rolling out the technology seamlessly across the enterprise.

Software and Productivity-First offerings

Zoom has become a household name due to their video-centric meeting solutions software which is undeniably superb. Zoom Phone adds a no compromise, enterprise grade telephony solution that integrates tightly with their meeting platform. Zoom Phone offers an impressive number of features and can even seamlessly “elevate” voice calls into full fledged video meetings.

In addition to being feature rich, Zoom Phone allows end users to redirect their existing SIP trunking to the Zoom cloud which would enable an organization who may be under contract with their provider to leverage their existing connectivity until their agreement expires. It also enables Zoom Phone to support calling services in any rate center anywhere, or incorporate beneficial long distance rates into the Zoom platform. In this case, Zoom is conceptually an IP-PBX that is hosted in Zoom’s cloud. Zoom also integrates with several leading contact centers as well as SFDC, Microsoft Teams + 365, GSuite, and more.

Zoom Phone also offers administrators rich reporting and network quality monitoring to help ensure PSTN-like call quality across the enterprise. Zoom is a great option for customers who are familiar with their video platform and or who are under SIP trunking agreements but need to migrate to a cloud managed solution.

Zoom Phone at a glance:
  • Platform: Proprietary
  • Seats: 1 to >25,000
  • Compliance: SSAE 16, SOC-2, HIPAA, PIPEDA,
  • Major Integrations: G-Suite, Slack, Zapier, SFDC, Outlook
  • Footprint: Global
  • Pricing starts around $25/user

Microsoft Phone System for Office 365 enables PBX capabilities within the Office 365 cloud with Teams online. Microsoft offers extreme flexibility in their approach and can either provide the phone system end-to-end with PSTN services enabled by a “calling plan” or integrate with on premise hardware in a multitude of different ways. However, unlike Zoom, Microsoft does not allow for redirecting existing SIP trunks into their cloud.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has built their phone system solution to integrate seamlessly into their Office 365 productivity suite which is entrenched within enterprises of all sizes. However, the Microsoft solution does not offer native integration with Microsoft’s own Dynamics CRM, nor does it offer an API for CRM or contact center integration. There are ways to make much of this work, but it must be done via 3rd party. Many major software platforms have built integrations of their own, Salesforce as well as Five9 contact center are good examples.

Microsoft’s solution offers a compelling value proposition for organizations of all sizes, and is flexible enough to meet almost any organization’s needs.

Microsoft 365 Business Voice at a glance:
  • Platform: Proprietary
  • Seats: 1 to >25,000
  • Compliance: SSAE 16, SOC-2, HIPAA, NIST, HITRUST
  • Major Integrations: Microsoft Office 365, numerous 3rd party
  • Footprint: Global (13 countries supported by Microsoft's own calling plans)
  • Pricing starts around $20/seat

Google acquired a company named Grand Central several years ago and later launched a consumer based, no fee service called Google Voice. This has now evolved into Google Voice for Business which is the calling application that is designed to work alongside Google’s GSuite productivity apps. Unlike many of the solutions that this guide has looked at, Google has decided to separate voice (Google Voice), Video (Hangouts Meet) and Chat (Hangouts Chat) into three separate applications. Still, these products are integrated tightly and can be switched back and forth and often live as tabs in chrome.

While the voice portion of the service offers a plethora of the standard features and can replace many IP-PBXs from a feature perspective, Google’s solution is not as robust in nature as the others highlighted here, and you can forget about the types of PSTN connectivity options that both Zoom and Microsoft offer. Even things like toll free 1-800 numbers would need to be set up through another carrier as Google does not offer them directly. In terms of video conferencing , hangouts are basic in terms of features and get the job done. One thing many appreciate about hangouts is that there is no software required on the endpoint other than a web browser.

Google’s voice suite is a solid alternative that will work well for organizations that rely on GSuite and have straightforward calling needs.

G-Suite + Google Voice at a glance:
  • Platform: Proprietary (Bandwidth.com as PSTN Gateway and RESPORG)
  • Seats: 1 to >10,000
  • Compliance: SSAE 16, SOC-2, HIPAA, NIST, HITRUST
  • Major Integrations: GSuite
  • Footprint: 11 countries
  • Pricing starts around $10/seat

Software Company UCaaS Offerings - The Verdict
This category is the most exciting in our minds. These solutions are compelling and cost effective for companies who are looking to deploy unified communications to augment their communications and collaboration strategies. Organizations who have complex user or contact center needs may be better served with alternative solutions, and while Google’s product is adequate for many organizations, it will fall short in many others. Zoom has built an undeniably flexible product and for organizations who have ample technical resources, Microsoft Teams can be set up to serve almost any organization that relies on Microsoft’s productivity suite.

Okay, so what should I use?

Hopefully you are closer to answering this question after reading this guide. There is a reason that all of these solutions exist as they address different organizations' needs across the market. However, if we had the luxury of being tasked with deploying UCaaS as a greenfield project, Zoom’s suite of solutions would be near the top on our list. Zoom has built out flexible deployment models and has been a market leader in video meeting solutions for years which is an area that we see continuing to be more critical to the modern enterprise.

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