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PBX Systems vs. Office 365

Monday, December 7, 2015 - 13:30
PBX vs. Office 365

Moving from Old Phone Systems to the Cloud

Evolving from the Bell key telephone system from the 1930s is the modern PBX or VoIP business telephone system of today. Many companies still have an on-premises PBX phone system, although there are a variety of factors that are driving these companies to look to the cloud for many of their communications services. Sometimes that has meant replacing their onsite phone system with one hosted in the cloud and/or using the cloud for data and productivity services such as the Office 365 suite of cloud-based Microsoft collaboration products.  

The Evolution of Microsoft Communications Tools

Since acquiring Skype (an Internet communications company) in 2011, Microsoft has expanded the base Skype program – used for audio and video calls, as well as chat – and merged their Lync communications product into Skype for Business. In addition to basic Skype features, this product added the capability of holding large meetings and the ability to integrate with several Office apps. Now in late 2015, the Skype program has been further developed into another subset called Skype for Business Online – currently in preview mode. This new product now includes a cloud PBX system feature to potentially replace VoIP business phone systems. But how does it compare to a fully-featured on-premises or cloud-based PBX?

In its present mode, the PBX functionality in Skype for Business Online is set up using these steps:

  1. Choose a block of DID (direct inward dial) phone numbers to use with the service.
  2. Assign a license to each user in your web portal to enable them to use PSTN calling.
  3. Then in the Skype section, you can assign a specific number to each user.

Once the numbers have been ported over and the changes processed, a phone tab should be added to the Skype for Business software for calls to be made and received. It all sounds simple and straightforward, right?  But what features will you sacrifice by migrating to a scaled-back PBX system?

The Limitations of Skype for Business

For starters, in Skype for Business Online, all voice calls are limited to the use of either the desktop or laptop speaker and microphone; or, you have to use USB headphones. There is currently no way to use a handset for calling. Many people like the comfort and extra features included with a handset unit, especially the ability to use a speakerphone for lengthy conference calls or webinars. For users that have a hard time with change, keeping a headset plugged in at all times may not go over smoothly.

Besides losing your handset, though, possibly the feature that would be missed the most is voicemail. It is unlikely that any employee is able to stay tethered to their desk 24x7, and without a way to leave a voicemail, calls will be missed. And at present, Skype for Business doesn’t provide its own voice mail services; that’s a feature provided by Exchange Unified Messaging (UM). Furthermore, Exchange UM isn’t supported for use with Skype PSTN calling.

So currently with Skype for Business PSTN, users are left in the situation where unless a call is answered, it will either ring constantly, be manually rejected by the receiver (leaving the caller listening to a fast busy tone), or need to be redirected to a mobile phone. I’m guessing there are few businesses out there that would find this situation to be acceptable for conducting daily business.

Where PBX Systems Shine

Where the PBX system still reigns supreme over Skype’s “Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling” is when it comes to emergency calling. According to Microsoft, before you can assign a phone number to a user, you must create at least one emergency address and optionally, an emergency location for your organization. It’s required that you create emergency locations for your organization and then assign one of these emergency address and locations to each user when you are assigning them a phone number. And the emergency addresses must be validated before you can assign a phone number.  So essentially, a physical address has to be added foreach user in the Skype section of the Office 365 portal for correct 911 location-routing, before calls can be made or received – a potentially tedious task for administrators.

Moreover, while many Unified Communications (UC) packages offered by today’s hosted PBX vendors come with a comprehensive suite of services and solutions, many of Skype’s PSTN-related features may be additional or have to be added separately. For instance, in order for businesses to have PSTN conferencing available to them through Skype for Business, they must choose the ‘Advanced Meetings Add-on for Skype for Business’, so that users can have dial-in audio conferencing as an option for online meetings.  

Unified Communications Capabilities Too Important to Give Up

While Office 365 with PSTN functionality is appealing for some businesses, most will want to retain the full functionality of their on-site or hosted PBX system – including Unified Communications, possibly integrated with Skype services.  In this way, companies can harness the power of business VoIP without sacrificing the features that both employees and employers have come to know and love.  

If you’d like to learn more about optimizing your on-site or cloud-based PBX system with rich UC features, look to West. West can help your business to maximize the cloud for all its communications and productivity solutions, and customize it for your organization.


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