Monday, 29 July 2013

Costly government phone lines criticised by watchdog

Callers would save money if government helplines switched to 03-prefixed numbers, Ofcom said.

Shocking figures have been released by the National Audit Office revealing the huge cost of calls to government offices since the introduction of Non-Geographic numbers – 0845 numbers

Callers waiting to ring HMRC spent £136m on call costs last year and higher rate government phone lines cost callers £56m last year, the National Audit Office has revealed.

Those most likely to be affected are those on low incomes who are more likely to use pay-as-you-go mobiles, it said.

About one third of central government helplines incur higher-rate charges but account for 63% of the calls made to government, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

Average landline call costs to standard geographic numbers and those that begin 03 cost around 3.4p per minute and 1.1p from mobile phones, this rises to 5.6p from landlines for 0844 numbers - and 17.1p from a mobile phone.

The sample also found that 4% of local authority phone lines and 8% of GP surgeries were using 084 numbers. The NAO estimated that the value of callers' waiting time was about £100m.

NAO head Amyas Morse said: "Callers do not receive a better service from higher rate numbers and many callers are put off calling government phone numbers altogether. The most vulnerable callers, such as low-income households, face some of the highest charges.

"Call charges are complicated and difficult for callers to understand. Charges to higher rate numbers are greatest from pay-as-you-go mobile phones, relied on heavily by low income and vulnerable households. In its proposed reforms, Ofcom needs to get to grips with this confusing charging system.

Higher rate telephone numbers across central government cost callers an eye-watering £56m in 2012-13. The Cabinet Office needs to step up and set guidance for departments so they can focus on minimising the costs of providing telephone lines for the taxpayer and user.

A spokesman for communications watchdog Ofcom said: "Ofcom has announced detailed plans to make the charging system much clearer for all non-geographic numbers, such as those beginning 08. We expect to finalise those measures in the autumn.

"We also actively encourage public bodies to use 03 numbers, as these cost no more to call than a normal geographic number."

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said: "The Government Digital Strategy sets out how government will re-design its digital services to make them so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so, whilst assisted digital support is being developed so that those who cannot are not excluded, protecting vulnerable groups in particular.

"In the past, government has not been joined up in reviewing the use of paid-for numbers, so a more coordinated approach is required. Where possible, we should use government's unique buying power to negotiate the best deal for the taxpayer.

For more information about Non-Geographic numbers please contact Merlin Telecom on 0800 877 8810.

Reference: BBC News.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

If Your Data Provision Changes, Don’t Be Left High and Dry…

At Merlin we never hide from uncomfortable subjects, and this topic is one which we urge you to consider when switching or choosing business services providers.

There are lots of benefits to moving your IT and telecoms to a hosted, co-location datacentre. 

There is predictability – a long-term agreement can be established with the majority of service providers that covers everything needed -datacentre space, connectivity and facility services for co-location –but what if that predictability is cruelly shattered?

There are a range of things that can go wrong with a datacentre or a co-location service provider. 

Datacentre contract clauses – revised fees and charges.

Many providers will have clauses that allow them to review your charges when they themselves are faced with a substantive change. Obvious ones here are areas such as if the government changes VAT rates, the tax will be charged accordingly. 

Less apparent ones could be changes in energy pricing – if a provider has not locked in a long-term energy deal with their energy supplier, it will have left itself open to spot pricing – and with energy prices being volatile, it may have to “renegotiate” its pricing with you.

Merger or acquisition

Another possible surprise could be that your provider is acquired. This may make no difference; it could even be good news, however, it could be also be that the acquiring company is one that you have made an active decision to avoid, for whatever reason.

Failure of the service provider

However, the biggest issue that can hit any organisation using an outside IT service provider is the failure of the outside company. Yesterday, everything seemed OK; today, there just isn’t any service and no-one is returning calls. This is the worst possible news – so how can you attempt to rescue yourself, along with improving other issues?

Everything is down to the contract

In essence, the basics come down to the legal agreement. It’s reported that many contracts tend to put all the risk on the customer, with very little being on the provider, which clearly isn’t acceptable.

You need to be confident that you’re working with a provider who’s willing to enter into sensible negotiations and come up with a bespoke contract that meets both parties’ needs.

As a starting point, it is necessary to see how major changes to the cost base of the provider will be dealt with. The contract should also allow you as the customer to review your position and call a halt to the agreement with sufficient notice in the event of a material change to the status of the provider, such as through acquisition. 

The contract should also be the place where the failure of the datacentre service provider is covered. This is not an area that many providers are keen to discuss, as just talking about it is recognition that their organisation is just as mortal as anyone else’s.

However, on failure, all the equipment that was owned by the provider becomes the property of the administrator, whose job is not particularly to run a business, but to optimise the return to the creditors. Unless this involves being able to find a buyer for the business as a going concern, the administrator is unlikely to have any interest in you as a customer whatsoever.

For a co-location contract, make sure that it is written into the contract that you can enter and retrieve your equipment at an agreed end of the contract or on the failure of the company.

For hosted or I/P/SaaS contracts, make sure that the contract covers that the data is yours, and that the company or its administrators have to allow you access to the data within an agreed timescale. If possible, get a provider to agree that you can supply a network attached storage (NAS) device where your data can be backed up on a regular basis, so that if the provider does go bust, you can turn up in a van and take ownership of your device with all the data on it.

In essence, the contract is king. Don’t just sign anything because it seems to be the way to do things. Negotiate from a position of strength and ensure that you go through all the provider’s clauses with a fine toothcomb. Otherwise, you are just gambling with your organisation’s future.

This information was inspired by Clive Longbottom at Quocirca Ltd, contributor to Computer Weekly.

You can ask us any questions about our data storage and services, call us on 0800 877 8810.

Monday, 22 July 2013

8 Reasons To Convert To VOIP – if you haven’t already

If you’re not already a convert, there’s some pretty compelling reasons why should consider VOIP:

1 - It’s Outrageously Affordable

The last thing you want to do is spend tens of thousands on a phone system. With Hosted VoIP, there are no large servers or systems to purchase. Other than the phones, there are no capital expenditures to depreciate over time, and low monthly communications service fees give you a hugely affordable solution that connects your business and employees to a host of capabilities that dramatically improve productivity.

2 - You Need Minimal IT Support

Unlike complex traditional phone systems that sit in a closet, Hosted VoIP requires very little IT support or training to administer. You can quickly add users, delete users, enable additional features––all without additional support or staff. The reason? A simple web interface. In fact, a Hosted VoIP solution is so simple, users can manage their own features right from their computers. It’s one management issue that can be taken off the shoulders of your IT or Office Manager.

3 - Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery

While we don’t want to think the worst, consider a few scenarios: Your building is flooded. A fire knocks out power for miles around. Now, let’s assume you have Hosted VoIP. Want to know how things would be? Business would go on––uninterrupted. Since no physical box is required on your premises , customers can still connect with your business because employees can work from anywhere. The reason? A web-based portal that allows you to quickly forward calls to cell phones or other phones in unaffected locations. It’s an incredibly fast and easy way to take control of a disastrous situation and ensure that anything major becomes just a minor incident.

4 - Scaling Up Down?

It’s almost impossible to make accurate forecast predictions, which is why a highly-flexible technology like Hosted VoIP is just the ticket. Hosted VoIP gives you the peace of mind that comes from not being constrained by a phone system that only supports a fixed number of employees and can be costly and complicated to expand. If resources become squeezed, you can quickly scale back. On the other hand, if you open a new branch office, or need to provide remote communications, or just need to prepare for a spike in demand around the holidays, it’s quick and easy to scale up without any disruption to your business. Total flexibility.

5 - Enhanced Functionality

Even if you’re jaded about technology, once you see all of the advanced features and functionality that are available from a Hosted VoIP system, you can’t be anything but impressed by the impact it can have on your business. And the best part is you can activate only those features that you need to make your company more productive. It starts with HD voice, the clearest a business call can get. That’s just scratching the surface. Through Hosted VoIP, you can have voicemails automatically forwarded to your email; you can make a call from a cell phone or remote office and have it appear as a call from the main office. You also have the ability to integrate with Outlook or Salesforce.com.

Basically there isn’t much you can’t do with Hosted VoIP.

6 - Automatic Upgrades 

With Hosted VoIP, there’s no box on your premises, so there’s no hardware to upgrade in order to take advantage of new features and technologies. Because your service is outsourced, upgrades are provided through software changes that happen automatically in the background. Of course, you’ll be made aware of any new capabilities as they come on line. That way, you can quickly utilize them to support your employees and better service customers. So you can stay focused on your business and leave the upgrades to your Hosted VoIP service provider.

7 - Unified Communications

It’s hard to advance your business if it’s tied to old technology. Hosted VoIP is the best solution for workforces who demand constant connectivity and productivity from anywhere––and at any time. Whether attacking issues from a desk, a conference room, or powering through meetings on the road, Hosted VoIP gives you all the communication features you need on your computer, such as web meeting, internet fax, using your PC as your phone and more. These capabilities give you the powerful communications tools you need to keep things moving forward no matter where or when business is done.

8 - Focus on Your Business

One of the best ways to stay competitive is to focus on your core business. With a Hosted VoIP solution, the management of increasingly complex business communications is done for you off-site. It all happens in the background while you and your employees can use advanced features and productivity tools like voice, web meetings, and internet fax to take up new goals and take down obstacles that stand in their way.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Hosted vs. On-Premise PBX Systems

Hosted telephony is now becoming the preferred choice for new system installs, but the information out there to support your choices can be confusing. This might help with some initial questions:
 
  1. Total Cost of Ownership TCO

    On-premise systems often demand significant upfront investment whereas hosted are generally paid with more affordable monthly payments. Buyers should consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) of these systems in addition to the initial capital necessary to purchase a new network.

  2. Value of Specific vs. Bundled Functionality

    The technical capabilities of hosted and on-premise PBX systems are however quite different, with hosted providing greater flexibility and resilience. Hosted providers frequently bundle features and charge a set per-user price. If customization is important, buyers need to express this up-front when working with PBX providers. They may have to shop around to find a hosted provider that offers their ideal bundle. Alternatively, they should have a detailed list of features for hosted providers to ensure they are given an accurate price quote.

  3. Ease of Customization

    If your system requires advanced customization, on-premise PBX may be advisable. If choosing a hosted option, work with a vendor to discuss the exact customizations you need and what they can offer.

  4. User Experience

    To ensure voice quality, on-premise systems will prioritize data traffic. With hosted solutions, you must ensure that your data provision is on an appropriate business platform and that the data traffic is prioritized. Have an audit and evaluation of your data connection quality to ensure that the provision to your site can effectively handle your requirements and still deliver the level of quality you expect. 

  5. Costs of Tech Support

    If your company currently manages its own data, you may already have wider IT support in place, and implementing a hosted system may not necessarily reduce staff costs.

    If you currently don’t have an IT team, hosted PBX can potentially save your company from having to hire technical staff members. However, you should also consider how relying on third-party support works with current strategies. If the telephone system is critical, you need to be very comfortable with the vendor that will be wholly responsible for its support.
 
 

Monday, 15 July 2013

Are you getting the most from your ISP?

Are you frustrated with your broadband? Is it as reliable as you need?   

In recent years, the market for data has radically drastically changed with the arrival of faster, more reliable broadband that can support a wide variety of value-added services.

Here’s a useful reference of what to look for in an Internet Service Provider (ISP) supplying your business connectivity.

Service

Critical! Make sure you get 24/7 service support. Given how dependent businesses are on their connectivity, having peace of mind that everything works is essential. It’s worth paying a premium on your connectivity for a more stringent SLA, with options such as rebates for prolonged downtime and guaranteed timescales for fixing problems. Your business connectivity should be as invisible and reliable as your electricity or water supply.

Lots of connectivity

Ideally, your supplier will have access to multiple UK networks such as BT, Sky and TalkTalk. This range of national carriers means your ISP can offer you options on connectivity to suit your budget, speed and resilience requirements.

The days of "one size fits all" broadband are over and requirements will vary from business to business. A small company with a few people might get by on an ADSL2 connection with backup dialup or 3G to provide all the services they need. This consists of web browsing, email, VoIP, CRM and potentially other high bandwidth services such as video or storage.

A larger office, however, will require a lot more than this. Fibre-based connectivity, such as a leased line, is the way forward here. For example, you want to know that your staff can make VoIP calls while uploading their latest presentation to the cloud and transferring data to your satellite offices without any noticeable reduction in quality or speed. A good ISP will be able to provide pre-sales advice on how to meet these goals for your connectivity.

Support

All ISPs should provide excellent support but, unfortunately, this isn’t the case. So you need to be aware of how an ISP operates its support teams. Depending on which services you’re taking, you may want to look a little closer. In brief, the following are the basics any business provider should be offering:

• 24/7 technical support - Ideally by phone and email from UK-based engineers;

• Pro-active monitoring of your connections - You want your ISP to know about problems before, or at the same time as you are;

• Available qualified network engineers – Especially if you take the higher end business connections such as Ethernet or a multi-site MPLS network; and

• Access to carrier diagnostic tools and the ability to manage the traffic themselves – This will help to identify providers who are just reselling other connections compared to those who operate their own networks.

Your provider needs to deliver a good quality and reliable connection that works smoothly in the background. You don’t want to have to be worrying about whether the internet will be accessible or if your phone calls are going to regularly drop out.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Rural broadband programme a 'train crash' watchdog will say.

We’re sharing a blog written by Jonathan Werran from LocalGov.co.uk

Spending watchdogs are poised to release a highly critical report on the Government’s £530m rural broadband rollout programme next month.

According to reports in today’s Financial Times, the National Audit Office (NAO) report is set to attack the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for establishing a procurement programme which lacks openness and favours BT as the incumbent telecommunications provider. 

BT is currently delivering superfast broadband networks for 40 local authorities as part of a national process overseen by Broadband Delivery UK - the agency responsible for ensuring 90% of premises throughout the UK have access to superfast internet speeds above 24 Mbps and for universal provision of speed speeds of at least 2Mbps.

The NAO is set to criticise the rural broadband rollout programme.

However, other broadband providers have criticised the procurement process, arguing only BT possesses the economies of scale to bid for contracts in sparsely populated parts of the country.

Last June, only one other telecommunications firm, Fujitsu, joined BT on the supplier framework awarded by the DCMS. But this February BT was left as the only supplier after Fujitsu withdrew saying it couldn’t compete in areas of market failure. 

Due to be released in early July, the NAO report will scrutinise how well the DCMS designed the rural broadband programme and the extent to which its safeguards assure value for money. It will also consider whether the 2015 targets for rural broadband provision are likely to be met. 

A spokesman for the DCMS said the Government is absolutely confident the programme would deliver value for money projects and result in a transformation of broadband in the UK by 2015.