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Tue 22 May 2007 12:32 PM

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Talking telephony

Recent trends show the take-up of IP telephony is now blooming in the Middle East.

Internet protocol (IP) telephony is a hot topic. And as the concept develops technologically, the benefits on offer - combined with the proposed reduction in costs - becomes an even more attractive proposition for businesses the Middle East over. With companies opting to deploy this technology in their masses, it is no wonder that vendors are predicting projects galore for resellers in the region.
Channel Middle East

dials into this enthralling landscape to determine exactly what opportunities lie in wait for resellers.

The take-up of IP telephony has been a gradual process in this region, with local businesses traditionally appearing apprehensive to dip their toes into VoIP waters. However, recent trends show that the implementation of the technology is now blooming in the Middle East.

Chris Moore, regional director Middle East and Africa at networking vendor Extreme Networks, reckons the initial reluctance may have been due to the lack of awareness surrounding legal aspects of the technology and the benefits of what is actually available in the market. "We see the Middle East take-up of IP telephony to be accelerating rapidly now although it was a little slow to start with due to lack of regulatory clarity," he said.

The skill-set required for the reseller is that of a converged solution provider that handles both voice and data equally well. Any reseller lacking in these aspects will not survive.

Sergios El-Hage, regional VP at EMW Middle East, North Africa and South-West Asia, also confirms that IP telephony implementations are becoming more frequently demanded by the system integrator's customers. "We used to sell a mixed bag of IP telephony, digital and analogue - now most of the deals are requiring IP telephony," he claimed. Although its uptake is increasing swiftly, the proportion of businesses in the region deploying IP telephony still has some way to rival emerging markets such as India and China. Networking giant Cisco believes the good times are still ahead for the Middle East. "The take-up of IP telephony is currently slower than some high growth markets in the rest of the world," reckoned the vendor's Gulf channel manager, Adrian Taylor. "Nonetheless, the Middle Eastern telecommunications market continues to evolve and I am confident that there will be an accelerated increase in users who will enjoy the benefits that Cisco's unified communications technologies deliver," he added.

To really capitalise on the surge in implementation of IP telephony it is imperative for reseller to possess a specialist skillset. Vendors in the networking and communications space routinely run education and training schemes for their partners, aiming to raise awareness of the latest products and newest technological developments in the field. Most vendors encourage resellers to have background skills in telecommunications and IP networking, and claim that in order to capitalise on the growing trend in IP telephony, resellers need to exploit the schemes and resources on offer.

Mitel GCC's general manager Hisham Amili reckons it takes a well-trained and sufficiently educated reseller to reap the benefits that IP telephony has to offer, claiming that those who don't invest in proper training will lag behind. "The skill-set required for the reseller is that of a converged solution provider, meaning a solution provider that handles both voice and data equally well. Any reseller lacking in these aspects will not survive," he warned.

Vendors play a monumental role in determining a reseller's success and it is therefore the vendor's duty to ensure partners receive quality training to keep them abreast of developments in this field. Roger El-Tawil, Avaya's regional and marketing director, acknowledges the vendor's role in keeping its channel partners aware and up-to-date. "We try to keep awareness at a good level through face-to-face communication, roadshows and channel partner events. We're currently launching a series of training schemes for the channel to raise awareness and competence across the region," he added.

Cisco agrees that a broad grasp of the market isn't enough to cut it in such a competitive field. The vendor reckons that to serve customers better, and to really stake a claim in the marketplace, resellers need a narrow focus. "Specialisation - that's my advice for resellers in the region," said Taylor. "Our specialised partners have mastered a structured training regimen and then proven their acumen in an assessment process. This provides a solid foundation for delivering a successful implementation of IPT and a platform for providing an enhanced unified communications experience every time," he added.

However, other vendors and distributors argue that attaining a sufficient level of competence is not quite as complex as some like to make out, claiming that it is quite straightforward for voice and data resellers to attain the necessary skills to succeed in the IP telephony sector simply by heeding advice and building on previous expertise. By attending partner events and training schemes, many believe that half the battle is won. "As long as the reseller has good IP networking skills and a decent telecommunications background they can easily acquire the necessary skill sets to deploy IP telephony," said Zakir Lokare, enterprise business unit manager at Online Distribution.

Hamed Diab, 3Com Middle East's general manager, reckons resellers that are trying to develop a presence in the IP telephony sector should not be scared off by the technology. "We have very simple solutions - simplicity is the key - and it only takes maybe 15 minutes to install it on top of your existing network," he said. "The skillset is quite simple as well, but the reseller should have a background in networking. We look at the system not only from an IP telephony perspective, but also network, voice and data - that's what we're really good at. Anybody would be surprised at how easy it is to implement," claimed Diab.

In recent times, as the adoption of IP telephony has begun to flourish, so too have vendors' relationships with partners. Ahmed Ashadawi, president at Saudi Arabia-based systems integrator Al-Falak, reckons vendors are now beginning to value the true role of partners and as a result it is creating greater interaction. "Vendors are beginning to see the importance of engaging with partners, and they actually want to understand our needs. They are running events and seminars and communicating with us much better. It wasn't always like this," he revealed. "Procedures have changed, and the relationship has changed. It's no longer a case of you do your job and I'll do mine," Ashadawi added.

So many businesses in the Middle East fall under the banner of ‘SMB’ and therefore represent a huge proportion of the market. We can only see this segment thriving in its take-up.

The growth in the Middle East is being driven on a number of fronts, with vendors broadening their horizons in terms of segments to target. As IP telephony vendors launch packaged solutions designed for small businesses, adoption levels are rising. Market sources say vendors such as Extreme Networks and Avaya are ramping up their SMB-focused portfolios in the Middle East as they look to take advantage of this trend.

Online Distribution claims that most tenders and RFPs these days are specified on IP telephony. According to Lokare: "Within this region, customers are noticeably deploying IP telephony. New tenders are being offered by the government sector, enterprise customers and other institutions."

More private firms and SMBs are also showing interest. "Vendors, distributors and resellers are educating their customers on the features, total cost of ownership and return on investment offered by IP telephony vis-à-vis legacy telephone systems, which ultimately can be measured in a booming economy like the Middle East," Lokare added.

He revealed that an estimated 40% of IP telephony projects involve SMBs globally, while the figure in the Middle East is between 30% to 35%, illustrating the extent at which the market is embracing the technology.

"I'd say SMBs are really driving the growth in this region," observed Avaya's El-Tawil. "So many businesses in the Middle East fall under the banner of ‘SMB' and therefore represent a huge proportion of the market. With more products on offer specifically catered to them, we can only see this segment thriving in its take-up," he continued.

Cisco also pays homage to the role that SMBs are playing in driving the growth of IP telephony in the Middle East, citing the benefits of the technology as a major attraction to smaller businesses. "Return on investment, mobility, security and scalability tend to be the main business drivers," revealed Taylor. "Owing to the flexibility of IPT, smaller companies now have an opportunity to build data, voice, security and WLAN services all within a single box," he added.

In a region where governmental restrictions are a lot tighter than those in markets such as Western Europe, the US and Japan, the implementation of VoIP has been somewhat contained. Businesses in the Middle East have been slower to deploy IP telephony solutions due to confusion and lack of clarity over its legality. However, the restrictions in place in markets such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia are not enough to deter the implementation of IP telephony in these markets.

"The restrictions only limit one feature of the entire system, which is the cost cutting on international calls," revealed 3Com's Diab. "However, this is not the only feature that IP telephony has. The way that people value VoIP is changing - some people are aware of the technology and are realising the features it can bring, and others are looking to upgrade an old system and they realise that IP telephony provides them with what they already have and much more," he added.

Having said that, EMW's El-Hage reckons deployments of IP telephony will increase substantially as soon as regulatory bodies open the doors completely. "IP telephony can work both ways - to communicate internally and to communicate with the outside world," he said. "It's not widely used for the latter because the Telecom Regulatory Authority has not opened up the international side, specifically in the UAE, but when it opens it is going to take off tremendously because most of the current installations we are running are either IP telephony, or IP telephony-ready."

Amili at Mitel claims the restrictions are not a barrier for investing in IP telephony and resellers should prepare now for the day when the doors inevitably open. "Any business, small or large, public or private, will not survive against the competition without taking the early steps of IP adoption," he said. "An example of this could be to install a LAN IP telephony solution, which is not affected by regulations and then connect offices and sites together when IP trunking is allowed. For instance, in-country IP trunking was just legalised in Saudi Arabia earlier this year and this is an irreversible trend."

Despite the restrictions in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the two markets are nonetheless leading in terms of deployment of IP telephony in the region. "Every country in the region is at a different stage of adoption of the technology," explained Avaya's El-Tawil. "It's mainly Egypt, Saudi and the UAE that are driving IP in the region. In the UAE, new businesses are being formed, we're seeing a lot of mergers and such expansions fuel growth. This, and the fact that the deployment of IP telephony is instrumental in cost reduction, is spurring market growth."

Al-Falak's Ashadawi reckons IP telephony is already having a significant impact on society in Saudi Arabia and believes the country's internet bandwidth is the only real barrier for the technology. "Internet bandwidth has to be increased, and the government is already drawing up plans. When we get a sufficient internet bandwidth, the opportunities IP telephony provides will be endless."

Resellers that are able to provide something unique stand a greater chance of unlocking the technology's potential in the Middle East. Vendors agree that after-sales service is an arena that resellers can really add value.

"The role of the channel partner is absolutely crucial to maintaining customer satisfaction, ensuring a maximised return on investment and ongoing service excellence to the end user," claimed Taylor at Cisco. Online Distribution agrees that the channel plays a major role in terms of after-sales service. "The channel is primarily responsible for the support to the end-user. The channel is supported by ourselves and the vendors for warranty services. The vendors also offer different services like various 24/7 and software upgrade services, which can be sold by the channel," said Lokare.

Extreme Networks reckons its service offering strategy provides huge opportunities for partners to add value. Moore revealed that the vendor often looks to delegate the task of offering these services to its partners to satisfy the end-user. "It means that the channel provides the local on-site services while Extreme provides software updates and hardware repairs along with remote technical assistance at the expert level," he said.

Some vendors reckon the market is moving so fast it won't be long before IP telephony is deployed amongst consumers. "IPT will not only be used in business," predicted Diab at 3Com. "With so many features, I can see it soon becoming part of normal day to day activities, not only in the business environment, but in the home as well."

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