For the last three years, organizations have increasingly been moving their telephony landscape to Microsoft Teams, but PSTN connectivity has been a challenge. However, two things have changed in the last year to give organizations more-viable PSTN connectivity choices. First, Microsoft introduced new calling plans and has reduced the price for existing calling plans. Second, Microsoft introduced a new offering called Operator Connect, providing some of the simplicity benefits of Microsoft Calling Plans with some of the configurability advantages of Direct Routing, along with more geographies being covered.
There are now three PSTN connectivity options: Microsoft Calling Plans, Operator Connect, and Direct Routing. Each has advantages and tradeoffs (See Figure 1).
Figure 1: Tradeoffs and Advantages of Calling Plans, Operator Connect, and Direct Routing
Microsoft announced Operator Connect at Ignite 2021, as a third option to Calling Plans and Direct Routing, allowing businesses to directly enable PSTN calling from a list of certified Operator Connect carriers in Teams. The service was made generally available on 27 September 2021 with 20+ carriers. This model uses a PSTN service via a managed service model(see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Architecture Difference in Operator Connect and Direct Routing
With Operator Connect, enterprises can connect to their provider and assign numbers to their users through a Teams admin “Operators” tab. However, Microsoft will not provide any commerce or billing capabilities within the Teams admin center. Instead, customers must acquire numbers directly from the participating operators before adding them to Teams and must manage separate commercial contracts with their operators. However, Operator Connect enables discoverability and connecting of available operators and services from within the Teams admin center, which arguably serves as the foundation of a marketplace, but is not a traditional one.
Operator Connect is different from Direct Routing because it’s more of a peering relationship between a service provider and Microsoft, using Microsoft Azure Peering Service (MAPS) for voice. The solution also includes a set of APIs that integrate the deployment and purchase process, allowing for more simplicity for number provisioning.
The Operator Connect option is best aligned for organizations with the following profile and circumstances:
- Those looking for more flexibility in selecting carriers, advanced features and global coverage than Microsoft Calling Plans provide (Operator Connect is available in over 50 countries).
- Those seeking a quick and easy deployment option compared to Direct Routing; however, this option is not as easy and quick as Microsoft Calling Plan.
- Those that do not have customized requirements for configurable voice routing options or requirements to support legacy platforms.
- Those looking for a fully managed, pure cloud option other than Microsoft Calling Plans. With Operator Connect, your SBC and other infrastructure is managed by operators mostly in their data center, reducing hardware and maintenance requirements.
- Those that want enhanced reliability and support from operators, such as shared SLAs with Microsoft Teams.
- Those that do not want to use PowerShell to set up and maintain the Direct Routing experience.
The Direct Routing option for external calling must be purchased separately and be interconnected with the organization’s Microsoft Teams tenant. Direct Routing comes as part of the Phone System license in Microsoft. Organizations can select from two variants of the BYOC option to implement the Direct Routing connection. One with CPE and other one with virtual SBC/SBCaaS model. The Direct Routing option is best aligned for organizations with the following profile and circumstances:
- Those looking for more flexibility in selecting carriers, advanced features and global coverage than Microsoft Calling Plans (Direct Routing is available in over 180 countries).
- Those looking for more routing options to their on-premises legacy systems.
Microsoft Calling Plans
Microsoft calling plans are offered as a per-user license and do not require additional services from other providers for external calling. Microsoft bundles a phone number along with several minutes for domestic or international calling. All service is provided directly from Microsoft via Office 365, with no additional PSTN carrier contract. Currently, Microsoft offers calling plans in 33 countries, including direct partnerships with Telstra for Australia and SoftBank for Japan to offer pseudo calling plans in respective countries.
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