Provider Profile: AccessLine Brings Rich Voice Services to SMBs

From bare bones phones to bells and whistles galore, this is cost-cutting communications with no investment required.

By Ted Stevenson | Posted Oct 20, 2006
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Bellevue, Washington-based AccessLine Communications is on a mission to bring sophisticated VoIP phone service to small businesses across the U.S.—and do it at very low cost. The company doesn't sell hardware or software; rather, it's a fully hosted service offering that can be as simple or as feature-rich as its 100,000 clients need or want.

AccessLine got its start in the realm of telecom widgets (which the company refers to by the more dignified term 'intelligent peripherals' or IPs). One AccessLine IP innovation you'll probably recognize is the now-widely-used find-me-follow-me feature. In other words, AccessLine knows telephony applications from birth.

A merger with a firm that held some core VoIP/softswitch patents added important 'DNA' to the company's technology gene pool and significantly advanced the evolution of AccessLine's flagship product, SmartVoice.

Unlike some competitors, then, AccessLine is fully in control of its technology, and CEO Doug Johnson sees this as a significant competitive advantage. "Because we own our code stack, we don't pay license fees," he explained to VoIPplanet.com. "We own the code, so our incremental cost, putting on a customer, is extremely low." He sees other advantages, but they are more technical in nature and we'll come back to them in a bit.

With SmartVoice, companies can keep—and continue to use—any or all of their existing phone equipment, including PBXs, phones, wiring, etc. AccessLine installs and maintains, at each customer location, a VoIP gateway and a broadband IP connection device, which then pipes all the organization's phone traffic over a dedicated IP line, replacing both local and long-distance telco services.

All the application functionality—voicemail, find/follow, fax, conferencing, auto attendant, etc.—resides on AccessLine's server nodes, located in key urban locations across the U.S. Clients can pick and choose the applications that serve their needs. All incremental upgrades and improvements roll out to customers automatically.

Furthermore, for companies that don't have an existing phone system, AccessLine's SmartVoice Plus program will provide that as well—everything except the phones themselves. As with 'classic' SmartVoice service, all of this good stuff comes with virtually no capital investment.

While you can sign up on-line, the company's sales operation is primarily based on what chief marketing officer Kent Hellebust terms a 'robust agent channel.' "We have agents across the country," he told VoIPplanet, in addition to reselling operations with Costco and Office Depot.

AccessLine has recently boosted its marketing muscle thanks to a newly re-engineered relationship with IDeACOM, a nationwide organization that acts as a single-source supplier of voice and data-application needs for business customers. IDeACOM, which had in the past delivered SmartVoice to customers in the New England region, will now be rolling it out throughout its 47-state footprint.

A bigger sales channel means . . . more sales. And sales of telephony services can be complicated transactions, even with customers who are, by definition, small and medium companies. There are lots of questions that need to be answered, many having to do with call-flow management: How many phone lines do you need? How do you want the calls managed: What calls where—to whom? When?

While you may send out a single bill to a business customer, Doug Johnson pointed out, "really, you're serving dozens or hundreds of customers—the employees. "We have dozens of features, and we provide the flexibility of letting each customer decide which users get to use which features. It gets very complex very quickly."

To address this issue, especially in view of the expanding agent network, AccessLine is building an automated provisioning system that it believes will cut the time and effort involved in setting up a new customer as much as 90 percent. Service Builder, the first component of the overall system, was launched recently. It is a graphical application that gathers the needed information and automatically populates it to the back-end OSS supporting the system.

"We go from over two hours, down to ten minutes per customer," Johnson explained. "What we're doing is providing a software interface for all these new agents." Not only will Service Builder increase overall efficiency it will enhance scale capability, letting AccessLine grow more rapidly.

But the Service Builder app does more. As Johnson explained, it visually diagrams a company's entire phone system—"and the customer has a user interface into this. They can see their own profile," he said.

When the need arises for an add, move, change, or delete, this can be handled in-house, by the phone administrator. "Our picture of the person that's going to be doing this for SMB, isn't an IT guy," Johnson said, "it's an office manager who doesn't wear a white lab coat; just a smart, hardworking individual who wants to get the job done."

So, the Smart Provisioning system (of which Service Builder, again, is the first element) becomes part of that unified code stack that makes up the SmartVoice product. "It's all about interoperability between systems," Johnson evangelized. "With other people's technology, change management is a nightmare—all the regression analysis you have to go through on code change and release."

Working with other people's technology adds up to a serious roadblock to innovation, in Johnson's view, and he shared an illustrative anecdote: "Yesterday, we received a request for a change from a new customer—a real estate company that bought the product and deployed it to 1,700 agents. They said 'Oh, we thought it was going to do X, and that's really important to us.' We wrote the patch for what they wanted—yesterday—our guys worked late—and we'll load it and they'll have what they wanted, in the next couple of days."

Turning around a customer change request on a three day cycle—"without having our own technology control," is inconceivable, according to Johnson. And having a phone technology supplier with that kind of responsiveness doesn't seem like a bad idea.

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