A VoIP provider for all seasons

The folks at Sarasota, Fla.-based Star2Star learned what they know about the VoIP business the hard way, according to CEO, co-founder, and serial entrepreneur Norm Worthington.

Worthington started out, in 2005, with a pair of partners and the idea of revolutionizing VoIP by producing an IP PBX that replaced a traditional $30k box at a fraction of the traditional cost.

After a year of development work, the company launched a beta test. The outcome, Worthington says, was “total disaster.” Quality and reliability problems so overwhelmed the fledgling company that they decided to retire in disarray and return to the metaphorical drawing board.

The result was a “blended” or hybrid architecture that is more or less unique in the industry.

Every Star2Star deployment involves on-premise hardware called StarBoxes—essentially small PBXs with a lot more functionality built into them—at each location (the more locations the merrier), supplemented by seven major hosting centers or “Constellation Nodes” scattered across North America that centrally house a lot of the basic functionality, such as switching and call setup, as well as features like audio conferencing, voicemail, and perhaps the auto attendant. Perhaps not.

“We have this ability to move functionality out of the cloud and down to the premise and vice versa—as needed,” Worthington told Enterprise VoIPplanet in a recent interview. Choices here are based on scaling and/or performance issues, and are made when the system is initially configured.

What happens when a call is placed over a Star2Star system is what makes the difference, according to Worthington. “As with any hosted solution, when you dial a call, the information goes as a SIP ‘conversation’ to the SIP server in the data center, which figures out how to route the call. Then call is initiated and packets start flying.”

“With a normal hosted solution, all the subsequent packets travel to and through the data center,” Worthington said. “With Star2Star, however, they travel by what we call the ‘StarPath’—the best path—which is set up by the SIP server in its initial analysis of the call.” (“Best” in this context means ‘lowest latency consistent with completeness,’ Worthington explained.)

Indeed, the Constellation Node hardware is continuously searching for best path information to keep calls moving as quickly and smoothly as possible. According to Worthington, the StarPath solution keeps packet transport times in the 30 to 40 ms range—well under 80 ms, which is the threshold of echo and jitter problems.

Each Star2Star system is, in fact, checking up on a good deal more than StarPath information. Built-in StarWatch functionality continuously monitors the entire hardware deployment down to the phones themselves. This makes an important contribution to keeping things smooth and trouble free.

But this unique architecture brings other benefits beyond good call quality, Worthington assured VoIPplanet. “Because we only carry the call setup—we don’t carry the packets—we use a lot less bandwidth and have a much lower cost of operation. Low power and hardware resource requirements, too. We pay no license fees (since we built our own technology).” All this results in significantly lower operating costs, “and we pass that along in lower pricing,” he explained.

Now, every VoIP provider seems to have its own view of how its services scale, in terms of the economics of the business. For Star2Star, viable deployments start out at around 15 phones. “With 15 phones, I can give you a brand new, shiny phone system, that does a lot more than your old [TDM/POTS] system, and pretty much guarantee that your costs won’t be any higher,” Worthington said.

“Then again, if you have tens of thousands of phones,” (as some of Star2Star’s larger customers do), “we can save you millions of dollars a year.”

Beyond the sheer impact of its lower operating costs, Star2Star offers cost savings through provisioning options. Probably the most significant is “line pooling,” which is analogous to the provisioning of a traditional PBX, where the number of phone lines purchased is some fixed fraction of the total number of phones.

With Star2Star, line pooling covers all of an organization’s phones, spread out over as many locations as they have. “We do an analysis of your phone usage in terms of average concurrent calls, and if you opt for line pooling,” (in which the per-line charge is slightly higher than without it), “we only charge for that number of lines,” Worthington said.

Moreover, Star2Star claims to be the only provider that can serve really large customers—think tens of thousands of phones in thousands of stores—who have locations with legacy POTS-only phone numbers. This it accomplishes simply by integrating a POTS circuit into the PBX for incoming calls and integrating the rest of the telephony fabric into its IP-based system.

Operationally, Star2Star is modeled on the interconnect business, which is how most businesses have gotten their phone service since the breakup of Ma Bell. That is, it is sold through a large network of authorized dealers, agents, master agents, etc. (To locate an appropriate dealer, fill out and submit the form found here.

Customers purchase the on-premise hardware—StarBox or Boxes of the appropriate capacity—and the dealers install and configure it. That’s all there is to it: a brand new, shiny phone system with no muss, no fuss.

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