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Skype opens up to business phone systems

The VoIP company has launched Skype For SIP, which will let businesses hook up their existing IP-based PBX systems to the popular internet-telephony service
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Skype is opening its VoIP system so businesses can hook up their internet-based phone systems to the popular service.

Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is an open standard that allows calls to be initiated on an IP network and makes it possible to integrate features such as presence, or seeing who is available to take a call, into a VoIP network. On Monday, Skype announced Skype For SIP, which it says will let business customers make low-cost calls to fixed lines and mobile phones around the world, and receive calls from Skype users.

Skype For SIP is targeted mainly at businesses that already have IP-based phone systems, and that want to connect those systems up to Skype's low-cost service. The service is initially being launched as a closed beta program, during which companies and potential partners can register their interest. To enlist partners, Skype is setting up a program for third-parties to become certified to service businesses in their use of Skype For SIP, in exchange for commission.

Stefan Oberg, the head of Skype's business division, told ZDNet UK last week that the beta program would be used to "iron out technical issues and the commercial model". Initially, the cost of using Skype For SIP will not extend beyond the standard rates for SkypeIn and SkypeOut calls. However, this may change after the service's "gold launch" later this year, Oberg said.

There are two main use cases for Skype For SIP: one involves making cheap calls out from the business PBX to normal telephones, while the other involves receiving calls into the PBX from Skype users. Oberg said the service would not offer calls from PBXs to Skype users, saying that when using a normal desk phone, "it's difficult to call a Skype name".

"We talk a lot about the outgoing-call case... but companies are also very excited about the inbound-call case," Oberg said. "If you're selling something or running a campaign — if you want to do that in the traditional world, then you would set up an 800 number, for example. But 800 numbers are local to a country. So if you're an international business, you have to set up 800 numbers in many countries. Now a company can have a button on their webpage or refer to Skype in an ad, and it's like a virtual, global 800 number."

Oberg explained that until now, companies wanting to get inbound Skype calls would have had to have multiple Skype clients. If a caller could not get a response from one profile, they would have to call another. Skype For SIP, however, makes it possible to offer standard PBX functionality, such as call queuing.

"Skype has always been targeting the mass consumer markets in product development and its communication and marketing, but we now think the time is right for us to move to businesses," Oberg said.

According to Oberg, the best option for small businesses that want Skype functionality, but do not yet have an IP-based PBX, is to get an Asterisk PBX — Skype announced an add-on module for such PBX systems back in September. Monday's announcement is targeted more at companies that already have non-Asterisk, IP-based PBXs, he claimed.

Skype's peer-to-peer-based VoIP protocols are closed-off, in that they do not interoperate with those of other VoIP providers. "When Skype was first developed, it was clear that standard protocols did not support the features that we wanted to provide, like good presence, video, file transfer," Oberg said. "So we developed our own protocol, and that is how we're still operating. In terms of requests from customers about opening up, this has been the one we've heard the loudest: to connect to existing phone systems."

"There will also be other announcements [in the future] in the area of opening up, but I can't comment now," Oberg added.

Oberg said that had received very few requests from its users to introduce interoperability with other VoIP services, and that connecting with SIP-enabled phone systems was a "much more compelling case".

Skype is looking "very closely" at the possibility of joining the Enum registry, which effectively acts as an interconnect between various islands of internet telephony connectivity, Oberg said. Enum went live in the UK last week, but cannot currently support Skype profiles, due to Skype's closed protocols.

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