“It’s great they’re selling this,” one tech guy muttered quietly to another, “but they’ve been offering this for a while.”
We are all gathered in a huddle around the demonstration of the cloud-based calling solution from Columbus Business Solutions at last Friday’s launch of the company’s cloud-based products and a couple of heads around the murmuring pair nodded in agreement. The launch took place at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad hotel, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain.
As a “carrier of carriers” for the region, Columbus Business Solutions, the business-to-business (B2B) arm of Columbus Networks, parent body of Flow, is really the public facing expression of the backbone technology that the company has been building out over the last few years.
When Columbus came to T&T in 2005 (http://ow.ly/aABo2
), taking over the moribund assets of CCTT, its immediate challenge was bringing its programming into alignment with copyright law and revamping the infrastructure that delivered that cable offering to homes. The company’s business then was 98.5 per cent cable television and a tiny slice of data connectivity. Columbus began an infrastructure expansion that jumped from local telephone poles to undersea cables around the Caribbean region. The company has now built a billion-dollar pan-Caribbean communications network of interlocking broadband fibre-optic cable that delivers services from Florida in the north to Ecuador and Suriname in the southwest and east of South America, respectively. Along the way, the company jumped from being in the entertainment business to being in the data business and cable television became just a part of the information travelling along the company’s digital pipes.
Columbus’ Internet traffic
Columbus Networks now claims to move 70 per cent of regional Internet traffic and boasts provisioning capable of multiplying its current capacity by a factor of 20. As it built the network, the company began to build a range of peripheral services into its operations and in February 2011, Columbus Business Solutions was launched in Trinidad and Jamaica to offer several backoffice solutions to customers. The company now boasts 6,000 business customers in Trinidad (there is no Flow service in Tobago), many of which are small and medium enterprise customers (SMEs). Among the company’s major local clients are UTT, RBC, British Gas, Digicel, Costatt, Neal and Massy, Repsol and the Government. The cloud services shown in the most recent launch represent Columbus’ refreshed packaging of incrementally added services into customer-friendly offerings designed to lure more customers into relying on the company’s Internet-based product offerings.
Customers can choose to host video conferencing services, telephony and office PBX services, computer and network security and virtual networking services using Columbus’ cloud services instead of in their own IT backrooms.
Columbus will soon be adding a cloud-based surveillance product for Trinidad customers with armed response later this year. “Columbus is eating the upfront infrastructure costs and spending it over the life of the investment,” explained David D’Oliveira, vice-president of Columbus Business Solutions. “Columbus has millions of customers, and the cost is spread over that base.” The products free companies from worrying capital expenditure, allow easy expansion of capacity while Columbus manages the ICT service from end to end. The launch of the cloud services product line came after customers kept asking Columbus to “move up the stack” and provide more ICT services to its customers. “There are advantages to owning every part of the network,” said D’Oliveira, “We can guarantee via SLA’s, the promised uptime for the service.”
Most of the cloud products offer both user level and IT management levels of customisation for specific services.
That scalability, for instance, led to the agreement with Checkpoint to be the exclusive supplier for the region of cloud-based IT security solutions at prices as low as US$25 per month for a small office using basic protection services.
Cloud-based surveillance services move data to the cloud, making it impossible for incriminating footage to be lost or destroyed. Some of these products are surprisingly appealing. The Cloud Video Conferencing product layers a powerful layer of software abstraction into a service that usually jumps quickly from the no-brainer, push-button simplicity of Skype to the IT backroom arcana of high-end, high-definition telepresence solutions. In Columbus’ cloud conferencing space, you can bring a range of video sources to the “Virtual Video Room,” ranging from serious telepresence gear from companies like Polycomm and Cisco to the tiny camera on an iPad to the meeting and connect using a customer-managed online software platform. The demonstration, led by Glowpoint’s Walter Moore promised user-friendly video conferencing that accepts feeds from a wide range of video cameras with moderator control for as many as ten participants, though four to six connections are considered optimal for the system.
Unfortunately, Skype isn't currently supported, though Moore promised that support for the popular software was still “in the lab.” Users can use free software clients from Cisco and Polycomm to drive their cameras. “All you have to do is consume the video,” Glowpoint’s Moore promised. “Hopefully, that’s all you wanted to do in the first place.” Javier Guzman of Metaswitch explained the business solution for voice, which can either replace a PBX system for smaller companies of plug directly into the system of a digital phone exchange to route calls using the company’s digital routing systems. “This is infrastructure as a service,” Guzman noted, “You don’t buy a turbine; you buy electricity.” The Metaswitch call system sips ten-18 kbps of bandwidth per call and allows users to keep their existing phone numbers for incoming calls while using the digital system to route outgoing calls.
Other features include softphones, which tap into the network remotely allowing users use the Internet to maintain contact and accessibility through the home office phone network. Columbus Business Solutions’ current data network includes four regional data centres connecting to multiple network operations centres and the company boasts of a nimbleness in execution that it believes distinguishes it in the marketplace. When the 2011 state of emergency was announced, for example, the company shifted a multi-million-dollar rollout of services from Sangre Grande to Belmont and Laventille within 24 hours to take advantage of SoE-related improvements in security and access that allowed them to build out its network in these previously underserved areas. Columbus has aggressive investment plans for the region and plans to spend $45 million per year over the next five years on infrastructure and service development, not including unannounced projects that are still under consideration.
“Columbus cannot predict the future,” David D’Oliveira said, “But we enable it.”