Microsoft Teams Direct Routing: Making Teams Your Phone System

December 19th, 2022

Remote and hybrid work have made Microsoft Teams a core tool in nearly all large organizations. Many business leaders and IT administrators would like to extend the value of Teams to enable users to make and receive business phone calls. This improves the productivity of their employees by keeping them connected with customers, business partners, and co-workers in the office, at home, or even on the road.

Yet many organizations still have legacy office PBXs, on-premises hardware infrastructure, and complex network topologies that are not easy to instantly replace. As a result, they need to use  Teams Phone in concert with their existing telephone environment. While that can seem daunting, this is where Direct Routing can help.

Let’s explore how Direct Routing for Microsoft Teams works, its benefits, and how it can improve communications in hybrid and remote work environments.

What is Direct Routing for Microsoft Teams?

Direct Routing securely connects Microsoft Teams to a telecom provider so that users can make and receive external phone calls from a Teams client on a desktop or mobile device. This solution enables Teams to become the office phone system, replacing a traditional PBX by routing phone calls directly from the telecom provider to Teams clients. Microsoft calls their business phone services Microsoft Teams Phone. (Previously they used the term Microsoft Phone System.)

Direct Routing enables an organization to choose their telecom provider.  In many cases, they can keep their existing provider, which may be important if they have an existing contract or have a national or global connectivity plan in-place. Direct Routing is also able to accommodate integration of Teams with an existing PBX.

Microsoft Teams provides several benefits over traditional PBX systems, including the ability to make and receive business calls from anywhere, a common user experience across locations, modern security, and simplified deployment and management for IT staff. Teams Phone also allows users to take advantage of traditional business calling features in Microsoft Teams, such as caller ID, call forwarding, and voicemail, as well as the option to escalate calls into full collaboration sessions. This combination helps support the growing remote and hybrid workforce.

How Does Teams Streamline Communication in Hybrid Work?

Since the Covid-19 lockdown period in 2020, remote work has become increasingly common, with 74% of companies moving some portion of their employees into fully offsite or hybrid work. With so many meetings becoming virtual, Microsoft Teams has become a comfortable and familiar element of employees' work environment, employees have grown accustomed to integrating it into existing processes and workflows.

Since Teams is already in use for internal  communications, it’s easy to add external  phone system capabilities without needing to provide extensive training to employees. This helps to reduce disruptions during the adoption phase and allows employees to collaborate with external customers and partners in ways that they are accustomed to, seamlessly boosting productivity and team morale.  

Direct Routing for Dummies Guide

How Does Direct Routing Work?

Direct Routing relies on two elements to connect Teams to a telecom provider:  Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) Trunks and a Session Border Controller (SBC).

SIP Trunks are the connections between a business phone system and a public switched telephone network (PSTN). SIP Trunks operate across a data network, an IP network, either a public Internet connection or a private data connection. SIP Trunks use Voice over Internet (VoIP) technology to  replace traditional “copper” infrastructure, including analog lines, BRI lines, or T1/E1 circuits. In recent years, many countries globally have announced plans to phase out their legacy telephone networks, moving exclusively to SIP Trunks and VoIP technology. The older technology is becoming expensive to maintain, and as a result, traditional telecom service prices are going up as telecom providers try to “nudge” customers to migrate to SIP Trunks

Since a SIP Trunk traverses an IP network it requires a security element. The Session Border Controller (SBC) serves as a sophisticated voice firewall, acting as a demarcation point at the edge of an organization's network to secure (including encryption) and regulate the VoIP traffic flowing to and from the organization. Additionally, the SBC modifies or translates communication and media protocols as they move in and out of the network, allowing the SBC to solve interoperability issues between Teams and telecom providers and/or legacy equipment.
An SBC also improves service quality and prevents distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. It helps connect legacy in-office PBXs with newer VoIP systems, so that some existing infrastructure can stay in place and still communicate through the new digital network.

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Other Options besides Direct Routing: Microsoft Calling Plans vs Operator Connect

Teams Direct Routing is the most common solution to connect Teams Phone to a telecom provider, but it’s not the only one. Microsoft also offers its own calling plans as well as a new service, called Operator Connect. All of the solutions share the ability to connect Teams to a telecom provider but they each have unique benefits and limitations.

Microsoft Calling Plans

Microsoft Calling Plans are per user, per month plans where Microsoft acts as the telecom provider, rather than utilizing a provider of your choice. Calling plans are popular with smaller organizations (typically 20 users and under) that don’t need solutions to integrate existing phone equipment or auxiliary devices like overhead paging, door phones, and security services. Typically, Microsoft Calling Plans are priced per user, providing the organization with a bundle of minutes. They are very easy to acquire and deploy, making them the path of least resistance for a smaller group of users.  Microsoft Calling Plans are an appealing choice for those who wish to quickly integrate Teams with a telecom provider, but they are not typically the best option for larger enterprises that want to negotiate better pricing and/or need deployment flexibility.

Operator Connect

Operator Connect is a new addition to Microsoft Teams Phone. Like Direct Routing, organizations can choose their own telecom provider and negotiate their own contract and pricing. What makes Operator Connect unique is that Microsoft has started to work with select telecom providers to integrate more of the telecom administration experience into Teams. This allows telecom providers to deliver phone numbers and other services into the Teams Admin Center. This makes it easier for a Teams administrator to assign or reassign phone numbers to Teams users, without having to contact the telecom provider separately.

Operator Connect launched in the fall of 2021, so only a select number of telecom providers are signed up and active in the Teams Admin Center, most in North America and Western Europe. Additionally, not all services are available via Operator Connect.  Services like PBX integration, paging, analog devices, etc., often still require Direct Routing.

Operator Connect uses an SBC that’s built into the telecom provider’s network. That convenience eliminates the need for a customer to acquire one, but the absence of an SBC directly impacts integration options.

The Benefits of Teams Direct Routing

Teams Phone with Direct Routing is the most popular choice for Teams Phone because it enables businesses to seamlessly transform the way they communicate, even if that process takes months or years, and spans hundreds or thousands of sites, across the globe. Direct Routing has several key benefits for enterprises.

  • Enables common communication tools across the organization by allowing employees who are already using Teams to use the same clients (desktop and mobile) to make and receive external phone calls, whether they are in the office or working remotely.
  • Leverages a single telecom provider for all locations. Direct Routing and SIP trunks make it easy to connect multiple sites, even as the migration to Teams Phone is in process. That makes it easy for employees to stay connected, regardless of the equipment that might be in use at a particular site. It also gives remote/hybrid workers the same communications access as someone working in an office.
  • Allows for multiple SBC deployment choices, including cloud-based SBC services, software, or hardware, accommodating existing equipment, local regulation, or technology preferences. This allows a company to deploy Teams to fit the organization’s unique needs.
  • Provides flexible and cost-competitive plans. An organization can use its existing, pre-negotiated carrier plans, or look at different providers to get the best deal possible.
  • Gives IT teams more control over the network without added complexity. With Direct Routing, IT teams can easily configure and manage network settings and traffic routing, largely through cloud interfaces. This allows them to configure the network to match their infrastructure requirements, add or remove route destinations, and monitor reliability and quality.

How to Implement Teams Direct Routing

While Direct Routing enables employees to continue using the Teams interface that they already know and understand, behind the scenes, the migration process requires careful planning to ensure that it runs smoothly and employees are properly trained on the new system to avoid disruptions to business.
To get started, there are a few essential steps to consider:

  • Implement a pilot program. It’s important that the IT team has a chance to use Teams Phone before they are asked to support it. It’s also smart to enlist some power users at different sites (if applicable) to be early adopters.  These early adopters can act as spotters for unexpected issues as well as become internal evangelists for the benefits of the new solution.  Like any new technology, there will be individuals that need more time and assistance to adopt a new solution. Having a group of experienced support staff and local power users can eliminate little issues becoming big issues..
  • Get the right licenses and choose a provider. If Teams has already been implemented internally, businesses need to ensure their Office 365 licenses include Teams Phone. Each user requires a Teams Phone license. Teams Phone licenses are often bundled with other premium services, such as the E5 package or the license can be added on to an existing package. Contact your Microsoft business partner or account manager to be sure you have the proper Teams Phone licensing in-place for every user. When choosing a telecom provider, be sure to seek out a reliable managed service provider that has had major successes with direct routing implementations. A certified Microsoft partner will ensure implementation of Teams Direct Routing is successful by providing support in areas such as system architecture design, system integration, migration, training, and support.
  • Configure your SBC and SIP trunk. An SBC will need to be configured to properly route calls between Teams Phone and the telecom provider’s network. With this configuration, outgoing calls from Teams users are managed by the Teams Phone application. It recognizes the call is for an external user, sending the call to the SBC. The SBC, via a SIP trunk, reviews the call’s security, signaling and media parameters before routing the call to the organization’s telecom provider. The provider routes the call across the PSTN network, to its destination. SBCs remain the call flow for the duration of the call, watching for security issues, encrypting media and signaling (if needed) as well as monitoring all voice traffic to manage congestion or other anomalies that might impact the end user’s experience..
  • Plan to port existing phone numbers if you are changing telecom providers. It’s not uncommon for organizations to review their telecom provider contracts when they migrate to Teams Phone. In many cases services are being centralized to a single telecom provider vs several local providers that are in-place at various business locations. It’s important to make plans to get phone numbers ported to the new telecom provider. The provider will do most of the heavy lifting but these efforts typically require several weeks notice.  It’s critical to plan ahead so employees aren’t disrupted when they transition to Teams Phone.
  • Consider the need for a transition period to migrate off of an old PBX or, if required, leave it in place. Some organizations, particularly large sites or multi-site environments can’t make a flash cut from the old PBX to Teams Phone. If the organization needs a transition period with both the existing PBX and Teams in use for phone services, the SBC can act as a local router to send some calls to the local PBX and others to Teams. Otherwise, you can configure the SBC to route telecom traffic directly to Teams.
  • Develop a training plan for your employees. Get your team comfortable in the new system and ensure they have what they need to get the most out of the system. Users  may need to help discover features that worked differently in a client setting vs a phone on a traditional PBX. As with any transition, adjusting takes time.

Migrating to Teams Direct Routing with Ribbon

As remote and hybrid work continues to become the norm, tools like Teams Direct Routing will continue to be essential in improving unified communication, streamlining collaboration between team members, and boosting productivity and morale.

Ribbon provides the Microsoft-certified Session Border Controller (SBC) required to connect Teams to a telecom provider. Since Teams uses IP-based voice connections, commonly referred to as SIP Trunks, to connect to the rest of the world, Ribbon’s SBC solutions work to secure these connections and assure interoperability so organizations can select from hundreds of telecom providers across the globe. Ribbon’s SBC services can also be customized to work with your existing technology and environments.

Most IT staff have enough on their plate, so Ribbon makes it easy to take the next step to turn Teams into an enterprise-wide office telephone system.  Discover why you need a SBC as part of your telecom solution.

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Learn more about Ribbon Session Border Controllers for Enterprises

Additional Resources

Microsoft Solutions - Teams Direct Routing

Session Border Controllers for Enterprises

Ribbon Connect Microsoft Teams Direct Routing Solution Brief

Direct Routing Solutions for Microsoft Teams - Solution Brief