Cisco Spark & Cloud Telephony

by Sandra Gustavsen

Cisco has extended the features and functionality of its cloud-based team collaboration application, Cisco Spark, adding business telephony and video conferencing to the messaging and meeting capabilities already available. This latest development takes Spark to a whole new level, making it a Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) contender with built-in messaging, meeting and calling functionality. The Spark Calling service is aimed at small and mid-sized businesses with 250 users or less and is offered through Cisco partners as a monthly per-user subscription.spark_logo

To recap, Cisco had been seeking feedback on this evolving cloud-based application since its introduction as Project Squared in November 2014. In early 2015, Cisco incorporated new features, added additional device support and began offering Spark as a free version with limited functionality (e.g. one-to-one video calling and 3-party meetings) or as a monthly subscription with additional functionality such as room moderation, directory synchronization and broader meeting capabilities.

The complete Cisco Spark service with the new telephony and video conferencing functionality became available through Cisco partners on March 8, 2016 in the United States. General availability in Australia is expected later in 2016, followed by Canada, the UK, Germany, France and additional countries in 2017.

Spark M & C Packages

Cisco defines three “M” level packages (for Messaging and Meeting capabilities) and a “C” level package (for Calling) that can be layered on top.

The Spark Messaging and Meeting subscription-based services (M1, M2 and M3) are designed to complement and enhance the Cisco Unified Communications Manager (UCM) solution, including systems deployed on-site (Business Edition 6000 or 7000 or Cisco UCM) and Cisco’s Hosted Collaboration System (HCS) that delivers Cisco’s UCM and collaboration portfolio as a subscription-based service.

  • M1: “Business Messaging” allows Spark users to participate in group chats, engage in 3-party video calling with screen sharing and easily join Spark and SIP-based meetings (WebEx is not required).
  • M2: “Business Messaging & Basic Meetings” builds on M1 to support 25-party meetings with other Spark users (WebEx is not required).
  • M3: “Business Messaging & Advanced Meetings” adds WebEx-powered meetings, including with external participants, Personal Meeting Rooms and meeting scheduling.

Cisco continues to offer a “free” Spark service for instant messaging and one-to-one video with other Spark users.

Cisco recognizes the growing preference for hybrid cloud-premises implementations. Cisco customers with a UCM-based solution for call control can take advantage of Spark Messaging and Meeting cloud services via software applications known as Connectors, while continuing to leverage their existing communications investments. And, Spark services have a dual benefit when it comes to Cisco’s HCS since customers that subscribe to HCS for call control can take advantage of Spark Messaging and Meeting for enhanced functionality. HCS partners can target a new market – small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) – since Spark cloud-based phone system is more cost-effective for smaller businesses than Cisco HCS which is typically best suited for medium to large organizations.

The new Spark Calling capability adds business-class voice and video, mobility and voice messaging. This “C” package can be added to any of the M level options to enable telephony as-a-service and eliminate the need for a phone system on-site. The Spark cloud-based phone service is optimized for the under-250 user market and comes with an essential telephony feature set (a subset of the Cisco UCM features).

  • C1: M1 + Cloud Calling
  • C2: M2 + Cloud Calling
  • C3: M3 + Cloud Calling

Cisco Spark is sold as an annual contract, with discounts for pre-paid annual subscriptions. List pricing ranges from about $8 to $29 per user per month for an annual subscription (pre-paid) for M options or about $20 to $39 per user per month for an annual subscription (pre-paid) for C options. A few add-on services are available, including for room registration and event training centers.

Note that PSTN Calling is an additional monthly fee above the cost of the C level plans. Cisco has announced IntelePeer as the first Preferred Media Partner (PMP) that will provide PSTN services, with others to follow. Alternatively, in hybrid environments, customers that have purchased or are considering purchasing a Cisco Business Edition or Cisco UCM solution can utilize Cisco’s new Call Service Connect software to connect to the Spark cloud. This allows Spark users to place and receive PSTN calls via the customer’s local PSTN gateway (i.e. “bring your own Cisco call control”).

Cisco is offering Professional Services to help with configurations, customizations and end user training, and has opened the Cisco Spark for Developers environment for building custom applications and integrations. Additionally, at the Enterprise Connect 2016 event, Cisco announced the Cisco Spark Innovation Fund, a $150 million investment to accelerate the creation of custom applications and integration tools based on the Spark communications platform. Rowan Trollope, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Cisco’s Internet of Things (IoT) and Collaboration Technology Group explains what’s behind the significant investment, “This unique SaaS model is not about service providers simply reselling Cisco Spark, but about joint innovation and shared business outcomes.”