By the Small Business Computing Staff
Over the past few years, many small businesses owners have spent so much mental bandwidth trying to get the right mobile phone service in place that they've left their office-phone situation on auto-pilot. Or if you have a T1 line that bundles Internet and phone service, you may think it's too much of a hassle to move on when your contract ends. However, not evaluation all of your telecommunications options could cost you money each month, and you could miss out on the productivity-enhancing features that today's advanced VoIP systems provide.
Ring Up Small Business VoIP
VoIP (short for Voice over Internet Protocol) simply refers to the transmission of voice phone calls over the Internet. It is fast replacing PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) service, the landline system of copper wires and switches used almost since the days of Alexander Graham Bell. Indeed, VoIP isn't just an alternative, it's an inevitable alternative. In 2013, AT&T—the spiritual successor of Ma Bell—cautioned the FCC that the venerable PSTN phone network was at or near obsolescence.
"This telephone network we've grown up with is now an obsolete platform, or at least a rapidly obsolescing platform," wrote Hank Hultquist, VP of AT&T's federal regulatory division. "It will not be sustainable for the indefinite future. Nobody's making this network technology anymore. It's become more and more difficult to find spare parts for it. And it's becoming more and more difficult to find trained technicians and engineers to work on it."
So eventually all telephony will be over IP networks—which is a good thing. The higher-bandwidth connections can handle not just voice but also video communications, so your VoIP system can also be your videoconferencing solution. In addition to a wealth of cutting-edge communications features, VoIP service can often cost less per line than traditional landline service.
VoIP: It's Not Perfect
But there are downsides to consider. Unlike old-fashioned phone service, which draws the minimal power it needs from the phone line itself, VoIP solutions need electricity to function. If the power goes out, so does your phone service—unless you have battery backup for the routers and servers that get your calls from the desk phone to the Internet. And while call quality has improved vastly over the early days—so much so that VoIP calls (especially on "HD" networks) rival or even surpass those on PSTN—it still isn't perfect. There will be calls where you'll notice degraded sound quality.
Another consideration is the strength of your in-house local area network (LAN); you may want VoIP, but your LAN may not be able to handle the required bandwidth. All networks suffer some amount of data loss during typical operation, and dropped data packets are simply resent and then re-assembled in the proper order at the destination application. But with VoIP, calls happen in real time and dropped packets negatively impact the quality of calls. The network must give a VoIP application high priority—which could, in turn, impede your other network applications. Your VoIP service provider will need to perform a test of your network to see if it is suitable for VoIP, or if you'll need to upgrade your network before making the switch.
VoIP: Hosted or On-site
As with so much business software these days, you'll also need to decide between an on-premises solution or a cloud-hosted service offering. The former places any equipment and software required to set up your IP-based PBX (public branch exchange) in your offices, where your IT department is in charge of maintenance, upgrades and so on. But there are plenty of providers who offer VoIP PBX as a hosted service, where the vendor houses and maintains your phone system servers and software off-site.
A hosted VoIP PBX offers sign-up-and-forget-it convenience, since the service provider takes responsibility for the software and servers. But an on-premises VoIP PBX solution might offer more flexibility when it comes to the actual supported phone hardware—by allowing you to funnel calls from cell phones and analog phones to the IP-PBX, rather than making you switch to approved VoIP handsets.
Also, as with so much business software today, the trend in VoIP has been to go mobile. Most leading providers—not to mention dozens of independent developers—offer smartphone/tablet apps that let you and your employees to make calls and send texts using the app and a Wi-Fi or a wireless WAN connection, rather than a 3G/4G cell network. This saves you from eating up your cell plan minutes and data allotment when you are within range of your office Wi-Fi network or a free hotspot.