Small Business Fax Solutions for the Digital Age

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted August 10, 2010

Internet-based fax services offer a convenient way to send, receive and archive faxes, but they can also solve a big problem for any small business that relies on VoIP for its telecommunications. While VoIP can help your business save on phone bills and consolidate your business communications, it doesn’t always play well with fax machines.

Getting a fax machine to work reliably over VoIP has been quite a challenge ever since the technology was first introduced. That's because VoIP lines were not optimized for modem communication and can't transmit a 9600kbps fax modem signal properly.

Complicating matters further is the issue of packet loss. It's not much of an issue for voice -- you might get some noise on the line from time to time, hear an echo or notice a bit of drop out, but for the most part the call quality is acceptable.

However, packet lost during a fax transmission is an entirely different matter. Even just a few lost packets can lead to an error message or even fax termination. Because of this, the only way small business owners could ensure reliable fax deliveries was to retain at least one dedicated fax line.

Fortunately faxing over VoIP networks has improved dramatically; although it's still not perfect. This has been made possible by what's called the T.38 protocol. This T.38 standard provides real-time fax delivery over VoIP and works like traditional faxing. T.38 fax gateways can handle any delay, jitter or packet loss, which minimizes failure in the fax transmission.

In spite of these advancements, some people still report intermittent problems, especially when faxing large documents of 10 pages or more. So while better, results are somewhat hit or miss. Not all ISPs support faxing-over-IP. But even if they don't support the T.38 standard, they might still be able to provide you with instructions for making your faxing more reliable.

Reducing the transmission speed (or baud rate) of the fax machine to 9600bps (or even lower if possible) can significantly increase the likelihood of a successful fax transmission. Disabling ECM (error correction mode) can also be quite helpful. ECM analyzes the received frames and detects any corrupted data.

Noise, poor signal strength or packet loss can cause part of the fax information to be lost during transmission. If any disruption occurs, a retransmit signal gets sent until an error-free frame is received. The problem with this setting over VoIP is that some packet loss, latency or jitter will usually exist on an Internet connection. These retransmits tend to increase the call duration, adding to the instability of the fax, creating additional retransmits, resulting in a communication error and ultimately fax failure.

By disabling ECM the receiving fax machine will not continually request any slightly corrupted transmissions to be resent, ensuring a greater chance of a completed fax. Additionally, along with disabling ECM and using a lesser baud rate, decreasing the fax resolution from high or fine quality to normal can also be quite helpful.

Consider Internet Fax Services

Testing out fax connections can be difficult because you need to coordinate with another person at another fax machine to send and receive your test fax. This is now a bit easier thanks to the HP Test Fax Service. Send a one page blank fax to 1-888-473-2963 (1-888-hpfaxme). After receipt of your fax, the test fax will generate a return fax back to you, usually within 5 minutes, with acknowledgement that your fax was received.

If after all that your still having difficulty getting your faxes to transmit reliably, then you might want to consider signing up for an online or Internet fax service. An online faxing service lets you send and receive faxes from anywhere in the world without a traditional paper fax machine. Instead, you send and receive faxes via your email account.

The body of the email is typically the cover letter while the fax itself is a document, usually a PDF or DOC file, attached to the email. You put the recipient's fax number in the "To" field. Once you send the email, the service converts it and forwards it on to a real fax machine. It also sends you an email confirming successful transmission.

This service works just like a regular fax machine, the only difference is that all your incoming faxes will be converted so you can view and print them if necessary from your computer. As part of the service you'll be provided with a dedicated toll-free or local fax number. Senders fax to your number just as they would any other fax machine, and you'll receive it via email. Some online fax services even offer a Web-based management system that holds all your faxes for viewing, forwarding or sorting, along with detailed information on each fax sent and received.

Benefits of Internet Fax Services

Unlike a typical fax machine that resides at a specific location, an online fax service lets you send and receive faxes from any location (think hotel rooms or Starbucks) equipped with a broadband connection. You'll never miss an important fax or need to rely on someone in your office to receive it for you.

Receiving faxes on the computer also increases security. Regular fax machines automatically print out faxes as they are received, and they sit in open areas accessible to anyone walking by. This makes it easy for a fax to get misplaced or read by unauthorized personal. Since online faxes come directly to your email, they are far more secure and almost impossible to misplace. Plus you can easily archive them for future reference.

Internet fax services are also more environmentally responsible. Since your faxes now reside on your computer, you'll save money because you will no longer print unneeded faxes. Plus pricing is very reasonable. For example, MyFax.com offers 200 pages a month for $20 bucks; with no hidden fees or contracts.

The only downside to using an online faxing service occurs when you need to fax a document that's not on the computer, such as a copy of a signed contract. You need to scan that document into the PC and save it as a digital file, such as a DOC or PDF, before you can send it.

For single page documents this isn't difficult, but for multi-page documents it can be quite an inconvenience, especially if you don't have a scanner with an Automatic Document Feeder (ADF). Nevertheless, the benefits of this service far outweigh this minor inconvenience.

Numerous companies offer online fax services, including the aforementioned MyFax, eFax and Nextiva. All three of these companies offer a 30-day free trial so you can evaluate them for yourself. If you need further assistance selecting a provider, check out a site called FaxCompare.com. This site does nothing but evaluate online fax services, highlighting the most important pros and cons of each for easy comparison.

Even if you can fax over VoIP pretty reliably, there is no reason why your small business couldn't benefit from an Internet faxing service. They provide you with greater mobility and more features while reducing your expenses and being more environmentally friendly.

Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist, writing product reviews and feature stories for both print and web-based publications.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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