The telephone switchboard and landline desk phone may not be dead, but they are becoming relics of the past along with office ashtrays and typewriters.
Businesses are increasingly turning away from PBX (private branch exchange) phone systems and toward VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephony, which enables conversations to travel as data across the Internet. By 2013 more than 80 percent of businesses will use VoIP, according to research by In-Stat.
Is VoIP Right for You?
VoIP can be ideal if your company handles many calls among multiple people, has mobile employees, or juggles satellite offices. Implementing the technology can help to shrink or eliminate the cost of long-distance and conference calls.
In addition, VoIP provides the flexibility to manage calls as you would other data. For example, a caller's contact information may pop up on a Web-based dashboard or on a smartphone with a VoIP app when they ring your number. Depending on the service, voice calls can be translated to text that you read via e-mail or on a smartphone. Many VoIP services extend beyond voice to encompass instant messaging, virtual meetings, and videoconferencing. VoIP is key to unified communications efforts to integrate all of your correspondence into a single, digital hub.
If you already have a local or wide-area network, then you've already laid much of the groundwork. Make sure that your organization has enough bandwidth--a T1 line or better--before trying to cram your calls through a sluggish data pipeline.
In Video: Making the Leap to VoIP
What kind of VoIP system you need depends on the size of your business and the number of locations. One person working at home probably doesn't need much more than a consumer service such as Skype, ViaTalk, or Vonage. Just sign up, download the app, don a headset, and you're good to go. Skype even offers encryption to keep calls private. Mobile VoIP apps can help you rein in cell phone bills.
But that's not enough if you need individual phone lines for your employees. In this case, the many VoIP options essentially break down to either a hosted or on-site VoIP service. Hybrid services can blend the two, letting you combine old and new equipment.
Research firm Frost & Sullivan projects that hosted VoIP will grow by 30 percent and on-premise by 12 percent over the next five years.
Hosted VoIP leaves the heavy technology lifting to another company. It can help a small business appear bigger by offering PBX-style features, such as individual phone numbers for employees and call transfers, even to workers away from their desks. It can include toll-free numbers and integration with e-mail and faxing software. You basically download software and buy or lease IP phones for each user. There's little need to invest in expensive equipment or to pay an IT pro for ongoing support. 8x8 and Speakeasy are among the many companies offering hosted VoIP. Your Internet service provider may offer options for VoIP service, as well.
By contrast, on-premise VoIP will offer all the features of a hosted service, with the option for fine-tuning. Avaya and Cisco are among the vendors to consider. For this VoIP PBX option, however, you'll have to handle all the hardware and the calls, so it's time to call an IT pro. If you're upgrading from a pure PBX system, a VoIP gateway device on your network can make the transition. Once you have VoIP going on your network, you should optimize your router and your network to prioritize traffic to ensure high call quality.
Before You Leap
As for the drawbacks, a hosted service may lack the customization you crave, or charge you extra fees for adding features or new users; it could leave you high and dry if the company goes belly-up, too. With on-premise VoIP, you may suffer the obvious headaches and costs of managing any tech equipment in-house, including a large up-front investment.
Before you make the big VoIP switch-over, look closely at the numbers. Compare what you currently spend per user on phone service with what you project to pay a VoIP provider. Read the fine print of any service to determine any hidden fees. Figure in hardware and ongoing maintenance, and don't forget to add the cost of a faster Internet connection, if you need one.
Case Study: Green Heating-Products Seller Saves Greenbacks With VoIP
JTG/Muir struggled with an aging PBX phone system. The lack of features and growing maintenance costs turned off the small business, which sells energy-efficient heating equipment directly from manufacturers. The Oakland, California, company turned to BoxIT to upgrade its phone system, hoping to lower costs and provide greater flexibility to its 30 users, including many who work remotely.
BoxIT chose VoIP to replace the tired PBX technology, which had its heyday in the era of switchboard operators. JTG/Muir threw away boxes of NEC telephones from its staffers' desks to make way for Yealink SIP (Session Internet Protocol) phones.
For the pipeline through which voice and data traffic flows, BoxIT went with a SIP Trunk from Cbeyond Cloud Services. Rather than connecting to phones via old-school physical wires as in a PBX system, the SIP Trunk controls communication over the Internet. BoxIT prioritized voice over regular Internet traffic on the company network to ensure high call quality.
It also opted for a customizable, free, Linux-based phone system with a Trixbox CE server, based on Asterisk software. This enables users to make and receive calls through either the Yealink SIP phones at their desks or via soft phone from a laptop, an iPad, an iPhone, or an Android smartphone. Making the latter option possible is the Counterpath Bria soft-phone app, which offers editions for PCs as well as for Android and iOS devices.
BoxIT also added to the package a Web-based Fop2 Flash operator panel. This allows office staff to view instantly who is on which call, as well as to transfer and record calls. There are plans to integrate JTG/Muir's CRM (customer relationship managment) tool with Trixbox CE.
No downtime was necessary during the migration, as BoxIT had prepared the new system to take over immediately once the switch was made.
With the old PBX phone system, users working remotely had to dial in periodically to check voicemail messages. Now, after the VoIP overhaul, they can turn on features such as Follow Me, which allows an office extension to ring offsite wherever they might be. Voicemail messages sent out as a .wav file can be played back on a smartphone, laptop, or other device.
If the Internet connection goes down at the office, the SIP Trunk can be set up to call an alternate traditional landline or cell phone, or it can send a call directly to voicemail and then deliver it in an e-mail message.
In addition to enjoying a new system that provides flexibility for often mobile employees, JTG/Muir is saving $1200 each month with three times the bandwidth as the old PBX system.
With the overhaul, JTG/Muir not only reduced costs but also freed its staffers to focus on selling solar hot-water heaters, radiant systems, and other heating products, both on the road and from the office.
--Case study submitted by BoxIT.
Founded in 2001 by Thor Myhrstad, BoxIT is a managed service provider and IT consulting firm supporting small businesses and nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find the company at boxitweb.com or at 866/761-6148.
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