In the past, small businesses with 10-25 users fell through the cracks when it came to VoIP services. There are numerous vendors that offer consumer-level VoIP services and many of these same companies (Vonage, Lingo, SunRocket, Packet8, etc.) also offer "business plans," but these are aimed primarily at very small businesses -- those with five or fewer users -- as they include only a single VoIP line accompanied by a fax line. At the other end of the spectrum, many vendors offer enterprise-level VoIP services for large businesses.
Now it seems vendors are discovering the small and midsize business (SMB) market and targeting products at "large small business" as well as midsize businesses up to 200 or so users.
One way to make IP telephony easier for small businesses is by combining it with wireless networking technology. Both offer several characteristics that are very attractive to small, growing businesses:
- Easy, low-cost setup
- Low ongoing costs
- User convenience
Integrated VoIP/WAP router with firewall
Vertical Communications just announced their Xcelerator IP product, which provides router/firewall functionality along with a SIP-based Voice over IP gateway and a wireless access point (WAP) in a single package. Thus, this all-in-one turn-key system gives you data routing, VoIP, perimeter security, and wireless connectivity without buying numerous components and struggling to make them work together.
The appliance is small, about the size of a typical eight-port Ethernet switch or WAP, and can be mounted vertically on a stand for an even tinier footprint. In addition to the phones, you can connect printers, faxes and other network devices. Fax/modem tone detection is supported.
The SIP gateway supports SIP v2, G.711 (audio companding), G.729A (audio data compression for voice), and G.723.1 (low bit rate speech compression) protocols and algorithms. It includes a DHCP service to assign IP addresses and supports IP Quality of Service (QoS) via the 802.1p standard (a method of implementing QoS at the Media Access Control (MAC) level.
The phone system supports up to 24 phones and eight VoIP lines, but you can network multiple systems (up to ten) if you have more users than that. It includes voicemail with auto attendant features, so you can play music or a customized message while callers are on hold and select up to two languages for voicemail prompts. Up to four stations can be serviced by the auto attendant at the same time.
Users can send voice messages to a recipient's e-mail inbox (as an attached .wav file), and different voicemail messages can be scheduled for different times and purposes (for instance, "away from desk" during the day, "office is closed" at night, "out to lunch" during lunch hour, and so forth).
In addition to the integrated appliance, you'll need to buy SIP phones from Vertical. These desksets are full-featured business phones that include speakerphone, multiple line selection (four line keys), call status LCD, and a two-port Ethernet switch so you can connect the phone and a computer to the network with one Ethernet cable. The phones support Power over Ethernet (PoE), which is a system for transmitting electrical power over regular twisted-pair cabling so you don't have to use a separate power supply; they also come with a power adapter so you have more flexibility as to how to power them.
The IP 2007 SIP phones that are designed for use with the Xcelerator IP system automatically register with the system. They include a full set of business calling features, including forwarding on no-answer or busy signal, call park and retrieve, caller ID, three-way conferencing, do not disturb, external paging and group paging, group rings, speed dial, and more.
The built-in WAP supports 802.11g Wi-Fi signaling for top performance. You can use it to connect laptop computers and handheld/PDAs to the network, as well as softphones and SIP phone handsets that support Wi-Fi. To prevent unauthorized use of the wireless network, the WAP supports multiple levels of encryption and authorization, including 802.1x and WPA/WPA 2 and MAC address filtering.
One of the drawbacks of VoIP is the problem of 911 emergency locator services. VoIP providers have been mandated by the U.S. government to provide enhanced 911 support, but generally this relies on the customer keeping individual emergency contact information up to date; because VoIP equipment can be moved from one location to another, this is less reliable than the automatic locator service for PSTN numbers that are tied to a specific location. The Xcelerator IP solves this problem by providing for the connection of an analog telephone line that can be used for 911 calls.
Best of all, the analog connection can serve a dual purpose. It can be used to expand regular calling capabilities, and if there is a power failure which takes down the VoIP system, the Xcelerator IP system automatically fails over to the analog line so that users still have telephone service through their regular handsets.
In addition to easy setup, the Xcelerator IP provides for easy management through a Web-based interface. There's a wizard that walks you through the initial configuration steps, and administrators can remotely manage the phone directories, numbering plans, and auto attendant schedules or back up voicemail messages and the system database to another location on the network. System management is password protected.
Small businesses that have more than two or three users need a way to implement VoIP that's cost effective and takes into account their budget, space, and personnel limitations. An integrated network/VoIP appliance like the Xcelerator IP from Vertical is easy to set up and doesn't require a lot of administrative overhead. You can find out more about the Xcelerator IP at http://www.vertical.com/products-featuretour-xcelerator.html.
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Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.