Networking

VoIP providers begin to target small businesses

If you're planning a VoIP deployment for your small business, Deb Shinder says you've never had more options. More vendors are offering more plans for midsize businesses at low costs. She offers this walkthrough of some low-cost options targeted directly at small businesses.

In the past, companies such as Vonage, Lingo, and Packet8 have tailored their VoIP services for residential customers, with the most attractive feature being extremely low pricing compared to the traditional telco. Now, however, these providers are beginning to focus more on the small business market, offering features that businesses need while still keep costs relatively low.

VoIP providers have overlooked these small—but not tiny—businesses for a long time. Home office types could make do with residential plans, and companies such as Speakeasy and Covad were there for the larger small businesses and the midsize market. But it was harder for companies with five to 25 users to find VoIP plans with the features they needed at the prices they could afford. Now some enterprise-level providers are recognizing the value of offering plans suited to small businesses.

If you have a small business, you may have thought about moving to VoIP before. But in the past, you may have found that VoIP providers' consumer services weren't quite robust enough to meet your needs, and the commercial services were too expensive or their plans too complex.

If you're still thinking about moving to VoIP to save money on long distance, it may be time to take a second look. Here are some low-cost options targeted directly at small businesses.

Vonage and Lingo

If your company's needs are modest, Vonage offers business service for $49.99 per month per line. This gives you unlimited local and long distance calling to the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and some Western European countries.

The plan includes a dedicated fax line, with 500 minutes of outgoing fax service and unlimited incoming fax service. The fax automatically logs transmission and receipt records, which are accessible through Vonage's Web site.

You can download soft-phone software to provide your PC or Mac laptop with a Vonage VoIP interface. In addition, toll-free numbers cost $4.99 per month with 100 incoming minutes. Additional minutes cost 4.9 cents per minute.

Lingo's business plan, called Business Buzz, is very similar to Vonage's. Pricing and features are almost identical (including the dedicated fax line), and at the time of this writing, you get one month free when you sign up. You also get $25 per referral if you recruit others to sign up with Lingo. Lingo's toll-free numbers cost $4.95 per month for 100 minutes and only 3 cents per additional minute.

Packet8

A few months ago, 8x8 (the company that offers Packet8 VoIP services) announced that it was making a greater commitment to going after the small business market by adding features and functionality that are attractive to small companies. Its Virtual Office plan gives small businesses the ability to benefit from a hosted IP PBX solution with a unique phone number for every extension at a much lower price than the typical Centrex setup.

In addition, the plan includes an automated system called Auto Attendant that removes the need for a receptionist and supports multiple greetings and prerecorded prompts for regularly used recordings. Other features include:

  • A conferencing system that companies can use both with Virtual Office extensions and outside callers and that allows you to password-protect conference calls and schedule an unlimited number of concurrent conferences
  • Voice mail delivered as an e-mail attachment, with multiple greeting options (up to eight)
  • Web-based administration with the ability to control all extension settings

Pricing starts as low as $9.99 per month (plus regulatory fees) for fax lines, $19.99 per month for metered extensions, and $39.99 per month for unlimited extensions. (Price is per extension.)

Equipment and activation costs total less than $200, making this especially attractive to small businesses that can't afford large start-up costs. Toll-free numbers for incoming calls are also available for $4.99 per month for 100 minutes and 4.5 cents per minute thereafter.

Whaleback Systems

If your needs are even more sophisticated, last March Whaleback Systems announced a managed VoIP service for the small and midsize business market. Called SMB 1500, the plan runs $49.95 per month per seat. You get SIP-based PBX service and everything you need, including the handsets. In addition to standard features such as voice mail-to-e-mail and fax, you can get extension mirroring so handsets in two different locations (such as two different branch offices or at the office and at home) mirror one another.

Speakeasy

Speakeasy's business VoIP division offers a number of different plans at different prices. If your employees frequently need to make international calls, its EasyVoice Global plan, at $54.95 per month per line, gives you unlimited calling to the United States and 22 other countries. (Included countries are: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.)

In addition to standard VoIP features such as voice mail-to-e-mail, this plan includes advanced features such as:

  • Remote Office: This feature allows you to make VoIP calls from other locations as if you were at the office (without paying long-distance charges and surcharges from hotels and other entities). Your office number even shows up on Caller ID.
  • Outlook Toolbar: This is a VoIP toolbar that gives you access to VoIP features through Microsoft Outlook and Internet Explorer. You get click-to-dial calling of your Outlook contacts.

Summary

Finding the right VoIP service to fit your needs—without paying enterprise-level prices—is getting easier as VoIP providers that have previously focused on residential customers or large businesses start to focus on the growing small to midsize business market. You may be able to get better pricing from VoIP providers that are moving up from the consumer market. However, you'll probably get more sophisticated features and better scalability for your growing organization from companies that are expanding their scopes downward from the enterprise level.

If you're planning a VoIP deployment for your small business, you should check out companies in both categories to determine which can offer the best IP phone service for both your current and future needs. You've never had more options.

Want more tips and tricks to help you plan or optimize your VoIP deployment? Automatically sign up for our free VoIP newsletter, delivered each Monday!

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.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

Editor's Picks