Voice over IP (VoIP) is finally coming into its own as both
businesses and residential customers recognize the advantages of using their
high speed Internet connections to provide low-cost long distance telephone
service. Call quality and reliability have improved considerably and attractive
pricing plans are available. VoIP can save your business a bundle — but how
well does it scale?

Low-cost consumer-oriented VoIP services

Small businesses may be tempted by VoIP plans marketed for
consumers. With companies like Lingo, Vonage and
Packet8 offering unlimited calling for less than $20/month, a VoIP line costs
less than a basic residential phone line in many locations. Cable companies are
also getting into the act and the competition is driving prices lower and
lower.

For example, in the Dallas area where I live and operate my
small business, the lowest cost residential land line I can get from
Southwestern Bell is almost $40/month including taxes and fees, and that
doesn’t include any type of long distance. If I want voice mail and other
advanced services, I have to pay extra. My Lingo VoIP line comes to a few cents
over $22/month including unlimited long distance in the U.S., Canada and
Western Europe (unlimited international calling that includes many more countries
is available for $79.95). Not only do I get voice mail, speed dial, call
forwarding, caller ID/call waiting and all the other standard services, but
also get my voice mail messages forwarded to my e-mail box as .wav files that I
can listen to from any computer and save for later reference.

If your business has only a handful of employees, a couple
of consumer-grade VoIP lines may be all you need. How do you distribute the
VoIP lines to several extensions throughout your building? There are a couple of
ways. The easiest is to use a multi-line multi-handset cordless phone system.
Many vendors make these; I use an AT&T that supports eight handsets. Each
employee gets a handset and two phone lines (which can be two landlines, a
landline and a VoIP line or two VoIP lines) are plugged into the base station.

The second way is to disconnect your landline and use the
phone wiring in your building. This will allow you to connect one VoIP line to
the existing phone jacks; your regular analog phones can be plugged into the
jacks to use the VoIP line.

The problem with the low cost consumer solutions is that
they don’t scale well as the business grows. The consumer-oriented VoIP
companies mentioned above offer “business” plans but these are still geared
toward very small businesses; in most cases they merely add a fax line to the
features of the residential plan. Once you have more than a handful of
employees, it’s time to start looking at commercial VoIP providers. (VoIP
quality and reliability are dependent on your data link. If you run your VoIP
line(s) over a consumer broadband connection that experiences periodic outages,
you’ll be without phone service during those times the Internet connection is
down, and call quality may suffer when data performance degrades. A solution
that scales to meet the needs of growing businesses will run over a dedicated
line with guaranteed uptime/transfer rates.)

Commercial VoIP services

The good news is that you can start with consumer-level
service with very little investment; you usually don’t have to sign a long-term
contract or buy expensive equipment, so when it’s time to upgrade, you haven’t
“wasted” a lot of money on your initial venture into VoIP.

Whereas a few major providers have emerged in the consumer
VoIP industry, there are hundreds of companies providing commercial VoIP
services. These include Avaya, Primus (which provides
enterprise-level VoIP under its own name and also owns Lingo), and many of the
large traditional communications providers such as Verizon
and Covad.

Skype, which became popular for
its peer-to-peer VoIP software that lets users talk computer-to-computer at no
charge or allows you to make calls to PSTN lines for a per-minute charge,
recently partnered with Fiberlink to provide more
secure services targeted toward the enterprise.

Commercial service advantages

Business continuity is a big consideration, and becomes more
so as the organization grows. An advantage of commercial services is that they
often provide failover to PSTN (the public switched telephone network) if VoIP
quality falls below a specified standard. Commercial services will also provide
multiple VoIP lines that can be centrally managed. Many take a modular approach
that let you increase the number of lines as your business grows.

For medium and large businesses, commercial VoIP services
design their equipment to integrate with your existing PBX infrastructure. The
switch to VoIP can be almost transparent to the users, and you won’t have to
spend time and money retraining them to use new equipment.

Another concern that may increase with organizational growth
is security. Small business managers often believe — sometimes erroneously —
that they don’t need to be as security-conscious because they don’t have any
“top secret” data traversing their networks. As the business expands, it may
take on government jobs or branch out into regulated fields, and the need for
security increases.

Because VoIP voice calls travel over a data network, they
are subject to the same security risks as other data, and must be protected in
the same ways. A hacker could use “sniffer” software
to capture the packets sent and received by an IP phone and listen to the
conversation. Commercial VoIP providers are beginning to include encryption
technologies to prevent this.

Scalability checklist

When it’s time to select a commercial VoIP provider, you
should evaluate not just the price and features of the service, but ask
questions specifically designed to determine how scalable it is:

  • Does
    the VoIP equipment integrate with your existing PBX equipment and work
    with end users’ existing analog or digital phones so you will be able to
    keep using that equipment?
  • Can
    you easily expand the number of VoIP lines without downtime to the phone
    system?
  • Does
    the VoIP system include encryption or other security mechanisms, either
    included with the initial setup or available as an add-on that you can
    implement later?

VoIP is thought by many to be the future of telephony, and
putting a little thought into what your company will want from it in the future
will help you choose the best VoIP solution today.

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