How scalable is your VoIP solution?

Voice over IP (VoIP) may be the future of telephony, but will the VoIP solution you choose today scale to meet your company's future needs? There are a few questions you should ask potential VoIP providers to help you evaluate how well their products and services will scale.

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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