Small Business VoIP: Easier, Cheaper, Better than Ever

Tuesday Feb 11th 2014
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If you haven't fired the phone company yet, today's small business VoIP services give you even more reasons to make the switch.

By the Small Business Computing Staff

Over the past few years, many small businesses owners have spent so much mental bandwidth trying to get the right mobile phone service in place that they've left their office-phone situation on auto-pilot. Or if you have a T1 line that bundles Internet and phone service, you may think it's too much of a hassle to move on when your contract ends. However, not evaluation all of your telecommunications options could cost you money each month, and you could miss out on the productivity-enhancing features that today's advanced VoIP systems provide.

Ring Up Small Business VoIP

VoIP (short for Voice over Internet Protocol) simply refers to the transmission of voice phone calls over the Internet. It is fast replacing PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) service, the landline system of copper wires and switches used almost since the days of Alexander Graham Bell. Indeed, VoIP isn't just an alternative, it's an inevitable alternative. In 2013, AT&T—the spiritual successor of Ma Bell—cautioned the FCC that the venerable PSTN phone network was at or near obsolescence.

"This telephone network we've grown up with is now an obsolete platform, or at least a rapidly obsolescing platform," wrote Hank Hultquist, VP of AT&T's federal regulatory division. "It will not be sustainable for the indefinite future. Nobody's making this network technology anymore. It's become more and more difficult to find spare parts for it. And it's becoming more and more difficult to find trained technicians and engineers to work on it."

So eventually all telephony will be over IP networks—which is a good thing. The higher-bandwidth connections can handle not just voice but also video communications, so your VoIP system can also be your videoconferencing solution. In addition to a wealth of cutting-edge communications features, VoIP service can often cost less per line than traditional landline service.

VoIP: It's Not Perfect

But there are downsides to consider. Unlike old-fashioned phone service, which draws the minimal power it needs from the phone line itself, VoIP solutions need electricity to function. If the power goes out, so does your phone service—unless you have battery backup for the routers and servers that get your calls from the desk phone to the Internet. And while call quality has improved vastly over the early days—so much so that VoIP calls (especially on "HD" networks) rival or even surpass those on PSTN—it still isn't perfect. There will be calls where you'll notice degraded sound quality.

Another consideration is the strength of your in-house local area network (LAN); you may want VoIP, but your LAN may not be able to handle the required bandwidth. All networks suffer some amount of data loss during typical operation, and dropped data packets are simply resent and then re-assembled in the proper order at the destination application. But with VoIP, calls happen in real time and dropped packets negatively impact the quality of calls. The network must give a VoIP application high priority—which could, in turn, impede your other network applications. Your VoIP service provider will need to perform a test of your network to see if it is suitable for VoIP, or if you'll need to upgrade your network before making the switch.

VoIP: Hosted or On-site

As with so much business software these days, you'll also need to decide between an on-premises solution or a cloud-hosted service offering. The former places any equipment and software required to set up your IP-based PBX (public branch exchange) in your offices, where your IT department is in charge of maintenance, upgrades and so on. But there are plenty of providers who offer VoIP PBX as a hosted service, where the vendor houses and maintains your phone system servers and software off-site.

A hosted VoIP PBX offers sign-up-and-forget-it convenience, since the service provider takes responsibility for the software and servers. But an on-premises VoIP PBX solution might offer more flexibility when it comes to the actual supported phone hardware—by allowing you to funnel calls from cell phones and analog phones to the IP-PBX, rather than making you switch to approved VoIP handsets.

Also, as with so much business software today, the trend in VoIP has been to go mobile. Most leading providers—not to mention dozens of independent developers—offer smartphone/tablet apps that let you and your employees to make calls and send texts using the app and a Wi-Fi or a wireless WAN connection, rather than a 3G/4G cell network. This saves you from eating up your cell plan minutes and data allotment when you are within range of your office Wi-Fi network or a free hotspot.

Must-have Features for Small Business VoIP

In addition to support for mobile devices, be sure the provider you pick offers other calling features that are important to your business. You'll want unlimited local, long distance and international calling, of course, as well as caller ID, voicemail and music (or a custom message) on hold. Other common features are three-way calling and call forwarding, so you can redirect calls to your mobile number when needed. Some providers even offer a feature that sends text alerts to your mobile phone when you've missed a call in the office.

Most business-class systems also deliver an automated attendant with a company directory. You'll also want the option to present callers with access to different departments (sales, marketing, accounts payable and so on). Even if the various selections lead to just a couple of people, it's a good way to make your business look larger than it is. Another convenient feature is automatic call distribution (ACD), which routes calls to a different extension if the selected extension is busy. This ensures that your customers always get a human on the line.

Advanced Small Business VoIP Features

More advanced features that you might be interested in include Web conferencing, Internet faxing and call recording.  But our favorite feature is call "spoofing:" when you place a VoIP call via mobile apps, some systems can make it look as though you're calling from your office phone number. This lets you keep your cell number private when making work calls.

As for pricing, small business VoIP systems can be very reasonable given the conveniences you get. Expect to pay $20 to $40 per month per line, depending on the plan features and the number of lines you need. This can wind up costing between 40-80 percent less than traditional small business phone service.

Small Business VoIP Providers

When it comes to selecting a VoIP vendor, you must do your homework to find the right long-term partner. Here's a quick overview of the major VoIP vendors for small business.

The logical place to start is with your local phone/cable/Internet provider. One of the leaders is Comcast and its Comcast Business VoiceEdge service. This hosted, cloud-based system means no capital investment or ongoing management of on-premise PBX equipment.

Among VoIP specialists, Fonality is one of the oldest and best-known providers. The company has a range of communications offerings for small and mid-size businesses, as well as products tailored to particular types of businesses, such as real estate offices and non-profits.

Another early leader is 8x8, Inc. The company claims Its Virtual Office system, designed for growing businesses, is the only hosted VoIP phone service that offers both instant messaging and Web conferencing among its myriad features.

RingCentral offers its RingCentral Office service, and all-inclusive communications platform that delivers phone service and HD video meetings. Also of note is RingCentral Professional, an offering tailored to mobile pros and businesses with remote employees. Its advanced inbound call management features can route calls to you or your employees—anywhere, anytime—with customized rules for routing calls and even faxes.

You are probably familiar with Ooma thanks to its home VoIP service, but the company also has products suitable for smaller businesses. Ooma Office is exceedingly easy to deploy, and the system supports up to five phone extensions and 15 virtual extensions with features such as virtual receptionist, conferencing, music on hold and more. For more information, read our review.

VirtualPBX invented the first hosted PBX, and it provides its own VoIP service and supports VoIP from other providers. It offers full-featured office plans with unlimited minutes, as well as "anywhere plans" that let you route calls to cell phones and land-lines on a cost-per-minute basis. The company offers a simple network speed test to see if your network is ready for VoIP. Or you can opt for the in-depth  ProSIP Network Health Check service (starting at $799), which monitors the health of your network for 7 days and provides a custom analysis to let you know of problems.

And finally, Voxox specializes in flexible, cloud-based business VoIP solutions that can scale larger as your company grows. Its hosted IP-PBX service comes with state-of-the-art IP phones and the latest phone system features.  And because it's a hosted service, Voxox provides upgrades automatically without interruption of service or additional costs.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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