VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) can be an economical solution for small business. A virtual phone system offers a small business the advanced features of an expensive PBX (Private Branch Exchange) without the associated costs and maintenance. With a main phone number for the company and an extension for each user, it's possible to integrate telecommuters, mobile sales reps and employees in multiple office locations into one phone system that connect calls to all your employees, wherever they are.
Before You Shop Around
With improvements in the quality and availability of VoIP, is there any reason to keep your analog phone service? One important consideration when choosing a telephone provider is the handling of 911 emergency calls. Only analog phone lines are hard-wired into the Enhanced 911 system, and calls made through any other system, whether mobile, cable or VoIP, will not be relayed to emergency services as efficiently as they are through your plain old telephone service (POTS) line. Marty Focazio explains the difference in this article. Click to review 911 service from these VoIP providers: Axvoice, Broadvoice, and Vonage.
Find out whether or not your service choice includes E911 and make sure you fully understand how your 911 calls will be routed. For instance, 911 calls may go to the right Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP,) but to a non-emergency office that is not open 24/7. If you're not satisfied with the answer, RedSky Technologies offers a cloud-based E911 solution for small and medium businesses. Call your local law enforcement agency and fire station and ask for a direct telephone number you can call in an emergency. Remember to make sure your provider has the correct physical address for your business location, not an offsite billing address. Consider keeping one (local service) land line for emergency calls. For more information from the FCC, see The Public Safety Challenges of VoIP Services and Tips for VoIP Subscribers.
Analyze Your Needs
How many users do you have now? How many do you anticipate five years from now? How many callers will be using phones at the same time? What is more important to your business: low cost or quality of calls? Do you need to route calls to mobile workers? Do you need certain advanced features such as call recording or voicemail transcription, or just the more common features your local telephone company provides like call forwarding, call waiting and caller ID? Do you need auto-attendant, conferencing, or internet fax?
Bundled Broadband and Telephone Services
You'll need a broadband internet connection for VoIP, and service bundles for internet and telephone can offer you significant savings. Cable, DSL and fiber optic networks all have distinct advantages and disadvantages. You'll find some comparison charts in the High Speed Internet Access Guide. DSL often costs less but service will depend on your distance from the hub. Fiber optic is faster than DSL and many cable modems, but more expensive. One important note: the quality of your calls will be affected not only by the VoIP service you choose, but the quality of your broadband service, modem and router as well.
Premise-based or Hosted VoIP?
The size of your business, availability of tech staff, and need for in-house control are among the many factors you should consider before making this decision. For an in-depth comparison between premise-based and hosted VoIP, see Hosted VoIP vs. Premise Based VoIP: The Honest Truth. You can keep it in-house (premise-based) with a software IP PBX like 3CX Phone System for Windows. The premise-based Talkswitch phone system can accommodate land lines and/or VoIP for up to 64 users. If you choose a hosted VoIP system, you'll be using the VoIP provider's PBX equipment to handle your calls. For more information, after free registration at Webtorials.com, you can download the (also free) 2011 Sourcebook of Hosted and Cloud-Based VoIP and Unified Communications Services. VoIP-News explains hosted PBX in Hosted PBX Systems: The Essential Guide, and their Hosted PBX Checklist is available free in exchange for your contact information. The WhichVoIP directory is not a comprehensive list, but it includes both hosted VoIP PBX and IP PBX systems, and doesn't require any information from you.
PBXCompare, Compare-VoIP and VoIPReview.org each list only a handful of services, but compare their features side by side. Depending on your usage, VoIP could end up costing you less than what you spend on your daily coffee. As of this writing, Grasshopper VoIP will start you off with one toll-free/local number and unlimited extensions for $9.95 a month plus 6¢/min, or $24 a month with 500 minutes/month included. Phonebooth is $20 per user per month with unlimited nationwide inbound/outbound calling, auto-attendants, voicemail transcribing and more. Fonality has fully hosted and hybrid hosted solutions for 5 to 100+ users.
You may think of Skype as a service only for personal use, but start-ups like Moo.com and Lighthouse Media have found it to be a valuable tool for business. Maxim, a manufacturer of microchips with 70 offices worldwide, uses Skype through their SIP-enabled PBX. Skype Manager allows an administrator to manage business skype accts, allocate calling credits and assign calling features to employees. The free service includes Skype-to-Skype calls, one-to-one video calls, instant messaging and screen sharing. For calls to regular phones or additional features, you can pay-as-you-go or pay by the month.
Google Chat is a VoIP service that operates from within G-mail, (this requires downloading the Video and Voice plug-in,) and allows US callers to make free calls to US and Canadian phone numbers. It's certainly not for every small business, but could be of use particularly to those who offer a service (personal trainers, freelancers, etc.) and already use Gmail for their business. Google Voice is not VoIP, but a free call management service that requires an actual, working telephone with a US telephone number to make and receive calls, because it does not provide a dial tone. Google Voice offers free calls within the US and Canada and low cost international calls, as well as call recording, voicemail transcriptions, call forwarding, and conference calling.
Read reviews and consumer complaints to inform your choice. Make sure you know the cost for installation and penalty for cancellation. Before you sign up for any service, whether it requires a contract or not, read allthe fine print. In particular, pay attention to number porting and number ownership. You don't want to have to change the phone number for your business every time you change providers.
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