Many SMBs and SOHOs are walking away from their traditional phone companies and moving to the Internet for their telephony needs. In tech jargon, they’re switching from POTS (“plain old telephone service”) to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP, pronounced as one word). Read on to find out what it is, why you should use it, and what to watch out for.
VoIP lets you make phone calls over the Internet with a number of advantages over your landline. It gives you low calling rates, especially when making overseas calls; excellent voice quality, rather than the muffled squawk of a traditional phone; and extra features (or easy access to the hard-to-use features you already have).
A phone using VoIP is different from a regular phone; instead of connecting to an analog phone line, it connects to a computer. That computer is usually called a VoIP gateway, and it’s the bridge between the handset and other telephone users.
Breaking it Down: VoIP Types
Cloud vs. Local
The gateway connects you to the regular telephone network, or to other VoIP users. Your gateway might be on-site, or it might be a hosted service—“in the cloud”—that you connect to via the Internet. Running it yourself might be a good option if you have the expertise in-house, but for most people, a service is the simplest and least expensive option.
Some newer systems are based on a different standard, called Asterisk. This is a robust, battle-tested system supported by many vendors, including Fonality.
(Normally you can ignore all this, but it’s helpful to know which standards your system uses, in case you ever need to know about compatible add-ons.)
No discussion of VoIP software would be complete without mentioning Skype. It’s probably best known as a consumer-focused, free, peer-to-peer service, but the company also offers a service aimed at businesses of all sizes. It’s not just a program you run on your computer; you can also buy dedicated desk phones that work with Skype.
One of the advantages of VoIP over regular phone service is the extra security. In the VoIP world, voice scramblers aren’t just the preserve of the military.
It’s similar to working with a secure website, such as your bank. By enabling encryption, you get privacy for your business communication, plus authentication (i.e., protection against call rerouting).
While we’re on the subject of security… remember to stay safe. If your users connect to any Internet services—including VoIP—make sure they’re protected with business-class security.
Also, check with your provider about emergency calling (911 in North America, 112 elsewhere). Some providers do a better job than others of routing your call to the correct dispatcher for your location.
What do you want on your desk? With VoIP, you have three main choices:
A regular, wired phone: To connect to a VoIP system, you plug each phone into a bridging device, known as an analog terminal adapter (ATA). The simplest type of ATA has two sockets: one for the phone and one to plug into your computer network.
A dedicated digital phone: These all-in-one devices plug straight into your network. Because they’re designed to work with your VoIP system, they often have extra buttons to control special features — for example, there might be a “call back” button, so you don’t need to remember arcane commands like *69.
A softphone: This is VoIP software that runs on your PC, Mac, smartphone or tablet. Skype is the program that most people think of, but other VoIP systems can also work with software-only phones. Some examples are AOL Instant Messenger, Cisco IP Communicator, and Jitsi.
Other Aspects to Consider
If your power goes out, a traditional phone continues to work because your phone is powered by the phone company, not your building’s power. However, with VoIP, you’ll probably lose service if you lose power. Think about keeping a traditional phone and/or a cellphone as a backup.
You may or may not be able to keep your current phone number. Ask your intended provider about number portability, before committing.
VoIP doesn’t always work well for uses other than voice calls, such as fax machines, security systems, and satellite TV receivers.
Disconnect from Confusion
While VoIP can provide great rates, clear calls, extra security and handy features, it can also be a frustrating alphabet soup of jargon. Knowing your company’s needs and your own comfort level with acronyms and equipment will help you choose the option that’s right for you.