What VOIP can do for smaller firms

The cost savings and operational efficiencies gained with VoIP can be attractive to smaller businesses, but there are deployment issues that must be addressed

Small businesses can benefit greatly from implementing a voice over IP network. Not only are there cost savings to be had, but some impressive new capabilities can also allow smaller organisations to operate more efficiently.

Anyone who has downloaded Skype for their personal use will know many of the benefits and pitfalls of voice over IP. Free calls to overseas friends and family are the obvious attraction, as is the instant messaging facility, and the ability to see who is online at any time.

Then there is the conference-calling feature, which makes it easy for three or more of you to get together on the line and catch up. And if anyone has a webcam, you can see them too, which is a nice feature where personal relationships are concerned.

If you have the free client software loaded on your laptop, then you can even use the phone while out and about by hooking into the nearest WiFi hotspot. Failing that, you can have all calls forwarded to your mobile – and all thanks to a free service running over your broadband connection.

But Skype users will also know some of the downsides. If the broadband connection is playing up, the voice quality plummets and suddenly you are talking to a robot. Conferencing with more than three people will usually affect voice quality, even when the lines are good. And while webcams are a great idea, they tend to slaughter the average broadband connection.

Add to that the fact that most people answering a Skype call are usually frantically pulling on their headset (because they do not need to wear it all the time), and the limitations are clear.

No business could tolerate that kind of unpredictability in its telephone systems, where communication with clients and suppliers is paramount. So installing VoIP where the system needs to support multiple users and possibly several offices, needs a different approach.

For a start, any worthwhile VoIP system for business will work to a set of standards that ensure interoperability. The most important of these standards is Session Initiation Protocol (Sip) which helps the phone handset connect to the server and ensures that someone using a system from supplier A can communicate with a user of supplier B’s product.

The VoIP system is basically just another software application that sits on a server and moves voice packets around on the local area network alongside all the other data traffic. It replaces the private branch exchange and existing telephone cabling.

As far as handsets go, you basically have three choices. You can use a headset and microphone connected to the PC, an adaptor for your existing handsets, or new VoIP-enabled handsets. All of them work fine for making calls, but sticking with old handsets will stop you using some of the other fancy features that VoIP offers.

The other basic choice is whether to buy the VoIP software and run it on an in-house server, or buy it as a hosted service, where the supplier charges you so much a month per user and takes over the management of the system. Companies will have to do their sums to see which suits them best, but letting the experts handle the management side has a lot to be said for it.

Line quality and reliability tend be the biggest worry, and with good reason. VoIP is still an emerging technology, while the traditional telephone network has been tried and tested over decades and has been engineered for near-perfect reliability. VoIP, on the other hand, is (usually) a Windows-based application running on a standard server connected to a broadband connection.

The speed of the internet connection is crucial. Remember that most broadband connections are asymmetrical (ADSL) – where the upload speed is much lower than the download. Your 8Mbytes connection may have an upload speed of just 256Kbits/second, which would limit it to no more than three or four phone extensions, and that assumes no other traffic on the network.

If you need more speed, then consider installing a symmetrical (SDSL) internet service or a leased line. Given you have the system properly set up, however, the benefits go well beyond cheap calls, although the cost savings can be considerable.

Because VoIP is just another computer application, it can be integrated with other applications, such as customer orders or Microsoft Outlook.

With caller-line identification, for example, the system can use the number to access customer records and display their details on the screen as the call comes through – ideal for a call centre or customer care department. 

Calls can also be transferred or diverted within the company, or to anyone working remotely on the system, again without cost. That means that one person could act as a receptionist for multiple offices, or the job could be shared between offices.

Some staff could also work from home, as long as they have a broadband connection, and this would be completely invisible to anyone phoning in from outside.

VoIP also makes hot-desking a piece of cake. The user just sits down at a workstation, or plugs their laptop into an Ethernet connection and logs into the system, and they are immediately at their usual extension.

It also takes all the pain out of office re-organisations, which traditionally meant someone coming in to play with the PBX to re-allocate extensions.

There is no doubt that VoIP can cut communications costs, and opens up some impressive new services that allow the small company to operate more effectively.

But Peter Scargill, national IT chairman for the Federation of Small Businesses, urges caution. “My advice is to be very wary, and test it to death before you commit yourself,” he says.

He says there are still real problems with quality. “If you are doing serious business, you really need to test it. It is good, but not as good as an ordinary telephone call.

A lot of these products need a little more work before we rush out to get them.”

Tips for succeeding with voice over IP

  • Quality of connectivity/bandwidth is crucial. A poor quality, unreliable office network will rarely facilitate crystal clear calls.
  • Resilience of bandwidth and back-up provision is vital – you cannot make calls if your network is down.
  • Ensure equipment can reinstate a network in case of failure.
  • Understand how you can make emergency calls, even in the case of network failure.
  • Purchasers of VoIP networks should select a provider who can assist with porting numbers. Otherwise organisations will have to sign up to use a new range of numbers and have to reprint all of their branded stationery.
  • Do not go for a “big bang” migration to VoIP unless end-users are 100% confident. User groups can be switched across in phases and
    re-utilise elements of an existing network infrastructure.
  • If you are supporting the system in-house, technical staff must be fully conversant with the new equipment so they understand both data and voice networking and the associated issues.
  • Technical training should also be provided to end-users
  • Over and above these key issues, there are many other technical considerations for potential VoIP network users.

For example, common standards such as Session Initiation Protocol may not be identically implemented by different suppliers. But many of these technical issues can be addressed by working with a specialist partner.

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