Setting up a small business office often costs more than anticipated, with various items all conspiring to blow the budget – which is usually tight anyway. One of the surprises for newcomers to the office setup game is the cost involved with the humble telephone. If all you want is a couple of phones, you just order the lines and pay the money. You might even start with one line and use one or more VoIP lines to provide the extra phones. But what if you want all your phones integrated, like a proper office?
You know how it works – one line for the customer to call, and anyone can answer it, on any phone, and transfer it to the right person. They call it a PBX or “private branch exchange” and yes, you’re getting your own telephone exchange right there in your office. Which is why it’s no surprise to discover that one of these things with just a few phones and the installation charges can set you back $5000.00 or more. And you still haven’t bought the office PCs and the photocopier yet. Or the kettle. Or the toaster – don’t forget the toaster.
Once you get your nice new PBX you’ll still be paying regular phone call rates so you’ll probably want a VoIP line or two to keep the costs down. Of course they won’t be integrated with your PBX lines, but perhaps there are some spare analogue ports so you can sort of integrate them. If there aren’t any ports you’ll have to buy some, and get that bloke out again to configure it all. With any luck your new business will do well, and you’ll grow bigger and soon need to move to a new office. Then you’ll have to start all over again, ripping out the PBX, figuring out if it’s big enough for the expanded business, cabling up the new place and hoping you can keep your phone numbers.
There has to be an easier way, and indeed there is, and it’s called “Virtual PBX”. Instead of owning your own miniature PBX, you just rent space on a much larger PBX somewhere in cyberspace. Telcos have been offering this service for a while, but now you can get the same service from a VoIP provider such as MyNetFone. We heard the spiel, and it sounded good, as most spiels do, so we challenged the company to send us one of their starter packages. A couple of days later we received a package which contained two VoIP office handsets, a VoIP adapter for a fax machine and walkabout phone, and a 24-port Ethernet switch.
What’s with the switch? The Linksys SLM224P includes “power over Ethernet” which means the VoIP phones don’t need wall-warts, just the Ethernet cable. That’s handy. And these phones also have a second Ethernet port, to connect your PC – so you can run the PC and the phone with just one Ethernet connection. That’s handy. Of course we already had ADSL since our “new office” setup was a tad virtual itself, so we plugged in the power, plugged in a link to the ADSL router and connected the phones. A couple of minutes later, we had a working virtual PBX. We hadn’t configured anything – we just applied power. That’s impressive.
You could just use the phones as supplied, but of course the full benefit of a PBX, real or virtual, is being able to dial other extensions without having to punch in an eight digit phone number all the time, and we also wanted to have a couple of direct in-dial (DID) numbers, and see what other functions were available. So we logged into the MyNetFone portal and started clicking on the options. With just a few clicks we were able to assign a “call group” which makes several assigned phones ring when somebody dials your number. We were pleased to discover that you can include non-VoIP phones in these call groups. What that means is that you can setup your virtual PBX so that if nobody answers the office phones, your mobile will ring.
Yeah, you can already do that with a regular phone, if you remember to put call-forwarding in place, but this way you never have to remember. If you’re out of the office, your customers will find you on your mobile, and they’ll still be paying for a local phone call. You pick up the tab for the call from your office to your mobile – a nice bit of customer service while you’re paying low-rates anyway since it’s a VoIP call. You can tell the call group numbers to ring all the phones at once or ring each phone in sequence. And you can assign a separate dial-in number to each phone, regardless of the call groups.
You can also choose where your DID numbers are “located”. So if you’re based in Sydney but you have Melbourne customers, you can get one or more DID numbers from the Melbourne pool, so those customers can call you on a local number. And it’s not just capital cities – there are DID numbers available for most major regional towns across Australia. While we were in the portal we also assigned four-digit extension numbers to each phone, so we could just dial 2001 or 2002 to make the phones ring “internally”. That’s a lot easier to remember than the full phone number of each phone, and handy when transferring calls.
The cost of the kit we were sent is about $1200 but we had a rather flash handset and a very flash handset to play with. One could handle four lines, and the other could do six lines and had a colour screen. If you’re on a budget, and which small office isn’t – you could choose the lower cost handsets and get three extensions for the price of the two we played with. Of course, you do have to lease your DID lines but at $30 per year, they’re way under the price of “real” lines from the telcos. And you still pay for the calls you make, but at 10c untimed to anywhere in the country that’s not going to break the bank either.
The system as supplied by MyNetFone worked so well, there really isn’t much to criticise so we’re reduced to nitpicking. The PoE switch from Linksys is a rack-mount capable unit with a couple of whirring fans in the side – it would be nicer for a small office if the company could find a more compact and quiet fan-less model. Perhaps Netgear’s FS108P for under $200 would be sufficient for a small office. It only has four powered ports while the supplied Linksys has 12 ports, but for many small offices, quiet beats “future-proof”. The other minor quibble was that the 2-port VoIP adapter for the fax-machine and walkabout phone doesn’t support PoE so it needs its own wall-wart power supply (which was supplied). It would be even nicer if MyNetFone could find one that did away with the wall-wart.
But, as we said, we’re nitpicking. What they sent us worked exactly as advertised with literally 15 minutes setup and another 15 minuted futzing around on the portal. And we’d have a lot of change from the $5000.00 estimate for a real office PBX. There’s nothing virtual about that sort of savings.