It’s little wonder telecommunications companies have been worried about their core business over recent years. Although the internet was a boon for launching new opportunities, it has become a threat to their existing business of landline phone calls.
The upside of the internet, other than increasing our access to information and helping businesses connect to clients and suppliers, is that the landline telephone is no longer a business essential. It’s been replaced by VoIP.
VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, ditches the physical poles and wires of the phone system. Instead, the internet is used as the infrastructure that connects a telephone to the rest of the telephone network.
You can’t just plug your regular telephone into your router and expect it to work. VoIP requires a device to bridge the telephone with the internet. In some cases, that device is a separate box and you can simply use your existing telephone. Alternatively, you can buy a telephone that integrates that bridging function.
For example, the telephone we have in the office is a Cisco SPA504G. It connects to a router directly and can be used to make phone calls without any involvement by a traditional telco.
What’s the point?
The beauty of VoIP is its flexibility. As long as you have access to a network connection, you can connect a handset. With a traditional phone, you need specific phone points installed.
That flexibility means you can move telephones and people around easily.
In many cases, if your network is equipped with Power over Ethernet (PoE), you won’t even need to connect power. The Cisco phone we use doesn’t need its own power supply, as we have connected it to a PoE-enabled switch that delivers power as well as data over the one cable, adding further simplicity to our system.
Another significant advantage of VoIP is it’s portable. If you move office across town, you don’t need to wait for a telco to turn your phone service on at the exchange. As long as you have data, you have a phone system. And your number will follow you and is not tied to a phone exchange, so an office move won’t mean a change of phone number.
But I need more than a phone
In the early days of telephony over the internet – Skype was the pioneer in popularising phone calls over the internet – the focus was on one-to-one communications. That makes sense for sole traders and individuals, but doesn’t help if you have several staff and/or need to manage multiple incoming lines.
Perhaps the biggest revolution of the last few years has been the advent of online services for just about everything. Cloud services, which are really infrastructure, platforms and applications delivered from a remote server via the internet, can deliver practically any business service or application you can imagine.
That capability extends to delivering PBX (private branch exchange) systems as a service over the internet. In a traditional, on-premise PBX system, all of the internal telephone lines are connected back to a central system. That system is connected to the traditional poles and wires phone system operated by a telco.
With a cloud-based PBX, the handsets connect to a centrally hosted PBX system via the internet.
Like many of today’s online services, there’s little need for dedicated expertise as the service providers have worked very hard at making the set-up and maintenance as automated and easy as possible. Most of the technical mumbo-jumbo has been distilled into plain English, negating the need to hire telecommunications or network engineers for routine tasks such as adding new handsets, moving phones or transferring numbers.
Anything (almost) can be a phone
The important thing to understand about VoIP is that the entire system is based on software. Although you can buy VoIP handsets, you don’t really need them. Almost any device with a speaker and microphone can be used as a VoIP handset – as long as you have the right software installed and know the correct settings for your VoIP service.
The software you need is an SIP client. SIP stands for Session Initiation Protocol. As the name suggests, SIP is all about having a standard way for software to initiate and maintain communications.
SIP clients are available for every major computing platform – for traditional computers, as well as smartphones and tablets. As VoIP is largely software-based, it’s possible to configure one service to work on multiple devices.
Let’s say your office phone number, delivered as a VoIP service, is 09 123 4567. With a traditional phone system, if you wanted calls from that number to go to your iPhone while out of the office, you would have set up a call diversion so unanswered calls were diverted. This was a boon for telcos as they made extra money from diversion services and voicemail retrieval. But that profit for the telco came from your business’ pocket.
With VoIP, you can configure your service so your iPhone or computer is a handset. There’s no call diversion happening – your Mac or iOS device is the handset.
And, in many cases, all of the devices you have configured to act as handsets will ring simultaneously so you can choose on what device to answer your calls.
Cloud services are free aren’t they?
It’s true – many cloud services are free. But you don’t want to put something as important as your company’s phone system in a service that could disappear or change without much notice.
VoIP services still, eventually, connect to the traditional telephone. So VoIP service providers have costs that they pass on to their customers. Hence, they are rarely free.
As they aren’t relying on the old poles-and-wires system, however, their charges can be lower than many traditional telco services.
Many VoIP providers price their services with an annual access fee, monthly call allowance for local and mobile calls, and low-cost international calls.
Like any service, determining what it will cost will take some analysis. A look thorough your last few bills will give you a good indication of your call mix. Use that data to compare the different costs or service providers.
As VoIP relies on your internet connection, it’s worth testing different services before simply committing to the lowest cost option. You may find some services work better on your network than others.
Also, it’s worth looking at the settings in your router to prioritise VoIP traffic inside your network over other traffic. That way, call quality isn’t compromised when large files are being transferred around.