Business Phone Systems Featured Article

New Year's: Perfect Time to Review VoIP, UC Options for Business Communications

December 23, 2013

By Ed Silverstein, TMCnet Contributor

With the start of the New Year looming, businesses and other organizations need to review their communication goals.

We know that technology keeps on improving. Legacy PBX phones using copper wires are still in use – but there is increasing pressure on those users to upgrade. Some businesses, especially the smaller ones, are reluctant to toss out existing equipment given the amount of money they spent on it. Yet, new technology like VoIP – which uses the Internet instead of copper lines – promises lower costs for long distance calls and an easier time of including remote offices.

Also, businesses need to make sure they can communicate with their customers or potential customers, suppliers or the general public by the methods they prefer. There cannot be an excuse, such as: We do not have that technology, so call us up on a toll-free line or write a letter.

For instance, Unified Communications (News - Alert) (UC) offers many advanced options. Video conferences are an important option, along with voice and text, as well as desktop sharing. It includes email and instant messaging, too. Also, Lync Server is a UC platform for enterprises from Microsoft (News - Alert).

Currently, there are over 203 million residential VoIP users. Also, mobile VoIP is predicted to have one billion users in five years. When it comes to UC, over 60 percent of 500-plus seat businesses are deploying or plan to deploy Lync UC in the workplace. Another survey put the number even higher.

In a recent article,  Derrick Wlodarz, the principal of FireLogic, explained in Beta News there are different methods to host a service. Two of them are cloud-hosted VoIP and internally-hosted VoIP.

Cloud-hosted VoIP, which includes RingCentral (News - Alert) and 8x8, is among the “easiest to deploy, simplest to maintain, and also offers one of the lowest CAPEX propositions of any option since aside from ensuring proper network bandwidth and infrastructure, you need zero investment in things like PRIs, SIP trunks, or extra on-premise appliances,” he said.

Examples of internally-hosted VoIP systems are Lync Server 2013 and Avaya (News - Alert) IP Office. “These systems usually have to be coupled with delivery mechanisms like separate PRI lines or SIP trunk providers, which add cost but add a level of stability for larger organizations. I am rarely recommending this route for smaller (25 and under) organizations these days due to up-front and ongoing maintenance costs,” he said. Also, there are options for users to access VoIP services known as "VoIP endpoints." Organizations don’t need to settle for just one kind, but can get different kinds. 

It is with endpoints that businesses will see the biggest difference between the legacy PBX phones and VoIP phones, Wlodarz said. There is no longer per-line pricing with cloud VoIP. “You need to think of pricing as ‘per endpoint’ now, or more simply, how many devices or software users need a dial tone,” Wlodarz explained.

Now, let us examine different kinds of endpoints. One example of an endpoint is a softphone client. RingCentral and 8x8 (News - Alert) both offer softphone options. Another option is an IP desk phone. It resembles a traditional office phone. In addition, if you need to use actual fax machines, consider ATAs (Analog Telephone Adaptors). They convert an analog connection on a fax machine to a digital Ethernet-based line that travels over the Internet, Wlodarz said.

On the subject of faxing, here is another piece of advice: “Virtual faxing is the best and cleanest way to handle faxing going forward, if you must still wrangle with it,” he advises.

If a business is large and uses a lot of Microsoft products and services, a Lync 2013 solution could be an option to replace PBX technology. Related to this point, Microsoft may release a cloud-hosted Lync offering next year, Wlodarz predicts.

One word of caution about Lync: It does not do a great job with faxing, Wlodarz claims. “If you rely heavily on incoming and outgoing faxing, going with a simpler solution like that which 8x8 offers may be your better bet,” he said.

Another important consideration is an organization’s network infrastructure. When it comes to wide area network (WAN) connections, DSL and T1 are both inadequate, even for small businesses, he said.

“Outdated, slow connections cannot handle the bandwidth necessary for hosting numerous ongoing calls, in addition to everything else we do online. I usually use a baseline of 5Mbps down and 2Mbps up as the bare minimum for a smaller office of about 5-7 users on VoIP,” Wlodarz said.

Hardware is another consideration. For instance, switches need to be full gigabit units, he said. If businesses want to use cloud-hosted VoIP, like RingCentral, the firewall and router selection are important. He does not favor services behind firewalls that employ symmetric NAT, or port restricted cone NAT. Some technology, however, can be disabled via a soft switch.

Power over Ethernet (PoE) is another option for desk phones. They will eliminate the use of AC power adapters. They provide power for desk phones over a single data line, he said. And data jacks need to be at each desk where a desk phone will be placed – or there is a need to add hard lines.

When it comes to hosting, is it better to do it in the cloud or in-house? Cloud-hosted makes more sense to lower up-front CAPEX costs, Wlodarz said. Businesses also can save money without needing desk phones. Even if you get desk phones, by cloud-hosting there is no need for an internal phone server or telco appliances. Organizations also need sufficient bandwidth and a reliable WAN connection for cloud hosting, Wlodarz adds. Cloud hosting makes sense if a business plans on adding or reducing staff. Cloud-hosting makes sense for organizations which do not have in-house IT staff. Remember, too, cloud-hosting makes sense for companies where employees telecommute or travel frequently. “Cloud VoIP providers like RingCentral and 8x8 allow you to use your desk phone anywhere that has an Internet connection (hard-wired, of course),” he said.

On the other hand, in-house hosting is an option, too. One category where this fits is businesses that use complex interactive voice response. An example may be multi-stage auto attendant menus or automated response feedback. Many businesses may find they have an unreliable WAN connection. It happens more frequently in rural locations, he said. They need to consider in-house hosting, which may also fit well to lower operating expenses. Also, organizations with in-house IT staff will often find they can implement and support a Lync 2013 system.

“The sole downside to cloud hosted VoIP specifically is that when your WAN connection goes down, your phones go down,” he also advises.

Another word of caution: VoIP sometimes has hidden fees. For instance, the 8x8 basic package will not include toll-free minutes, nor faxing. RingCentral, for example, offers free hosting of one toll-free number, a local voice number, and a dedicated fax number. Businesses needing more will pay $4.99 for each additional number. There are fees too, sometimes, for terminating service.

There are not just savings on monthly fees when switching to VoIP. There can be major savings from not having other kinds of expenses, Wlodarz said. Both 8x8 and RingCentral bundle conference bridges into offerings. That means no longer paying for a separate conference calling service.

Using Lync for Web conferencing can mean no longer paying for GoToMeeting and WebEx. Office 365 edition, Lync Online, supports full HD video and meetings of up to 250 people, he said. Remember that virtual PBX systems such as 8x8 will handle as many calls as come in. There is no longer a need for overflow DIDs. There is also no longer a need to pay a firm for PBX maintenance such as repairs to desk phones, lines and the PBX. Desk phones may not be needed either, opting instead to use mobile devices or computer-based softphone clients. Call recording becomes less expensive or even free.

Looking ahead, remember that technology is constantly changing. This is the case with phone service. We know that “bring your own device” to work will increase the use of employee-owned mobile phones or tablets in workplaces over the next few years, but we are not as sure about how widespread other emerging trends will be. Examples of potentially market-changing technology are WebRTC or Opus codecs – both of which can offer improved audio quality. Even with the smart technology trend, there could be potential impact on phone calls. Be open to new ideas and carefully predict future needs. And expect to use new technology for different kinds of applications each year.

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