Getting Started With VoIP: What to Know and Where to BeginJanuary 16, 2014 by Craig Borowski
Are you considering switching your office telephone system to Voice over IP (VoIP), but don’t know where to begin? This article is a great place to start.
VoIP has many advantages over traditional business phone systems, and many small and medium-sized businesses are looking to switch. However, replacing an entire office telephone system all in one step is not without its challenges—and replacing one in pieces can present difficulties, too (e.g. compatibility problems). Many businesses looking to switch to VoIP have trouble understanding what’s involved or where to begin.
In the first part of this post, we’ll identify the major components of VoIP phone systems, explain the function of each and point out what you need to know. In the second part, we’ll present some scenarios to show how a business might proceed towards a telephony system that takes advantage of VoIP.
There are two major types of VoIP phones: hardphones and softphones. Hardphones are physical telephones like the two pictured here. Basic models like the one on the left appear very similar to traditional desk phones. There’s a standard dialpad, along with additional buttons used for call transferring, holding, conferencing and a handful of other functions like adjusting call volume.
There are also VoIP hardphones with much more advanced features, like the Avaya IP phone pictured on the right. They include a larger LCD screen to display more call and contact information. Though they make call management easier, phones like this can cost two or three times as much as a basic VoIP hardphone. Often, small businesses will order one phone with more advanced features, which is used by the person who answers, transfers and sets up conferences for the majority of calls. Basic phones are then ordered for the rest of the company’s extensions.
Now, the softphones. Softphones are not actual, physical devices. They are—as their name implies—software phones. They’re applications that run on computers and smartphones. One of the great advantages of VoIP is that it piggybacks on the same IP networks used by so many digital devices, such as laptops, tablets and PCs. To use one of these devices to make calls over the Internet, a softphone, like the one shown on this laptop, is needed.
Of course, desktop computers, tablets and most digital devices apart from smartphones aren’t physically designed for telephony: they don’t have the right form-factor to be held like phones. Using their built-in speakers and microphones may be fine for occasional use at home, but in an office setting, it’s less than ideal. This problem is easily and inexpensively solved with a headset earpiece and microphone. There are many types of headsets: wired and wireless, tiny and full-sized. As long as the model you choose works on your computer’s operating system (Windows, Linux, Mac), it should be compatible with a softphone and VoIP. We prefer the Sennheiser Pro D2 for its noise-cancelling feature and excellent audio quality.
The LAN, or Local Area Network, is the data network within a building or office. VoIP hardphones connect directly to the LAN. VoIP softphones are run on computers that are connected to the LAN. The LAN is the backbone of an office’s VoIP system, and many offices already have one in place.
LANs are constructed using a family of networking technologies called ethernet. Most people are familiar with ethernet cables, like the one pictured on the right, as the type used to connect computers to the Internet. Conveniently, VoIP hardphones use them as well.
LANs usually also have wireless (WiFi) networks. But for permanent VoIP connections, ethernet is far preferable. Wireless connections are less reliable, and many wireless routers do not prioritize VoIP calls, which can cause delays and other connection problems.
The Switchboards- PBXs, KSUs, IP-PBXs and Cloud PBXs
Office phone systems generally have multiple extensions and share a limited number of lines to the outside world. To function together as one system, the extensions need to transfer calls between them and conference with each other and with outside connections.
Traditionally, this call switching and line management was handled by a telephone switchboard. It’s now done by a device called a Public Branch Exchange (PBX) or Key System Unit (KSU). These (and their many variations such as hybrid and IP-enabled IP-PBXs) are hardware devices kept on site and connected directly to each phone extension.
VoIP made possible another option, the cloud PBX. Cloud PBXs are not kept on site. They are, as the name implies, hosted online in the cloud. When a company pays for a cloud-based PBX, usually as a monthly service, they get the advanced call handling functionality of a PBX without the expenses of purchasing, installing or maintaining a hardware PBX.
VoIP calls travel primarily over the Internet, instead of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PTSN) used by traditional phone calls. When someone in the office uses VoIP to call a customer who is also using VoIP, the call travels entirely over the Internet. However, when the same person uses VoIP to call a customer who is not using VoIP, the call travels as far as it can over the Internet—but to reach the customer, the call path must switch to the PSTN for the last mile, because that’s the network the customer’s phone is on.
Companies called Internet Telephony Service Providers (ITSPs), or VoIP or Cloud phone system providers (or some other combination of those terms) provide VoIP services. These service providers maintain the equipment and connections necessary to allow calls to be placed to destinations on any network. Just as importantly, they allow companies with VoIP phone systems to receive calls from people on ordinary PSTN and cellular networks.
Offices have two options for connecting to an ITSP. The first is through their existing Internet Service Provider. They might, for example, get their Internet service through their local telephone company. They would then use this service to connect to the ITSP online.
This arrangement is the first choice for many, because it doesn’t require switching providers. But because VoIP calls have to traverse one additional network before going to the ITSP’s network, there is an increased chance of connection and call quality issues. See here for an explanation of why this is true.
The more direct a connection is, the better—and this second option, called SIP trunking, is more direct. Offered by some ITSPs, a SIP trunk is essentially a direct broadband connection from an office straight to the ITSP. Bypassing an intermediary ISP ensures the network is optimized for VoIP calls during the entire route.
Making the Switch to VoIP
We’ll conclude by looking at a few different buyer scenarios to illustrate how businesses can begin switching to a VoIP telephony system.
New Business Starting From Scratch
This company is just getting off the ground. They don’t have an office yet. Their employees all work from home and make calls from their smartphones. They’d like to use VoIP to save money and keep track of expenses. How should they start?
They could look for an ITSP that has softphones for iPhone, Android or whichever smartphones they’re using. There are many options available. The employees would use the softphone app to sign into their company’s ITSP.
Since they’ll all be sharing the same ITSP account, it will be easy to track expenses. An additional advantage is that when any of them call customers, the customers will see their company name on Caller ID, no matter who is calling or from where.
Small Office With Fewer Than Ten Phones
This small office has one phone line that’s shared by, say six desk extensions. The company pays a lot for long-distance charges. They have an ethernet LAN in the office, providing broadband Internet service to the computers at each desk. How could they switch to VoIP?
They should look for an ITSP or a cloud VoIP system. Switching to a cloud-based VoIP provider for telephone service will likely save them money on calling charges. They have a few choices for phones to consider:
- Install softphones and purchase headsets for the computers. But if the employees are very accustomed to using traditional phones, maybe headsets wouldn’t be welcomed.
- Purchase VoIP hardphones and connect those to the LAN. With both this and the softphone option, they’ll want to find out if their existing router is compatible with VoIP.
- Buy a combination phone adapter and router which they can plug their existing desk phones directly into. This type of router is sometimes included with a cloud phone system service.
A Small But Growing Business
This office has say, 30 employees, and an old PBX phone system with thirty extensions. They use T1 lines to the PSTN for their telephone connection. They are opening a second office, and the two offices will need to be in constant phone contact. Can they use VoIP without replacing the PBX?
They can. They should look into a SIP trunking solution. The SIP trunk will replace some (or all) of the existing T1 trunks, and will enable the PBX to connect directly to the Internet using the right protocol for VoIP. Since the PBX is older, it may not be compatible. To make the PBX compatible with SIP, find out if it needs either a media gateway or a new gateway logic card.
The branch office should look into getting an on-premise IP-PBX and a SIP trunking service from an ITSP. This would allow the two offices to communicate with one another just by dialing extensions. They’ll be connected just as if they were in the same building.
Of course, there are many unique scenarios organizations face when upgrading or purchasing a new business VoIP system. If you have been involved in the implementation of a new system, then feel free to share your experience in the comment section below.