Two VoIP phone systems designed for small businesses answer different needs. TalkSwitch can save money for companies with remote offices, while Packet8 provides a low-cost way for businesses to make unlimited calls anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.
Making phone calls using a broadband Internet connection, more fondly known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), is becoming more and more popular with corporations of every size. The prospect of paying a flat fee for unlimited long-distance phone calls is appealing to every company that has struggled to balance the need to conduct business phone calls with the price of those calls. Calling plans are now available that provide unlimited minutes to any U.S. or Canadian phone number by routing the voice traffic over an existing broadband connection shared with the company's Internet access.
Many companies are also finding that installation of VoIP phones is simpler than traditional Private Branch eXchange (PBX) systems, since the desk sets can share the Ethernet cables already in place for the desktop computers. Some companies are also offering Wi-Fi-based IP phones that connect through Wi-Fi access points, either in the office or at the local Starbucks -- taking wireless phones to a completely new level.
Vonage: The Pioneer Vonage is perhaps the pioneer in spreading the use of VoIP service. The company's primary market is the residential customer with a cable or DSL Internet connection. Vonage's residential plan includes a Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) that connects to the user's router. The user's phone connects to the DTA, and when the phone is picked up, the user hears a normal dial tone. The dial tone is supplied by Vonage in the same way traditional carriers deliver dial tone. Vonage's Small Business Plan includes unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada for $50 per month.
For companies that need extensions and services that are more closely identified with PBXs found in the corporate world, Vonage is not a good choice. Its Small Business Plan is based on a single line, similar to a residential line, and doesn't provide facilities for multiple extensions, call transfers, administrative functions, and the other tasks most corporate users take for granted. Two other vendors are better suited for the corporate environment.
I tested systems from Packet8 and Centrepoint Technologies. Both companies have good VoIP answers for small companies or companies with remote offices, though they differ in their approaches.
The TalkSwitch TS100 phone has business features, but you can use any analog phone with the system. Click to enlarge.
TalkSwitch from Centrepoint Technologies uses a combination of Internet connection and standard voice lines (sometimes referred to as DS0 lines). When you buy TalkSwitch, you are buying hardware, not phone service (a.k.a. "dial-tone service"). As for phones, you can use any analog phone, or buy a full-featured desk phone from TalkSwitch for $99.
The TalkSwitch uses your phone company's existing phone lines and phone numbers to connect to the outside world, but uses your Internet connection to connect to other TalkSwitches in your company's remote offices. This setup is simple to install and lets you keep your existing phone numbers and lines. It also lets you keep your existing phone bills, since your long-distance calls still travel over your phone-company lines. (Of course, you could replace your traditional phone lines with Vonage lines if your long-distance volume dictates such a move.)
Where TalkSwitch shines is in its features as a PBX and its ability to connect remote offices and treat them as a single phone system. When two or more TalkSwitches connect through the Internet, the company has a virtual PBX. The offices can make calls to one another by dialing extensions that may be in the same office or at a remote office without incurring long-distance charges.
The same connection can be used to make standard calls to phone numbers that are local to the remote office but long-distance from the calling office. I found this feature worked well, but it requires the person making the call to know whether the number is local to the remote office. That's something many callers won't make the effort to deal with.
The TalkSwitch 48-CVA accepts an Ethernet connection, four analog phone lines, and eight analog phones. Click to enlarge.
I tested the top-end model 48-CVA that sells for $1,795; other models start at $695. I attached the TalkSwitch to my Ethernet switch and installed the TalkSwitch management software on a PC connected to the same LAN. The software identified the TalkSwitch and I was able to set up the features easily.
My TalkSwitch was already set up to connect with the Centrepoint office as a branch office. I also plugged in a local phone line to make non-interoffice calls. The TalkSwitch allows up to four phone lines and eight telephones. Telephone units can be standard phone sets or any of TalkSwitch's phones. Line 8 is pre-configured to accept a fax machine, and incoming fax calls are routed to that extension automatically.
I configured the extensions and the auto-attendant using the PC interface. I found the same configuration choices and auto-attendant functions that are standard on large-scale PBX systems with flexibility in call routing, announcements, and voicemail.
The Call Cascade feature routes an incoming call to other numbers if you're not at your desk, which is a useful feature for people out of the office. Unfortunately, that feature takes up two of your phone lines to make the transfer. The IP connection lets callers local to one office be routed or transferred to the remote office without added charges, making it simple for one office to take calls for another in a different time zone or during breaks.
I found the quality of standard voice calls to be exactly what you would expect from calls made over standard phone lines. The VoIP calls from one office to another were equally clear, but there were delays at times. Overall, the quality was significantly better than any cell phone call I've heard.
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