The intricate, often fragmented nature of business telecoms can take some people by surprise. From the sheer variety of the technology in use, to the range of features and functions that are offered by different systems, the thought of adopting an infrastructure that runs on VoIP can be daunting.
In this introduction to VoIP, you will find out all you need to know to demystify the procurement process, ensuring that you can invest in a VoIP solution which is suitable for your business without being deterred by the complexities of the marketplace.
Older telecoms technology is based on analogue landline connectivity to the POTS, otherwise known as the Plain Old Telephone Service. This tongue in cheek name is an indication of just how archaic such configurations are considered to be today. And yet in spite of this, plenty of contemporary companies are still reliant upon legacy systems, even if they are eager to migrate to VoIP. The good news is that it is possible to take an incremental approach to upgrading, integrating elements of traditional systems with modern IP-based solutions.
Private Branch Exchange (PBX) telecoms solutions are comprised of on-site hardware which is used to route all calls to and from individual desktop phones through the central connection to the office, otherwise known as the trunk line. The first benefit of a PBX is that it means employees can make internal calls without having to involve any element of the external network in the process, which reduces the expense of internal communication.
In the past a telephone exchange would be manned by human staff, but today a PBX can handle routing automatically. The bulk of the infrastructure can also be hosted off-site, meaning that small businesses can enjoy the benefits of a private PBX in an IP environment without having to make major investments in hardware or on-going maintenance costs.
The other important acronyms you will need to know to differentiate telecoms systems from one another are:
• IP PBX: Internet Protocol Private Branch Exchange
• PABX: Private Automatic Branch Exchange
• EPABX: Electronic Private Automatic Branch Exchange
Small Office Solutions
A suitable set-up for a small office with a handful of phones and lines will be a key system, in which users have the ability to pick which line to use and who to contact without any automation involved. The more lines and users involved, the less appropriate a manually-managed key system will become. But thankfully enhancements to technology have made keyed terminals compatible with PBX-style systems that allow for a merger of older technology with modern capabilities.
This means that systems can be monitored remotely and also offers benefits including caller ID and voicemail. Office-wide restrictions can also be put in place on all lines, in order to prevent users from making international calls, for example.
The underlying infrastructure of such systems is clearly more complicated than this overview might imply. But understanding that keyed systems have become hybridised in the modern age is important for any firm looking to update their current infrastructure or procure new telecoms services.
PBX vs. Hybrid Key System
In broad technology terms there are significant similarities between both configurations, but from the point of view of end users there are some differences which need to be taken into account. A PBX effectively acts as an all-in-one solution to calling needs, integrating IP technology and automating the process of call routing for multiple lines. Meanwhile a hybrid key system is better suited to small businesses, both in terms of costs and scale. If you need to support fewer than around 12 lines, a full blown PBX may not make sense when a hybrid key system is available.
With a hybrid key system the user will either need to select a line to use or have one automatically assigned based upon current availability. To make external calls via a PBX, dialling out by hitting a so-called ‘escape number’ before entering the target number of the recipient will be necessary on some systems. However, current technology means that call routing to an outside line can be activated without the need for manual intervention.
For inbound calls a key system will typically ring at multiple endpoints within the office, meaning that anyone who gets to their phone first will be able to answer it. With a PBX, specific call routing is possible, making such a system better for businesses with more than 50 employees, or large call centres where allocating inbound calls to the first available agent is an efficient option.
VoIP stands for voice over internet protocol and, as such, this type of service allows calls to be handled via a digital internet connection as opposed to over an analogue landline. VoIP is advantageous to commercial organisations because it can drive down costs while dramatically improving usability and features. Calling international locations is far cheaper via VoIP, while the scalability of this type of system is greater since expanding capacity does not rely upon adding more landlines, but increasing the bandwidth of the broadband connection which powers it.
The rise of VoIP technology has blurred the distinctions between key systems and PBX setups, enabling companies to enjoy the best of both worlds. The following three VoIP set-ups will give you an idea as to how different businesses can find an appropriate solution for their telecoms needs.
Basic VoIP Solutions
The simplest way to access VoIP calling capabilities is to install software on a desktop PC that turns it into a phone. Provided that you connect a headset to the computer, calls can be made to any landline number in the world, not just to other VoIP users.
To make landline calls it will be necessary to pay the provider. The provider will also supply a number for the so-called ‘softphone’ so that inbound calls can be made from traditional landlines or mobile devices. But crucially, the recipient of calls from a VoIP device will not know that the user is using the internet to make the call, as the caller ID will show the firm’s number. This means that even those who are working remotely can make VoIP calls and still appear to be in the office, which could be an advantage.
While softphones may be the most basic form of VoIP, they can come with access to more advanced features such as voicemail and call waiting, as well as integrating functionality such as instant messaging.
Mid-Range VoIP Solutions
For a more comprehensive approach to VoIP, suitable for businesses of around 10 or so employees, using a ‘hardphone’ system will be necessary. This involves buying and installing desktop phone terminals which are compatible with VoIP systems. They behave very much like a standard analogue handset, but are linked not to a landline but to the networking infrastructure available within the premises. More hardphones can be added as necessary, but a provider may offer a set number as part of a bundle to get small businesses started.
A physical PBX can be combined with hardphones, but a simpler solution may be to use a computer running a software-based PBX which can perform the same routing functions without the up-front costs. Another alternative to on-site hardware is a cloud-powered PBX which runs remotely on a provider’s data centre infrastructure. This is something that is particularly well suited to modern VoIP services.
Stepping up to a more comprehensive small business VoIP solution like this will also grant you access to features such as IVR, otherwise known as Interactive Voice Response. This will allow inbound calls to be answered automatically and to be directed to the most appropriate end point for answering.
High End VoIP Solutions
For businesses with in excess of 100 employees spread across multiple locations nationally or even globally, a more comprehensive VoIP infrastructure will be necessary. This can include either on-site PBX hardware or a cloud-hosted equivalent, together with desktop phones linked to each and every member of staff. Individual users will be able to make and receive calls, as well as having the option to forward them to colleagues as appropriate.
In most cases this hardware will be accompanied by additional softphone functionality so that employees can make VoIP calls from compatible mobile apps, facilitating wireless access to advanced functions while on the move. Using both wireless hotspots and mobile broadband coverage, VoIP services can function identically on both on-site and portable devices.
SIP trunking technology means that big businesses with multiple on-site PBX setups can provide inter-office communication in a cohesive, consistent and secure manner.
It is increasingly common for businesses to do away with legacy telecoms systems based upon analogue landlines and instead move to a VoIP solution which is both more cost-effective and functional, enhancing productivity.
VoIP solutions can be tied in with other forms of communication, including instant messaging, video calling and platforms which are designed to combine multiple solutions to streamline collaboration between employees who may not be based at the same location.
With VoIP it is possible to make enterprise telecoms more efficient, since it adds the option for inexpensive expansion further down the line, while also keeping call handling more consistent for day to day use.
The resilience of VoIP is also significant, since any device with an internet connection can double up as a softphone. In contrast, analogue landline outages are much harder to overcome, compromising continuity in the event of unplanned downtime.
Competitive pricing of VoIP plans further enhances the value of this type of telecoms solution. And with a reduced need for hardware procurement, maintenance and upgrades by using cloud-based platforms, the long term running costs are also reduced, even if you want to add more users.
Software Enhancements in a PBX Ecosystem
Being able to record calls or send faxes is something that businesses have expected from their telephony solutions for many years. But if you want to add yet more features, an advanced PBX solution will enable a number of the following benefits to be integrated as required.
Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) is a good example as to how modern systems can combine traditional phone services with PC hardware, including the ability to make and receive calls as well as transferring them to other lines, getting data on inbound callers and tracking a range of other metrics.
A software-based phone solution that does not require a dedicated handset but instead makes use of a computer and a compatible headset, featuring earphones and a mic, is known as a softphone for obvious reasons.
Contemporary enterprise phone infrastructures are not limited to a single site but can provide users with access to crucial functions even if they are off-site. This is not only achievable via remote landlines, but also from portable devices to further enhance mobility and convenience.
Automatic diallers allow outbound calls to be placed with ease. If the call is answered by the recipient, a suitable member of staff is connected to deal with them as appropriate, avoiding needless waiting and dropped calls.
Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) is an advanced form of routing that can not only transfer calls efficiently, but also provide benefits such as automatic call back, caller ranking and a host of hold options that ensure optimum flexibility.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is a commonly encountered technology that allows callers to engage with a phone system either verbally or by pressing numbers on their handset’s keypad to better direct their calls and obtain access to the right department or specific team member.
Being able to record inbound and outgoing calls and then store them for training and monitoring purposes is invariably useful. You can even attach recordings to an email to send them on, as well as combining the audio with other data about the nature of the call, including its duration and any complaints that were raised by the customer.
Conference calls can be a great way of catalysing collaboration between colleagues, ensuring that multiple parties can participate in a simultaneous conversation.
Adding in Audio-Visual (AV) technology means that conference calls become far more engaging, with desktop machines capable of offering audio and video feeds to be shared between several people spread across more than one location.
Rather than relying upon traditional fax numbers to send documents, a fax can be digitised and emailed to a recipient directly. With a number of different internet fax solutions available, it is a good idea to check with any prospective provider so you can find out precisely what set-up they will offer.
How much you pay for the next phone system you procure for your company will be determined by a number of variables. And assessing each one will give you an idea as to what you can expect to pay and whether or not a provider’s package represents a good deal.
Your organisation’s size will be perhaps the most important aspect, since small businesses with a single office will not need to spend as much on a phone system as larger firms operating across multiple locations with a significant number of users to supply with voice call capabilities. Because of this, each business will need to strike a balance between the expense of a system and the extent of the coverage it provides.
More users necessitate more lines, but it is only necessary to invest in as many lines as will be adequate to cope with the demands of peak periods of activity. Providers should be able to give you an idea as to the configuration that will be suitable. Do bear in mind that when several locations are taken into account, along with the need to integrate smartphones and other portable devices, things can become rather more intricate and expensive.
Secondly, the cost of a system will depend on the capabilities you expect. If you want cutting-edge voice and video conferencing as part of a CTI set-up, then this will require more investment than a simpler solution. The volume of calls that are expected and the locations of the recipients will also come into play when determining costs. As will the need for mobile device management (MDM) systems if you intend to supply staff with handsets or embrace bring your own device (BYOD) strategy.
The final consideration is that of industry regulations and legislation and how this may influence which phone configuration you choose. In particular, the need to adhere to privacy rules within your sector is important, while also ensuring that security is sufficiently resilient to pass muster with the regulator. The PCI DSS regime will apply to any organisation taking card payments from callers, which is why plenty of businesses also choose to select a comprehensive IT security solution to go in tandem with any new phone system.
Combining service packages under a single provider can be a means by which to further reduce overall costs, in much the same way as prices can be cheaper on a home telecoms bundle than if services are procured individually. So comparing packages and pricing will be worthwhile.
Additional Talking Points
In 2013 the proportion of businesses using VoIP hit 15 per cent and this figure has continued to grow in the intervening years, cementing the place of internet telephony in the enterprise market and giving it greater influence as organisations drop older analogue systems, according to an FCC report. Thus VoIP is something which modern firms of all sizes should consider adopting.
There has been increased reliance upon outsourced IT solutions over the past two decades, with even the largest corporations on the planet turning to specialist third parties rather than dedicating in-house resources to certain services. This has also had an impact in terms of telephony, with service providers being able to manage hardware and infrastructure elements so that enterprise clients do not have to worry about doing so themselves.
Using the cloud to host virtualised PBX solutions is an approach which many organisations choose today. And there is no need to compromise in terms of performance or functionality by opting for an off-site set-up hosted by a provider. This keeps up-front costs low and makes it easier to manage services from any location.
VoIP solutions and telephony configurations are often beholden to rules that are specific to a given industry. So understanding these requirements will make it easier to buy a system that meets expectations and is fully compliant.
Both physical VoIP desktop phones and the PC-based softphones are available to businesses today, so choosing between the two will be an important first step.
VoIP operates over an internet connection and so the speed of the broadband and the bandwidth supported by any given service will be relevant in determining both the quality of calls and the number of simultaneous conversations which can be managed. Some packages will be able to prioritise VoIP traffic to ensure that the quality of service (QoS) is maintained.
By committing to a VoIP telephony solution, you are also putting all of your eggs in one basket in terms of continuity. In the event of a broadband outage, your calling capabilities will also be eliminated. As such, it is necessary to plan for this eventuality and to ensure that you can still operate effectively even if internet access is not available.