Things to Think About BEFORE Switching to VoIP... VoIP Research Tech Bulletin
WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Your VoIP phone line provider could disappear.
This could happen to you if you use VoIP for incoming calls:
CentricVoice, a rather expensive business class VoIP phone company gave their customers about a week's notice before they turned off all their customer's phones lines. In the message on their web site to their customers, they said "The regular porting process usually takes 20 - 30 days, therefore, you will need to state that this is an emergency port in order to have it done sooner."
What would you do if your phone company told you they were going out of business in a week?
Verizon Voicewing, the VoIP provider division of Verizon, told their customers they have 90 days to find new service - they're just shutting it down. Is it possible that a real phone company (utility), formerly part of the Bell System, would turn off phone service provided by a non-regulated subsidiary? Yes.
AT&T Callvantage, the VoIP provider division of AT&T, stopped taking new customers. Then they gave notice that it will be turned off.
This is a part of a real phone company turning off their service. They don't seem to understand that by screwing their subscribers now, they're screwing themselves and the whole telecommunications business over in the future. They know it's not like closing a restaurant or gas station, but they don't care. Is it possible that a real phone company (utility), formerly part of the Bell System, would turn off phone service provided by a non-regulated subsidiary? Yes.
In an interesting note AT&T also announced that they want to shut down POTS analog phone lines because they aren't profitable - everybody is going to VoIP (so if everybody is going to VoIP, why did they shut down the AT&T VoIP Callvantage service?).
AT&T says: "Congress’s goal of universal access to broadband will not be met in a timely or efficient manner if providers are forced to continue to invest in and to maintain two networks."
This would be fine except that VoIP isn't ready for prime time, and POTS is in fact the only communications service that's likely to be left working after many disasters. VoIP and the Internet doesn't work without power, and cell service goes down quickly from overload and lack of power when the backup batteries run down before power is restored.
Why does the government allow regulated utilities to own non-regulated companies? I've been asking that since 1992.
Sunrocket, a VoIP provider with around 200,000 subscribers, permanently closed their doors and turned off their system. This left everybody with a Sunrocket phone number, or a number that was ported to Sunrocket from a real phone company, with NO PHONE SERVICE. (fast-busy when you called it, and you couldn't dial out).
Norvergence, a VoIP provider that preyed on around 10,000 businesses (no home phone service), permanently closed their doors and turned off their system. This left everybody with a Norvergence phone number (which also included Internet access and cell phones), or a number that was ported to Norvergence from a real phone company, with NO PHONE SERVICE.
Google bought a VoIP phone service called Grand Central, who advertised that you get a "phone number for life" (they don't advertise that anymore). Google almost immediately stopped signing up new customers. Some of the customers who had a "phone number for life" must have been murdered, since it turns out that Grand Central wasn't really able to deliver on the claim that the phone number would work for a lifetime (I don't know if the customer, or the phone number went dead first).
Google then announced they are starting a new free VoIP phone service, called Google Voice . It's not currently an option for business phone service. They do have some interesting features that a "One Number Service" charges money for, like ringing multiple phones at one time to find you when someone calls the number Google gave you. Google says it's not a real phone company, so they may not complete calls to certain phone numbers. You have to have other phone numbers from a phone company to be able to use this service.
Google then announced that the "phone number for life" Grand Central service they bought is shutting down. They say you better get any voice mail messages off it before they close it down.
Google also announced they are buying a crummy VoIP phone service called Gizmo5. When I tested Gizmo5 a few years ago, it wasn't very good. I emailed them to stop billing me, but they refused. Then they started sending me hate email that my credit card expired, and I owe them big bucks for their service that I don't want. I only made maybe three calls to test it. Anyway, I think that maybe now Google is a phone company?
Google recently changed the way their Google Voice works so that it can't be used as a trunk on a VoIP phone system (a few systems had put that capability in their systems). Those trunks are now totally dead.
The most terrifying VoIP story ever?
The FBI had a search warrant for a data center where they suspected the owners of fraud. A data center is where lots of companies either rent servers or co-locate their own servers. A data center is like an apartment building for computer servers. They have multiple fast connections to the Internet, probably from different companies so there is no one source of failure. They have heavy duty air-conditioning, battery backups for all the servers, a generator and high security. Unfortunately, the security wasn't enough for about 50 customers of the data center who the FBI put out of business, at least temporarily.
Some companies have servers running in two data centers in case something bad happens at one of them. There's some chance that it would be the same owner at both data centers, which happened in this case.
The FBI backed up trucks and took everything including backup tapes that could have helped the data center customers get a server setup at another data center.
It's pretty obvious (after the fact) that the FBI and judge who signed the search warrant had absolutely no knowledge of what a data center is. The FBI guy or judge probably had no clue that they would be shutting off many innocent company's web sites, their mother's church's web site, credit card processing, on-line ordering and tracking, and VoIP phone calls (they just go through a regular computer server).
Considering the stink the government makes about 911 calls from VoIP lines, it's interesting that all the telephone customers of the VoIP service(s) in those data centers couldn't make any phone calls, including to 911, after the FBI (government) threw all the equipment, maybe 200 servers where each server could be shared by multiple companies, into trucks.
I've done a lot of big telecom and IT projects. Nothing bothers me because I just do everything in a methodical manner, all planned out. I've never had a cutover go badly. The thought of trying to sort out the pile of servers and get all those companies back up in a timely manner is totally overwhelming to me, no matter how many technicians I had available.
It's unlikely that if the FBI was investigating the owners of a shopping mall, they would get a search warrant for the mall management office, as well as every store in the mall... and then empty every store in the shopping center into trucks in case the items in each store were somehow related to the case against the shopping mall owner.
This could easily happen to any VoIP provider. The only place it probably couldn't happen is at a real phone company (utility). Every other CLEC (a fake phone company that competes with the real Phone Company), VoIP provider or otherwise fake phone company can go away just like this (just like any other business or even a church in the US). You can read a Wired article about it HERE.
If the above examples of VoIP providers were the only incoming phone service a business had, they'd be in big trouble!
They would have to get new phone service and hope they can port the number they had with their old VoIP provider to the new service - which would probably take a few days or more.
If the VoIP company went belly up overnight with no notice, and a business depended on incoming calls, they'd lose quite a bit of business (outgoing isn't a big deal since we can all use our cell phones).
Why can VoIP service just go away like that?
Because it costs very little to get into the VoIP provider business. You can start your own VoIP service for very little money. Here's how:
Just get a few servers for the calls and the billing (buy them used on eBay or rent them from an ISP/Data Center).
Connect the servers to the Internet (just rent some rack space very cheaply at an ISP/Data Center - a third world country would be fine).
Get some backend software to run the business.
Contract with one of many companies selling VoIP call terminations by the minute (their business is to connect local phone lines to the Internet at various points around the country and the world).
Find a computer geek to help you setup and maintain the servers.
Rent local phone numbers from one of the national companies that "rents" phone numbers to VoIP phone companies, very cheaply.
Rent a 911 call center service from a third world country where they will manually transfer one of your customers who dials 911 to the local police department (maybe?).
Hire a third world company to answer the phones, to make your customers think they are getting support (the clueless support person simply emails your computer geek about a problem).
Alternatively, don't offer any phone support. Just put a form on your web page to contact support (which you never even look at). If you call yourself a "Phone Company," your customers won't have any question in their mind that they'll get the same support they get from the real phone company in their area (which is often just as bad as when it's coming from a third world country).
Start rolling around on the floor in all the money you collect. You're a "Phone Company!"
Stop paying the Data Center bills, the VoIP call termination bills, the rented local phone number bills, the computer geek, the third world call center, and pocket all the money you save until the business folds... leaving your customer's businesses without telephone service.
There are no regulators, no regulations, and only civil courts to deal with. The customers aren't going to sue you when their service stops. Oh, and by the way, if the ISP or the VoIP termination company goes belly up, your service is down whether you like it or not - to say nothing of what happens if the computer geek gets sick, dies, or even goes to jail.
You have absolutely no way of knowing if your VoIP provider will be there tomorrow.
Even a huge company like Google or AT&T can simply turn off their service whenever they feel like it.
I'm not telling you this to scare you away from using VoIP
It's there to give you a sense of the current reality of the phone business. Make your decisions so you have a Plan B. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Just because someone calls themselves a Phone Company doesn't mean they will always be here like a local Phone Company (even if they have Verizon or AT&T in their name). Generally real utilities can't go out of business (they just keep wasting money and raising rates to make up for it!).
A VoIP Provider is NOT a real phone company. If you know that going in, you should be able to successfully implement VoIP at your company... Because you'll have realistic expectations.
You don't have to use VoIP phone lines with most VoIP phone systems. You can keep your regular analog phone lines from the real phone company for incoming, or use a real voice T1 (not a Data T1) if your phone system has that option.
Just because you can do something that will save money doesn't mean it's the right thing to do for your business.
A voice T1 is also known as a channelized T1 (or PRI - Primary Rate ISDN line), where the line is separated into 24 voice channels (a PRI is 23 voice channels, and 1 data channel). The voice quality is as good as you can get. In the old days a T1 that was down would get priority from the phone company. Not so much anymore since there are so many of them (and fewer phone company repairmen).
Getting a Data T1, where you share the T1 with Internet access and VoIP phone lines is dangerous if all of your incoming phone lines are on that Data T1 (along with your outgoing line and sometimes your Internet connection). There is the same probability that the company you bought that T1 from is going to go belly up as there is from a VoIP phone line provider (most real phone companies don't sell this type of line). If you keep some regular analog POTS lines for incoming calls, the shared Data T1 can be a pretty good deal, and it won't be the end of the world when the company providing the Data T1 goes belly up or the line goes down.
Some VoIP providers will sell you a Data T1 and let you share the bandwidth between Internet access and phone service. Sometimes even dynamically, so when there are less calls you will get faster Internet.
Everybody wants faster Internet, so these types of T1/VoIP providers sometimes don't leave enough bandwidth for all the phone calls you could make. You really don't know when it's sold to you. At some point when enough people are making or receiving calls in your business the calls will start to sound like garbage until some users hang-up (in frustration?).
Some VoIP providers make you think you're getting a good deal by reducing the bandwidth available to each call you make so you can make more calls on a Data T1 or DSL line - but the call quality is not as good.
A regular phone line uses 64K for an uncompressed voice call. g.711 is a 64-bit VoIP codec that will sound very good if there's not much latency (delay) on the particular Internet connection from end to end.
But a VoIP provider may set you up for g.729, which uses only 8K of bandwidth (1/8th the bandwidth of g.711, so you can get a lot more calls on a Data T1 or DSL line). Even though it's only using a fraction of the bandwidth of a g.711 call, it's pretty usable. I can't personally talk on a g.729 line very long. It's just annoying. But if you make a lot of short duration calls where you're not looking to sell something, like maybe a taxi company, it may be a good deal.
There is some overhead added to the 64K or 8K call, so leave plenty of extra bandwidth when you order a Data T1 or DSL line for the number of simultaneous calls you need to make.
By the way, regular DSL from the phone company is usually ADSL (Asynchronous DSL). With ADSL you get a faster download than upload speed. If you have 1.4G down 256K up, since phone calls need the same bandwidth for both upload and download, you'll only have 256K total available for g.711 VoIP calls that use 64K+ each. Maybe you can get three calls in the 256K if you aren't downloading big files from the Internet at the same time (what's being done on the Internet is pretty impossible to control at a company).
The bottom line is that it's perfectly safe and can really save money using VoIP for outbound calls since if the VoIP or your Internet connection goes down you can use your cell phone, your home phone, or even go to a bus station, airport, or the local jail to use their pay phone (probably the only places left with pay phones). It's not safe to have all your incoming calls coming in via VoIP or on a Data T1, no matter what anybody tells you (especially the guy trying to sell it to you!).
So... here's the VoIP Research Tech Bulletin...
If you're thinking of getting VoIP to save money, do a little research before ordering it. It could save you several bottles of Tums, some hard cash, and some lost business.
If you're thinking of getting VoIP because your business has multiple locations, that's where VoIP really shines today - but you still have to do your homework.
Like any business with multiple locations using a central PBX or Centrex you have to be very careful in dealing with 911. If you screw up and 911 doesn't work correctly from one of the locations and someone dies, your job and your whole business are at stake.
Because our company sells all kinds of gizmos to fix strange telephone problems, we hear about an incredible number of problems implementing VoIP, T1 and even POTS lines from CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier, or "fake phone companies") and cable companies every week. We also hear lots of problems with POTS lines from real Phone Companies, but they're easier to solve (most can be made to adhere to standards from years ago that VoIP providers ignore).
VoIP can save money and/or help your business run better, but you should dip your toe in first to see what it's like!
Look BEFORE You Dive into VoIP!
People who buy phone equipment today assume that the stuff is dependable, mainly because phones and phone service has been pretty dependable in the past. Not so much now.
People who get phone lines from a company who says they're a Phone Company assume that the phone lines they're ordering will work as well as the ones they've gotten from their local Phone Company. Afraid not.
Just because someone is selling you a telephone device or telephone service doesn't mean it will actually work, especially when it's connected to a particular piece of equipment.
In the old days, all telephone equipment was essentially compatible. These days, there's some chance that it just won't work in your application - and you don't find out until after you've spent a lot of money on new equipment that won't work right, or you can't make or receive phone calls... and you're losing business. You'll have more problems when combining your new VoIP phone system with your old PA system, etc.
Blame your IT Guy!
A lot of business owners and managers make their IT guy make decisions about which and how to install the telephone equipment. There's a pretty good chance they'll make mistakes since their time is split between many projects and they often don't have experience dealing with telephone equipment (so they don't know the pitfalls to watch out for). Is it better than the owner making the decisions?
Not everything that works on a real phone line works on a VoIP line!
VoIP lines generally don't work with alarm equipment, faxes (consistently), modems (including utility / water use reading modems), credit card authorization terminals, or satellite/cable set-top boxes. VoIP telephone audio is compressed so it won't take up much bandwidth which makes everything other than plain voice a crapshoot. Sometimes it will work. Sometimes it won't.
VoIP lines are seldom Ground Start (they're usually like a home phone line, Loop Start) Some older phone systems, particularly those still used in lots of hotels, use Ground Start instead of Loop Start lines (usually called trunks). Lots of hotel operators decided on their own to turn off their real phone company (Ground Start) lines and port the numbers to new VoIP lines without telling the company who services their phone system. When the porting takes place, they get a big surprise when none of the "phone lines" work on their phone system. I doubt many guests make phone calls from their room anymore, so maybe outbound calls don't matter - but nobody can call into the hotel to talk to a room, either.
Could the hotel owner have avoided the chaos? Sure. All he had to do was get one VoIP line as a test. It wouldn't have worked, and he would have saved himself and his guests a lot of aggravation. Then he could have called his phone system vendor and they could have worked out how to try VoIP lines correctly.
Faxes often don't work well on a VoIP line. Sometimes they'll work and sometimes they won't, on the same VoIP line.
Don't Forget Power!
VoIP stuff and T1s generally don't work when the power goes out (a UPS will help until it runs down, and a generator helps until it runs out of fuel or breaks down/never starts up). The battery backups that cable companies install are pitiful for business use, and you're generally responsible for replacing the batteries every two or so years (usually after you find out they didn't work during a power failure). Of course, the same holds try for the battery backups that run your legacy phone system and regular computers.
Who will service the VoIP Stuff?
The technicians installing and servicing VoIP equipment and T1s for businesses are sometimes clueless and may not even be able to communicate while on-site with the company who's actually providing the VoIP / T1 line. Sometimes they're forced to call a third-world country for support themselves, or they have to email support with the problem - a bad thing if you have no working phone lines and he's trying to fix the problem.
If you're leaving it to the IT guy to get the stuff working, same story.
If a technician can't fix your phone system or phone line, and needs to email someone to get support themselves, you know you screwed up buying that system or phone line!
Everybody needs help fixing stuff, even experts. Being able to talk to someone to get some help is important. Having to send an email and hoping that you get an answer is a losing proposition.
If you buy a phone system or phone equipment, make sure you vendor stocks the parts to fix the system locally - so that they don't have to go order it - and your phone lines aren't down until the equipment gets shipped in. Sometimes you need spares just to determine what's wrong. If the vendor doesn't stock spares, it may be very difficult to diagnose the problem. Ask before buying something!
When you order VoIP phone lines yourself, since you didn't purchase the VoIP phone service from your phone system vendor, and probably didn't even call them to see if they thought it would work on your system before you ordered it, they can't help you much when the old phone lines go down and your new service isn't working.
Just because the VoIP provider's salesman tells you it will work; I wouldn't count on it. The salesman is motivated to get you to sign up for the service by telling you all the good things about it, and how much money you can save. They don't know and they aren't trained to tell you the things to watch out for that might not work.
You should seriously consider talking to your phone system vendor before making any decision, which is a good way to learn from others' mistakes. They've probably seen it all by now!
If you order the stuff yourself, you don't do your homework and you don't contact your phone system vendor, you're basically a test pilot. Do you want to put your business at risk, testing stuff to see if it works? I assure you others have already found out the hard way!
Blaming your old phone equipment for your new VoIP phone lines not working right is stupid. You're likely to pay T&M for a lot of troubleshooting, and in some instances the VoIP stuff is junk so it will never work no matter what your phone system vendor does. Obviously, the VoIP salesman is never going to tell you it's terrible, even if it is. At a minimum google for information on that company to see what others have experienced.
When the third world country designs VoIP hardware, they don't do much testing... they're going for the "low hanging fruit" where it goes in and works at maybe 75% to 90% of the places it's installed right away. They don't care about the rest since it's not profitable for them to care about it (but sandman.com sells stuff that tries to make up for the deficiencies!).
There's no reason you can't order the new lines and see if you're happy with them before you drop the old ones.
If the salesman tries to force you to sign a long contract, don't do it! Knowing that there's a reasonable chance that the new lines won't work as expected makes it easy to just get rid of them and try a different vendor. That's just part of the process.
Be realistic in your expectations, and a switch to VoIP will be a lot less stressful.
NEVER EVER EVER EVER GET A BUSINESS PHONE NUMBER FROM A VoIP PROVIDER!
The phone numbers that most VoIP providers will give you are a special breed of number. They won't belong to you, and you probably can't keep them if you switch VoIP providers or go back to the Phone Company for real phone lines. The numbers don't even belong to the VoIP provider.
VoIP providers needed a way to get local phone numbers throughout the country quickly so they could become a "national" phone company. Most actually "rent" these phone numbers from companies who are in the business of renting out blocks of phone numbers.
The local phone number "rental" business started up in the mid 90's with the popularity of the Internet. The ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that offered dial-up service needed a local phone number just about everywhere. Nobody wanted to pay big bucks to the phone company for a toll call to surf the Web for hours.
Just at the time that broadband was killing the dial-up ISPs ten years ago (few local phone numbers were needed to dial into the Internet), VoIP companies came along needing phone numbers in virtually every city in America. They went ahead and rented blocks of these numbers everywhere and became overnight "national" phone companies (even if they were working out of their bedroom or garage).
Imagine the surprise you'll get if you publish the VoIP phone number you get and later decide you could get a better deal somewhere else or try to go back to a real Phone Company because of quality issues. You'll never be able to use that number with another phone company, and if that VoIP provider goes out of business you may not be able to get that number from any other VoIP company (they may deal with a different phone number rental company). If you need a new phone number and you really want to use VoIP service, get a line installed from the Phone Company, then get it ported to the VoIP provider (and then disconnect the Phone Company line). If you have multiple lines that hunt, you really only need to port over the main number that you publish.
If the VoIP provider promises you that the phone number will be yours to keep forever, they're not telling the truth. If the company they're renting the phone number from gets out of the business or just goes out of business, and the number can't be ported, you'll lose the number forever. It's impossible for anybody except the real phone company to promise you that you'll have the number forever, and even then, you could lose the phone number in rare cases.
Once you port a number away from the Phone Company, you may no longer be listed in the White Pages or Information, and you may have a problem getting into the local Phone Company's Yellow Pages? If Yellow Pages advertising makes a difference to your company check that out first!
I personally would never port our incoming local numbers since our company would be out of business without them. We generally don't use 800 numbers at our company because it's possible to have the number hijacked by an 800-service provider. While this doesn't happen often, it's possible that the 800 number you've used for many years could be taken away from you and given to another company. You don't own an 800 number, and many of the 800 service providers have been through bankruptcies.
If you get an 800 number from a VoIP provider there is little chance you'll be able to keep that number if you change VoIP providers. Get your 800 number from a real 800 number provider (usually a long-distance company), and have it forwarded to the POTS line or regular local VoIP number. If you change VoIP providers, you just call the 800 number provider and give them the new local phone number to point it to.
Comcast has run out of residential subscribers to sign up, so they now go after businesses. Their phone service works OK most of the time. When it doesn't the likelihood of ever getting it fixed is pretty low. They just don't have repairmen with experience to fix their fairly complicated equipment / systems (and they don't care, but that's no different than the real phone company). Use it for outbound calling and you can probably save some money (and get TV and fast Internet in your office). Use it for your main incoming number for your business and you could have many very bad days. For a company that depends on incoming calls to make money it's a pretty big gamble. Here's a business who lost their main business phone number when they tried to switch to Comcast in July of 2013:
While a real Phone Company (a Public Utility) won't disappear into the night, a VoIP provider, cable company or CLEC could close their doors or stop offering phone service leaving you high and dry. Let me stress this again...
NEVER EVER EVER EVER GET A BUSINESS PHONE NUMBER FROM A VoIP PROVIDER!
If your dial tone is coming from some kind of box (instead of a real line from the Phone Company), and you're using something other than an old fashioned phone to make and receive calls, you may have problems that you didn't have when you were using POTS lines (Plain Old Telephone Service) from the Phone Company on the same telephone equipment!
VoIP phone lines were originally used to make outgoing calls cheaply - mainly from home with a regular single line phone or using a headset attached to a computer. While the quality wasn't as good as the real Phone Company, the savings, particularly on international calls, were substantial enough to put up with the quality issues. The savings on outbound international calls were even more significant for business.
Because VoIP worked well for outgoing calls, companies started to use it for incoming calls - which was the start of the problems.
Some of the VoIP phone companies started offering unique features on incoming calls like inexpensive 800 service, foreign exchange (phone numbers from multiple cities ringing into a single VoIP device), program in your own Caller ID, and external call transfer. These features make it very attractive to just go ahead and switch to VoIP, but just because a VoIP provider says their features work doesn't mean they'll work in your application. If you don't do your homework, I'd start buying Tums at the warehouse club.
Companies start using VoIP lines for incoming calls and find that it doesn't work with their particular phones or phone system (but it works OK with a standard single line telephone).
The reason that most companies consider switching to VoIP is simply to save money. You can get almost all the features that VoIP service offers, but it will cost you a lot more from a real Phone Company.
Note that many VoIP phone systems come with licensing fees!
In the past, the larger legacy phone system manufacturers charged licensing fees on a per feature basis. It was usually one-time fee when the system / feature was purchased.
With legacy phone systems you bought a cabinet that was big enough to hold enough the station and CO line cards needed to run your company when you bought the system. If you needed more stations or trunks, you bought more cards, and then maybe an expansion cabinet or migrated to the next size up system cabinet. You bought as many proprietary phones as you needed, as you needed them.
VoIP phone systems generally don't have station or trunk ports. One box that fits in a 19" rack could run hundreds or thousands of phones and lines. Some will work with any cheap VoIP phone. If there were no licensing fees, a guy with 10 phones would spend the same thing as the guy with 200 phones, for the same phone system with the same features. The VoIP phone system manufacturer would never be able to make money because every system would have to sell for the same thing that a 10-phone system would cost.
I don't know that there's a better way to handle VoIP phone system pricing than licensing fees, but if you're a legacy phone system owner who's never had to pay licensing fees, this might be tough to handle. If you have multiple offices or just want to allow workers to answer the phone from home, the benefits of a VoIP phone system can make the licensing fees seem cheap.
If you will never need the features that only come on a VoIP phone system (like off-premise workers), it's stupid to pay the licensing fees. There are plenty of perfectly good new and used legacy systems that don't require licensing fees. Some legacy phone system manufacturers have add-on VoIP features to their legacy phone systems, which may be the best of both worlds and save money on licensing fees.
How about a "Hosted PBX?"
You don't "buy" a PBX with a Hosted PBX. You just buy industry standard VoIP phones (supported by that Hosted PBX Provider) and "rent" the PBX that's out on the Internet somewhere. It's a cheap way to get a phone system, especially when you have workers spread out throughout the local area, the country, or the world.
The VoIP "phone system" acting as the Hosted PBX can be connected to the Internet just about anywhere in this or another country, and it's shared by as many subscribers as they can get.
Like having a VoIP phone system in your own office, the bandwidth to the Internet of the Hosted PBX, both up and down, is critical.
In general, you want to get a Hosted PBX provider with servers located fairly close to most of your users. If you're in LA, it doesn't make sense for your Hosted PBX to be in Chicago or NY. That's just introducing a lot of latency (delay) for the packets to travel up and back. Many Hosted PBX providers get servers in data centers around the country to reduce the latency. Ask where your server is going to be!
As with any VoIP solution the calls won't all sound wonderful since the voice packets are traveling over the public Internet. Even on an intercom call from one desk to the next.
The phones won't be as friendly to use or have as many features as a 25-year-old legacy phone system.
A Hosted PBX can be a reasonable solution if you make sure there's enough bandwidth for the calls on the Internet connections (and local network) that have a VoIP phone working from that Hosted PBX... Which is the real secret of making VoIP calls sound good in general.
Keep in mind that all companies advertising a Hosted PBX aren't alike. Some will be operating out of a garage or bedroom. Most will be trying to provide good service and support so they can grow their business.
There will be a difference in quality based on whether the company has the Hosted PBX server in their office, or in a rack located at a real data center somewhere - with batteries, a generator, climate control and a big pipe to the Internet. You will never get the voice quality or dependability of having your own phone system, but in some cases, you might never be able to afford to start and run an innovative company without using a Hosted PBX. At least in the beginning.
Like with any VoIP solution, try it before you jump in!
Many of today's VoIP phone systems are require you to reset them on a frequent basis to resolve strange problems. Most of today's VoIP phone systems are first or second generation, even if they're sold by a legacy phone system manufacturer, because they're using third world engineers with no experience (to save money) when designing new systems.
Every VoIP service is going to go totally down occasionally since it's just a bunch of PCs (servers) somewhere providing the talk path. Some that I tested were much worse than others. The salesman isn't going to tell you!
Some Hosted PBXs and VoIP providers allow you to program in another phone number to divert incoming calls to if the service goes down. You really want to have this ability with any VoIP service you get for incoming calls! But even this won't work depending on what's broken in a particular case.
Caller ID is pretty important!
One thing that surprised me was how callers depend on Caller ID when they answer a call from us. While they were used to seeing Mike Sandman in the past with real AT&T phone lines, they were totally confused when it said something like Illinois Call or even Out of Area on their Caller ID.
Our customers know we use screen pops for incoming calls at our office POS (Point of Sale) system. Using Caller ID information with the screen pop allows us to get the order and get off the phone - usually in under four minutes according to our phone system statistics.
Some business grade VoIP providers let you put in a Caller ID name and number to display from a control panel for the service. For the outbound VoIP lines that we use in our office (off a hosted Asterisk FreePBX), that's been a particularly useful feature.
We don't have the outbound lines setup to ring on our system, so we set the Caller ID on the outbound VoIP lines to the 4th incoming POTS line. When someone calls us and we see that line ringing (if 1, 2 and 3 aren't busy) we know it's someone returning a call from us. A lot of people these days just push DIAL on their cell phone to return a call (they don't listen to the number left in the message).
Don't Just Accept Poor VoIP Quality!
About 10% of the incoming calls we get these days are horrible quality VoIP. You can tell when the VoIP phone or equipment isn't setup properly because there's a constant clicking / ticking / cutting out of words. That's caused by the Echo Canceller set too high, which is removing both echo and some of the voice (it's not supposed to do that!).
You can try out a single line from almost all of the consumer grade VoIP providers. Some of the business grade VoIP providers will let you try out a line, phone or small system. If you don't like it, you're out a little money including signup fees. Spending a few hundred dollars trying a service before you commit to using it can save you a ton of money and grief later.
Maybe you can put up with the quality issues to save some money on VoIP with a particular vendor?
Copper is Going Away... Eventually
In some areas AT&T, Verizon and other "phone companies" have stopped installing copper for phone lines. They install fiber to the premise and use a converter (box) to make "fake" phone lines.
Keep in mind that the converter box needs power, so it needs a battery backup of some kind.
Sometimes the converter box is in a terminal away from the premise, and they use copper to the premise for the last block or whatever. In new construction all you're probably going to get is fiber with the converter box inside somewhere.
In some cases they even remove the copper after they install the fiber so you can't go back.
These aren't VoIP lines the real phone company is giving you. They're going to sound better than almost any VoIP line because your digitized voice is travelling on a dedicated network, not on the public Internet.
BUT the converters are often junk. They're made without any regard to standards... even though these are supposedly "phone companies" giving you the lines. A regular old single line phone will work with these converters. Anything else may or may not work in one way or another. All you can do is try it with reasonable expectations.
Can these converter boxes or VoIP ATAs / Gateways be made to the same standards as real phone lines? Sure. But it would cost a little more money, and nobody wants to spend it. Certainly not the real or fake phone companies. Maybe not even you?
IT'S THE NETWORK!
If your local network is screwed up when you use your computers, your VoIP calls will sound like garbage if you put them on the same screwed up network.
A lot of companies disregard their local network when trying to troubleshoot VoIP problems.
And then a lot of VoIP providers use the customer's network as the "excuse" for why their VoIP calls sound bad, even if it's not the reason. The problem is that it's difficult to tell if the network is causing the problem. But not impossible.
When you do a google search or download a photo or movie it's not real-time. If some of the packets come a little later than others the computer puts them together in the right order or stops playing the movie until the buffer catches up.
On a phone conversation if some of the words or parts of words come a second or two after they're supposed to (or are left out), it's not easy to understand. Especially if you're trying to do business.
There is no law that says you have to use the same Ethernet network for your phones and your computers. It's best to have them on separate networks from a voice quality standpoint.
Likewise, it's best to have a separate Internet connection for your PCs and VoIP. Most VoIP salesmen won't tell you the truth because they don't want you to think it will cost you more money. But some will insist that you get a separate Internet connection from them for VoIP since they don't want to deal with the service calls and unhappy customers. They're right.
You'll notice that most VoIP phones have a built-in Ethernet switch that allows you to plug the phone into the jack on the wall that you were using for your computer, and then plug the computer workstation into the switch on the back of the phone. You're impressed with the savings when the VoIP salesman tells you that you don't have to do any rewiring to use their new VoIP system.
The phones do have the built-in switch, but that's not always the best thing to do. If your network gets congested because you transfer big files from time to time, or even if the network wiring is screwed up, you'll be very unhappy with the quality of the voice calls on that network.
If you end up with network congestion / configuration problems just run a separate 10/100 network for the phones... and don’t plug your PC into the back of the phone. You don't need a gigabit (1000Base-T) Ethernet network for phones (unless you've got zillions of employees?).
If you're serious about VoIP bite the bullet and do it right before you get frustrated by quality problems.
Data T1s are pretty cheap these days compared to even a few years ago, and they're symmetrical. They have the same upload and download speeds, which is what VoIP phone calls need. Getting a separate Data T1 for your VoIP phones (on their own Ethernet network) or even a separate DSL line can really help if you have quality problems.
Some cable companies offer synchronous upload and download speeds like you get on a Data T1, or close enough for VoIP. Some have huge pipes like 20G down and 5G up - which is like having 3 full Data T1s for the cost of a business grade cable Internet connection.
Is it smart to put all your phone traffic on the cable company's Internet connection? Probably not.
There may be latency problems with a cable company Internet connection, especially in the evenings when you're competing for bandwidth with everybody in the neighborhood downloading Netflix movies.
Latency, or delay, is the enemy of VoIP voice quality. You have absolutely no control of the delay from your ISP or T1 provider to the rest of the Internet, but you can choose an ISP or Data T1 provider with as little latency as possible between their connection to the Internet and your VoIP server or your VoIP lines, and your premise. This is really critical!
When you get your T1 or DSL/Cable, you may or may not get the bandwidth you're paying for. At least not all the time.
If there are a lot of T1 or DSL subscribers (homes or businesses) working out of a particular Central Office (T1 or DSL) or in a particular neighborhood with cable, there probably isn't enough bandwidth if every user is downloading movies at the full bandwidth they pay for.
The Internet provider (phone company or cable company) is never going to put a big enough pipe so that all the subscribers can download or upload at full speed all the time. They figure out what the maximum bandwidth is likely to be based on experience, and then feed that much bandwidth to the distribution point.
If you're unlucky enough to be on the same pipe from the Internet where there are one or more subscribers using a lot more bandwidth than a normal user, your bandwidth may be limited at times. That may affect the quality and number of VoIP calls you can make at the same time. If you have problems and complain they may or may not add more bandwidth?
All VoIP phones are not created equal!
There are a lot of makes and models of VoIP phones out there. Just because the manufacturer calls it a VoIP phone doesn't mean it will work in your application, or that it will even work like a phone.
The really cheap junky VoIP phones initially stand out by not having sidetone on the handset. That means that you can't hear a little of your own voice in your ear (and if you blow into the mic you don't hear yourself).
Some people don't mind not having sidetone, but it irritates most people. If there is no conversation coming from the other end of the call, like if you're on-hold with no music, you really don't know if you're still connected.
Most electronic and VoIP phones have sidetone which allows you to record both sides of a conversation from an adapter connected to the handset cord of the phone (the only place there's always analog audio). If there's no sidetone you'd only get one side of the conversation.
There are some VoIP phone systems and fairly expensive gizmos that will let you grab voice packets off the Ethernet network and create recordings for you.
Some VoIP phones don't have many features (or buttons), and what features are there must be activated with access codes (like *88 or something). Before buying a lot of a particular make and model of phone, buy one or two and use it for a week or more to make sure it will work OK for you. That's pretty cheap and easy with VoIP!
Just because a VoIP provider or CLEC says they have a feature doesn't mean it will work the way you expect, work the way it did from the real Phone Company, or that you'll be able to get any support if it doesn't work.
Just because you can buy a VoIP phone or phone system doesn't mean you will be able to make all of the features, they say they have work.
Some of the worst offenders are the expensive "phone systems" they sell at the Office Biggie store. They sell four-line corded or cordless "systems" with tons of features, but there's a pretty good chance all of the features won't work right.
Sometimes they'll work OK on a real phone line, but when used with a VoIP phone line a lot of features don't work (these types of phones usually communicate on frequencies over the normal voice range, on Line 1). If you buy this stuff, make sure you save the boxes and can return it if it doesn't work.
Keep in mind that most KSUless Phone Systems from the Office Biggie Store don't have Music or Message on Hold. That can be a real problem when you have customers hanging up when they're on hold before they place their order.
A lot of companies thought they could save money by getting this consumer grade stuff, and then ended up buying a real phone system. They sold the expensive consumer stuff on eBay (or it's still sitting in a closet in the office).
VoIP phone systems can be a real surprise. Some features, which both users and the companies selling phone systems take for granted on a regular phone system, are missing, or crippled on some VoIP phone systems. Some features will only work for a limited number of phones, not all the phones. Try the features on a demo system first to make sure they work the way you expect!
Most VoIP sets require power to work, either from a power cube at the desk or using PoE (Power Over Ethernet). With POE the power to run the phone comes right from the Ethernet Switch, and it's a very neat installation.
Every business should buy Switches that provide PoE for any VoIP sets they may buy in the future - even if they don't need it right now.
Some PoE Switches offer PoE on a limited number of ports - not on all the ports. PoE is a much better idea than having every phone plugged in using a power cube (if they do use a power cube, hopefully you plug it into a battery backup at the workstation). Every part of an Ethernet network should be battery backed, including the switches - both inside and outside the computer room.
Polycom sets often have a problem when using their power cube and a headset with the phone. The hum / noise on the headset goes away when you switch to a POE switch port, or a POE power injector.
Sometimes cordless phones don't work because of the construction of the building, interference from other stuff using the same frequencies (like wireless cameras or Wi-Fi), or they're just garbage. The only way to know if it will work is to try it in your particular location. Make sure you can return it if it doesn't work in your environment!
Ask your phone system vendor if they have one you can borrow for a couple of days before ordering it (you'll probably have to pay for installation).
If you decide to go with cordless phones be sure to buy a lot of spares! Desk phones can last forever. Cordless phones get dropped, sat on, thrown, and smashed. There is no way they will last very long in constant use at a business.
You'll need the spares so you can send the broken ones out for repair.
If you're crazy enough to buy consumer cordless phones at the Office Biggie store for business use, be sure to buy lots of spare systems. Whatever you bought will be discontinued and replaced with another model that's not compatible with what you bought, maybe within weeks or months. Any cordless phone you buy will break pretty often.
See our Cordless Phone Tech Bulletin for more information.
Wideband Audio & HD Voice?
Some VoIP equipment manufacturers are talking up HD or Wideband VoIP, which is basically high fidelity voice over VoIP (using the g.722 codec) HD VoIP would work fine if there's enough bandwidth (it doesn't use more bandwidth than a regular g.711 64K call), but that's a real stretch if you consider that nobody can make all regular VoIP calls all sound as good as a real phone call, primarily because of bandwidth constraints.
If your VoIP provider supports the g.722 wideband codec, and you make a call to a landline or basically anywhere outside your own PBX, you're back down to the traditional limited bandwidth of a real phone system - 300 to 3500hz.
You will get better sounding audio on intercom calls between two wideband VoIP phones using g.722 (if they are setup properly to use the g.722 codec), but that's about it.
I can't think of any reason to pay more for wideband audio / HD voice today. Maybe in the future when everybody has it and there are no more analog phone lines?
VoIP is easy for an ISP to purposely screw up
If you're planning to use VoIP between two locations (like an office and branch office or home worker) consider using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN will encrypt the SIP (VoIP) packets that carry the conversation (and any other data you send like email and spreadsheets, etc.). That encrypted connection is called a VPN tunnel.
VPN routers are fairly inexpensive and fairly easy to setup these days. You'll need one for each end of the connection.
Since a VPN is encrypted it prevents tapping your VoIP conversations when they leave your building. It's very unlikely that someone would try to intercept the network traffic between your locations, and if they did it would be very hard to do unless they could get right onto your network or DSL/cable/T1 leaving your building.
The FBI does have a box at every ISP, including yours, that lets them grab all the packets from a particular IP address (like yours), which gives them the ability to monitor and record VoIP conversations (and everything else you send or receive over the Internet). I would imagine that they have the ability to break VPN encryption, but probably not in real time.
The real reason to encrypt your VoIP traffic is to prevent your ISP from blocking/degrading the quality of VoIP calls by messing with the SIP packets, which are easy to identify as they go through their routers. Why would they do that? Because they probably are or own a phone company in addition to offering broadband. If your VoIP sounds terrible, you're more likely to switch to their phone service.
Some countries, especially China, monitor all of the traffic on the Internet - and have been known to automatically inject a BYE packet intermittently, which tells the other end of the call that the other party has hung-up.
If someone decides to hack the software on the Cisco routers that are used to route almost all of the packets on the Internet (which has happened), they could put a little bit of code to send a BYE in response to every SIP packet, which would bring down everybody's VoIP that isn't encrypted on a VPN (routers don't have the ability to break the encryption of a VPN on the fly).
The bitterness of poor quality is remembered long after the sweetness of low price has faded from memory.
Aldo Gucci, 1938... And he never used VoIP!
See our VoIP Checklist for a quick list of things to check before jumping into VoIP