America enjoyed over a century of plain old telephone service (POTS). The reliability of POTS was envied by the rest of the world and taken for granted by most Americans. But we grew used to the sound quality of cell phones and Internet services were cheap to deploy. VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) was born.
By now you have probably used a VOIP service. Skype is commonly used to make free international calls. Skype was a private company until they were bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion. It’s amazing how much a business that gives stuff away is worth these days. Most VOIP providers charge for their service, however.
VOIP offers many attractive features. Among them, “cloud based” access to your office phone system. Conferencing, voice mail-to-email, call attendant services, cheap long distance, find me/follow me, etc., are the new normal. Some providers completely outsource your telephone equipment to the cloud where multiple servers create backups, improve uptime and expand features while reducing costs. But beware the dark side.
Quality of service
The great lie of VOIP is that you can trust the “commodity” Internet to deliver voice quality on par with the POTS service it replaces. If your sound quality expectation is a cell phone in the middle of a mile-long tunnel – maybe. VOIP can be better than POTS, but you need to pay attention to quality of service (QOS.) This scheme to guarantee the timing and delivery of “packets” of voice snippets is a critical element of a successful VOIP deployment.
Quality begins with the phone, extends to the wires and network infrastructure in your office and then to the connection of your Internet service at the ISP. If there is an interruption anywhere along that circuitous path you’ll experience skips, echoes and drops. Your experience may be intermittent; if you decide to download a large file or start an offsite backup, your connection quality may suffer. If your Internet is already slow, forget about adding VOIP.
We recommend a dedicated Internet circuit for VOIP – or one that implements some QOS standards. These circuits cost more. You may not be worried about waiting a few extra milliseconds for a Web page to download. But the same delay interrupting a conversation can be frustrating – and it can lead to misunderstanding.
If you rely on the Internet for your phone service, you are doubly exposed if an outage occurs. Back in the day you could rely on your phones to remain working through an Internet hiccup. Now it may be all or nothing.
Finally, we’ve had mixed luck sending faxes over phone lines that “create” dial tone from Internet connections. Inbound faxing is not such a problem since most offices prefer fax-to-email services that deliver PDFs to your inbox. But if you regularly send faxes, you’d be wise to install a separate POTS line for that. You’ll also need a POTS line for most security/fire alarm systems and elevator emergency phones.
VOIP billing changes
Most older phone service plans charged a service fee for the number of “lines” you needed. Basically this was the number of simultaneous conversations you could conduct. You might have had six lines but 12 phones. Your private branch exchange (PBX) made the connections; it probably cost thousands of dollars and was purchased upfront or on a lease with a term of several years.
VOIP services now charge for “call paths” routed directly to your phone and eliminate the PBX. If you have 12 phones you pay a monthly fee for 12 paths with little or no up-front expense other than the cost of the phones themselves (each which may cost $200 or less). If you are happy with the speaker and microphone built into your PC, or use a headset, you can get a “soft” phone for free. Most plug into the same network jack that your computer uses. Some allow you to plug your phone into any Internet connection and start making/receiving calls from anywhere. Wireless phones that use your office WiFi are available, too.
One local tech company, Fathom Voice, leverages Amazon’s cloud infrastructure to deploy their VOIP service. The system scales, replicates and upgrades itself automatically when you need it. Even better: The days when telecom service providers would need to ‘roll a truck’ to repair/configure phones are over. Most administration is done online.
Technology is rapidly making old-fashioned telephones obsolete. They had a great run and set a high bar for reliability and sound quality. But sometime soon, you will start hearing voices from the cloud.•
Kim Brand is president of Computer Experts, Inc. and an adjunct professor of legal informatics at IUPUI. Contact Kim at [email protected] or call 317-833-3000. Opinions expressed are those of the author.