Business VoIP Providers: Finding a Voice in the Crowd

Updated: September 08, 2010

As with any tech project, the key is to begin by correctly identifying needs. A partnership with any phone company is akin to marriage: Divorce is painful, so make sure you have a good understanding of what you want and need before you commit. Porting phone numbers between carriers when you do decide to change your provider is usually possible, but it's a difficult process and prone to error. So, here are the needs you should consider:

The first metric to consider in determining your needs is your company's demographics.

  • Do you have full-time IT staff or do you hire technical expertise when you need it?
  • How many seats will you initially have and how many do you expect in the next five years?
  • Are your users clustered into one office or spread out over multiple locations?
  • Do you have telecommuters or frequent travelers?
  • What are the call patterns?
  • Do most of your employees spend a majority of their time on the phone or is it just a few power users?
  • Do you hold many conference calls?
  • Do you have international calls?
  • What is your comfort level with phone system outages?

Do you have telecommuters or frequent travelers? Are your users clustered in one office or spread out over multiple locations?

Once you answer the geography question, you can already narrow your choices. Some providers will require a physical circuit between each location and their network, while others will rely on the public Internet. If your employees are clustered into one or two physical locations, providers requiring a physical layer may be a viable option. If your employees are more distributed, or travel a significant percentage of the time, then you can rule these providers out. It will make more financial sense to leverage existing Internet connections.

Do you have full-time IT staff or do you hire technical expertise when you need it?

Internal technical expertise is another filtering factor. If your company has dedicated technical staff, hosting and managing your own PBX will give you total control, but it comes at a cost, since you must provide the PBX hardware, any software licensing fees, network infrastructure, security and the staff hours required to implement and manage it.

If you do not have the in-house technical staff or the willingness to pay the upfront costs of installing your own PBX, a hosted solution is a better fit. There are plenty of them out there.

If you've decided on running a PBX, what is your comfort level with phone system outages?

If you've decided that you want to run your own PBX, you only need a provider to provide you with a connection to the PSTN, so what matters is who can offer the cheapest rates to the places that you send calls. Reliability is also an important consideration, so take some time to do research on how often the company has had outages and how quickly they've fixed them. Speak to other customers of your potential provider if you can; an even better test of the service is a trial account. You should purchase a phone number and route some traffic to the new provider for an extended period of time before committing all of your numbers. In the telephony world, proceeding slowly just makes sense. Have confidence before porting your numbers. If you must have 100% uptime, sign up with two providers and use one as a failover - many providers will have a product line designed for redundancy purposes. Check for forwarding options in the event that your PBX or ISP goes down.

If you've decided on hosted PBX, what phone service features matter the most?

If you've decided to invest in a hosted PBX solution, the next step is to decide which features are most important to you, and how much they cost. Your provider will have to provide every feature, from voice mailboxes to hold music to queues and conference bridges, so this is a crucial step. Understanding and predicting your needs for the next five years will save headaches later, such as if you decide that you want to set your auto-attendant to close the office early on a holiday weekend, just to discover that this isn't a configurable feature. Once you decide on which feature sets you cannot live without, you can eliminate providers that don't offer what you need. Then, you can compare costs. (Another good example is cost of international calling should this be important to your company.)

If you've decided on hosted PBX, what cost structure best fits your company profile?

Today, hosted VoIP providers are offering services with varying cost structures. For example, some charge mainly per user, and others charge per minute. Some charge high rates for international calls, but cut breaks in the cost of the service, or vice versa. So, if you have a few power phone users in your company, you'll likely want a phone service that charges per minute versus per

VoIP's famous setback is accurate emergency service reporting, so if this is an important feature to you (and I hope it is), make sure that you understand precisely what your provider has in terms of service. E911 will vary among providers, in terms of availability, price and customer responsibility. Since VoIP lines do not have a static physical location, a user's geographic information is only as good as the data submitted to the provider. When a user changes locations, the provider must be updated so that emergency services can be sent to the correct place. When a user has several phones registered to the same SIP address, this can be a problem, so make sure that you fully understand how the provider deals with this issue and what your responsibilities are.

Now that you have your short list of providers, it's time to do some testing. You do want to be happy with this relationship, don't you? You're going to be together for a long time either way, so don't skimp on thorough testing of all the providers that you're considering. If this is a provider that uses existing Internet connections, this stage is essential so that you can test out your ISP as much as their service. If you're using an ISP that is a million networks away from your provider's servers, you're going to have more QoS issues and outages. Each ISP between your network and your provider's network adds potential for downtime and latency. Latency really matters for QoS; latency higher than 150 ms should be avoided. In an ideal world, there are no more than one or two networks between your ISP and your provider's network. Being geographically close is not important, so long as the latency rule is observed. And while you're testing your ISP, make sure you have adequate bandwidth to support your peak usage. You should plan for 87Kpbs per active phone call, plus your typical peak data bandwidth usage.

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