These days, small businesses have to perform like big ones in at least two ways. First, they have to appear big to their customers. Second, they have to possess the communication capabilities and efficiencies of large companies. IP PBXes of one sort or another will surely give your competitors both of those benefits, and probably sooner rather than later. So if your company doesn't adopt IP telephony, it will put itself at a competitive disadvantage.
The hard part is finding the IP PBX that fits both your company's needs and its budget. That's where the choice between on-premise and hosted IP PBXes comes in. Going the on-premise route requires buying and operating equipment, while hosted means using VoIP service delivered from an IP PBX in a service provider 's datacenter, with the calls transported over the Internet.
Using a hosted service can help you avoid some of the significant disadvantages of buying your own PBX. The most obvious disadvantage comes "if you have 10 people and have to make a $2,000 to $4,000 investment," said Infonetics Research analyst Matthias Machowinski. "PBXes have a certain base price, so there's going to be the up-front investment, and you have to manage it, too." Another disadvantage appears if your company is expanding rapidly. "If you don't know how big a company you're going to be a year or two down the road, if you invest in a PBX with 50 seats, you could outgrow it," Machowinski added.
Hosted VoIP, by contrast, allows a company to add just the capacity it needs at any given time. And if your business does go with hosted VoIP, it will have a lot of company. According to Infonetics Research, there were 2 million of what the research firm calls "IP Centrex seats "worth $1.1 billion in revenues in the U.S. in 2007. Infonetics Research expects the number to more than double to 5 million seats worth $2.5 billion in 2010.
Your business will also have a lot of choices to make. The range of VoIP providers varies widely. At one end are those that deliver calls over the public Internet. At the other end, some providers control the IP links all the way to your company's premises. The provider may actually own and operate those links, or it may buy them from companies that do. Public Internet delivery is obviously cheaper, while provider-controlled access offers more consistent quality . And there are myriad variations on the two. Here is a range of VoIP providers of all types to consider.
1. Aptela Inc .: This provider offers standard hosted IP PBX service with Internet delivery, starting at $19.50 per month, per user. Unlimited business packages for calls in the U.S. and Canada start at $39 per user. The Aptela Dispatch call-center product includes features such as auto-attendant, department ring groups, multiple call trees, call queuing, agent log-in and log-out, monitoring, and recording.
2. AT&T : The carrier's low-end product is CallVantage for Small Business, which offers one- to four-line flat-rate plans. Meanwhile, AT&T Voice DNA is the company's hosted VoIP solution for larger companies. The company's Flexible Reach service provides AT&T-controlled access to the customer premises for both businesses with their own IP PBXes and those using Voice DNA.
3. CallTower : This provider targets companies with 20 to 10,000 employees. CallTower can provide bundled voice — including local and long-distance service — as well as data service over dedicated T1 lines connected to its MPLS (Multi Protocol Label Switching) backbone.
4. Cbeyond : Cbeyond provides T1, local and long-distance services as a package. Service areas include Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, the greater San Francisco Bay Area, Houston, Los Angeles and San Diego. The company's BeyondVoice packages target companies with 4 to 200 employees and 6 to 30 lines, especially those in the health care, real estate and legal industries. Cbeyond can also provide mobile service on the same bill via its add-on BeyondMobile package.
5. CentricVoice : This provider offers voice and data services, with a basic hosted VoIP small-business offering starting at $29.95 per seat, per month. A premium service at $34.95 per seat adds find-me/follow-me features, a Web portal and several other features. The services uses Level 3 Communications Inc. transport and Cisco Systems Inc . equipment.
6. Covad Communications Group : The longtime provider of T1 and DSL services for small businesses also offers ClearEdge Pro hosted VoIP for companies with 10 to 250 employees. The service includes ACD (automatic call distribution), auto-attendant, call-group, click-to-call, find-me/follow-me and visual voice-mail features.
7. InPhonex : InPhonex offers Internet hosted VoIP with unlimited North American calls for $49.95 per month, as well as unlimited toll-free inbound and outbound for $54.95 per month. Both come with a fairly basic set of features, including call transfer and forwarding, available virtual numbers, and multiple rings.
8. Junction Networks : This provider offers SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) hosting, as well as hosted PBX and PSTN (public switched telephone network) gateway — SIP or IAX (Inter-Asterisk eXchange) trunking — services. Junction Networks' latest claim to fame is that it charges small businesses a flat rate plus the cost of PSTN-connected calls , rather than charging for each extension. The service is great for offices with phones in reception or other areas that seldom — if ever — need to make outside calls.
9. M5 Networks Inc .: One of the service-to-the-premises entrants, M5 Networks provides hosted VoIP delivered over M5-branded T1s with backup M5 DSL lines. It uses Cisco Systems networking and IP PBX equipment and phones, and Verizon circuits for carrying the traffic. The company focuses on the New York City market.
10. New Global Telecom : This provider offers retail, wholesale and white-label hosted Internet IP PBX services.
11. Packet8 (8x8 Inc.): An Internet-based hosted IP PBX service for small businesses , this offering has a particularly extensive set of features, including call-center functions and CRM (customer relationship management) integration. It uses Level 3 Communications' negligible-latency IP backbone to transport calls, but like all such services is still dependent on your company's broadband provider for the last link from the Level 3 Communications POP to your premises.
12. Speakeasy Inc .: Speakeasy has its own network, and it offers T1, DSL and business VoIP services. Speakeasy's complete solution offers T1 or bonded (a pair of coordinated) T1s, ADSL (Asymmetric DSL) or SDSL (Symmetric DSL), and three calling plans ranging from $19.95 to $29.95 per month, per employee.
13. Sprint Nextel : Sprint IP Voice Connect is Internet-based but transports calls over Sprint's MPLS IP backbone to ensure quality.
14. Verizon Business : Verizon Business Hosted IP Centrex is just one of an array of Verizon VoIP services that include SIP trunking for those companies with their own IP PBXes. The hosted service includes auto-attendant, network voice mail and various unlimited calling plans.
15. ViaTalk : This provider offers Internet phone service, with business plans starting at $29.95 per month for 1,500 minutes and unlimited North American calling at $35.95 per month, with plenty of options. ViaTalk mostly targets home businesses.
16. Vocalocity : VocalocityPBX Unlimited Extension starts at $39.99 per month, and metered extensions cost $14.99 per month, plus 3 cents per minute. Virtual extensions, virtual departments and virtual numbers are available.
17. Vonics Digital : SOHO Unlimited plans start at $34.99 per month, while Unlimited Plus plans ($44.99 per month) add a separate fax line with 300 minutes.
18. XO Communications : The network operator and communication services provider made a splash recently when it began pricing its VoIP service by bandwidth rather than number of lines. Its integrated VoIP services include local and long-distance calling — with Internet access and Web hosting on the same bill — and options such as auto-attendant and conferencing services.
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