Voice-over-Internet (VoIP) has the potential to both improve on existing phone technology, and greatly reduce phone costs. Yet, many SMB owners are understandably wary of the technology, having heard horror stories from their peers, or having had poor experiences due to bad VOIP implementations. Luckily, with the right knowledge and the correct set of tools, it is possible to implement VoIP in a manner that is extremely reliable and effective. In this article, we will explore some of the basic concepts involved in setting up a dependable VoIP configuration.
To understand the current state of phone technology, some background context is helpful. VoIP is the outcome of deliberate strategies by the telecom companies to extract more value from their copper wire lines. Prior to the mid 1990's, most phone calls were conducted over a single copper line. Remember those days when the power would go out but the phone still worked? These analogs lines, or "POTS" lines (Plain Old Telephone Service) provided 48 volts of DC power, when all phones were "on the hook."
Today, almost every analog line has been repurposed to DSL (Digital Subscriber Lines). This is why landline phones no longer connect directly into the wall, but into an analog to digital converter device. This is also how DSL or U-Verse subscribers can have internet and phone running over a single copper line. Today's "POTS" lines are actually VoIP.
So why might there exist a general sentiment of mistrust in VoIP? The short answer is, it's complicated. Instead of writing about the problem, I thought it would be more productive to focus on the solution. In 10 years implementing VoIP solutions, I've compiled the most important factors to consider, including these:
1) Install a Second Internet Connection to Ensure Continuous Service
Installing a second internet connection is like having a backup generator if your power goes out. Simply put, if your primary internet goes down, a second (backup) connection automatically "kicks-in" providing continuity for voice and data services. It's critical these connections are provided by different companies, and equally important no two connection mediums are the same. E.g. Copper + Cable, Copper + Fiber Optic or Cable + Fiber Optic. With average VoIP savings between 30-50 percent, installing a $29.95/month DSL line won't break the bank.
A single high-quality VoIP call uses approximately 80 Kbps of data. Internet connections carry two independent speed ratings, Downstream (D) and Upstream (U). Connections with identical downstream and upstream speeds is called "Synchronous". Connections with non-identical speeds are called "Asynchronous." This means a 10Mbps Synchronous connection has the capacity to handle about 125 simultaneous calls (10Mbps = 10000Kbps / 80Kbps = 125). While a 10Mbps Asynchronous connection may have much less capacity. For example, a 10Mbps ADSL connection may only provide 768Kbps of upstream bandwidth. This translates to a capacity of just nine (9) concurrent calls. Keep this in mind when considering DSL as your backup connection.
2) Choose Your SIP Provider Carefully
Every VoIP company relies on an SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) trunk; in layman terms, the trunk allows for inbound and outbound calls through global digital networks and the legacy PSTN (Public Switching Telephone Network). SIP trunks are essentially the gateway to dramatic cost savings on voice communications, SMS texts and faxing. Watch out though, because a number of low-end SIP providers out there who use a technology called least-cost routing (LCR). Basically, this means the provider routes your VoIP calls in the cheapest way possible, so choose your solution provider wisely! Our friends at 2600hz have done a nice job explaining LCR here.
3) Implement Quality-of-Service (QoS) on Your Network
Quality-of-Service is essentially a mechanism that prioritizes certain sets of data traffic over others sets of data traffic, so that the high priority packets of information reach their destination within a set time. Since VoIP calls are data packets by nature, without QoS calls may sound choppy, fuzzy or jittery, contain echo or even drop out. Failure to implement effective QoS on one's internal network leads to undesirable user experiences and unsatisfied customers; this is what has given VoIP a bad name.
4) Consider Using Cloud (Hosted) PBX
PBX stands for "Public Branch Exchange", and is simply another legacy acronym that remains in use, primarily because many folks associate PBX with phone. Phone systems today don't mount on the walls, they run on enterprise-class servers, preferably in the "Cloud" where 100% uptime guarantees on Power and IP (Internet Protocol) service are offered. Multiple virtual servers can run on a single physical machine. By including a second physical machine, shared storage, and virtualization software such as VMware, it is possible to create a solid foundation for a multi-tenant, cloud-based VoIP phone system. When the system is set to "High-Availability", it is reasonable to expect an uptime guarantee of 99.99 percent or higher.
5) Fully Secure Your VoIP Setup
Properly securing your VoIP system will prevent hackers from gaining unauthorized access to the system. Be aware that if your system is compromised, and unauthorized calls are made, it could be costly. I have seen cases where companies went months without knowing their systems were hacked, and they were on the hook for thousands of dollars in international calling fees. VoIP systems built on the open-source telephone platform Asterisk are routinely subject to hacking attempts, and should be avoided. We strongly recommend the use of an SIP proxy, a service that routes requests to the user's location, authenticates, and authorizes users for services. Alternatively, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) may be used to secure and encrypt voice transmissions through the system.
6) Measure the Quality of Your VoIP Service
For obvious reasons, it’s important to have a method for measuring the quality of any business-class service. If you are currently using a VoIP system, ask your IT or Telecom service provider for something called an “MOS” score. MOS stands for “Mean Opinion Score”, and has been used for decades in telephone networks to obtain the human user’s view of the quality of the network. An MOS score of 5 represents the same quality as a face-to-face conversation, while a score of 1 represents abysmal performance. As a benchmark, an average MOS of 4 or more is an acceptable result.
In summary, there are a number of factors that have contributed to the mistrust of VoIP. Traditional telecommunications companies misrepresenting their service, imposing monopolistic usage caps and pursuing anti-competitive behaviors have created confusion in the market as to what VoIP actually means.
Add hundreds of inexperienced IT folks whose mission is disrupting the Telco’s (not necessarily delivery of enterprise-grade reliability) and there is no wonder why small and medium-sized businesses (SMB’s) have grown to distrust VoIP.
One thing is for sure, cloud-based VoIP phone systems are quickly becoming the standard means of enterprise-grade, feature-rich communication for businesses, non-profits and government agencies worldwide. A strategic and technically sound VoIP implementation strategy unlocks tremendous value, while remaining secure and dependable.
This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.