I’ve been experimenting with a couple of voice over IP systems and in the last week have finally gotten some new hardware configured, so I thought I’d share some of my experiences and ask for others to share their experiences with VOIP for Business too. Let me say up front that I am well aware of the expensive VOIP solutions from companies like Cisco, but I’m more interested in the value proposition for small, 1-2 line businesses or satellite offices, not larger corporate settings.
First off, like millions of other people, I have a Skype account, but honestly, I don’t use it very often. Skype is built atop peer-2-peer (or “p2p”) networking technology, so it’s really a world unto itself, though with something called SkypeOut you can tie it to a traditional land-line telephone, albeit awkwardly.
The two problems I have with Skype are that I find the voice quality to be mediocre, and that since I don’t yet have dedicated computer telephony devices, I end up using my computer audio system, and for a business environment, disembodied voices coming out of my computer speakers and talking into a screen are just too weird. In my experience, it’s far too difficult for me to focus on a conversation with Skype as I currently have it configured.
The good news is that I expect that to change in just a few days when I hook up a new device I just bought from HelloDirect. If it lives up to its hype, the amplified headset will be a perfect office telephony solution: it’s a noise canceling headset and amplifier system that lets you connect to either your computer (via USB) or your regular telephone (via 2.5mm jack). I’ll be able to use that both for regular telephone calls and for high-quality conversations via Skype. At that point I might well become a bit more of a Skype convert.
Meanwhile, the company behind Vbuzzer send me some telephony gear, a Sipura telephone interface box, and set me up with a Vbuzzer VOIP account.
I admit it, there’s definitely some novelty value in a device that has an Ethernet jack on one end and a phone jack on the other, but I found the Sipura unit quite difficult to configure properly and even after working with their tech people at length, it still only sporadically gives me a dialtone when I pick up my phone handset.
Vbuzzer, on the other hand, was a breeze to set up and works like a charm. Based on the telco standard SIP protocol, it offers higher quality audio, interfaces with traditional phone systems and for less than $10/month I have an assigned telephone number and can make unlimited calls to anywhere in the United States or Canada. SIP is the same technology that Vonage uses, but Vonage is quite a bit more expensive from what I’ve seen.
Some of the overseas calling prices with Vbuzzer are still promotional, but my wife was quite astonished when I told her that calls to Germany from Colorado are billed at a ridiculously cheap $0.01/minute, a bare fraction of what we currently pay for overseas calls.
And so is VOIP telephony ready for your office?
Well, there are still a lot of rough edges in the world of Internet telephony today, but there are glimmers of what’s to come, however, and not just with the radically different cost structure and the portability of a telephone service that follows you to whereever you log in to the service.
During my tests, I’ve called Toronto, Canada from my office in Boulder, Colorado, with a splendid, better than telco-quality connection, and also spent 45 minutes on a conversation with colleagues in Los Angeles who said that there was no clue that I was using a VOIP system rather than our regular telephone.
The voice mail system is really where I think the potential of telephones anywhere becomes truly compelling. Seconds after I received a Vbuzzer voice message, I received email with the subject “Voice Mail From” and the callerID number. The message body contained the actual voice message as an MP3 attachment. That by itself might well be reason enough to use a VOIP system for your business, particularly if you find yourself incessantly checking your voice messages.
I have been watching the VOIP / Internet Telephony marketplace for quite a few years, waiting to see when we’d have sufficient convergence of bandwidth, software and hardware that I could just unplug my expensive business line and plug directly into the Internet. That day is here, now, and if my experience with Vbuzzer is any indication, it’s a major improvement, albeit with a few hiccups along the way.
Finally, a quick plug: My friend and colleague James Gaskin just published Talk Is Cheap: Switching to Internet Telephones. It’s a bit geeky in tone and content, but will serve as useful background reading nonetheless.