Though so awkwardly named, VoIP is the next must-have technology. Helen Bradley explains what you’ll need to get the best from it, and what, apart from cheap phone calls, it can do for you.
The question for most SMEs is when not if the business will make the move to VoIP. With players like Telstra and Optus now entering the market the future is in telephone calls that are carried wholly or in part across the internet. So, what can VoIP offer your business and how do you make the move?
VoIP means Voice Over Internet Protocol. It is a technology for transmitting phone calls over a protocol such as the internet itself or LAN or WAN. In the past, call quality has been an issue but the roll-out of ADSL2 has been a driving force in the growth of VoIP. According to Ilkka Tales, managing director of Engin, "if you accept the definition that true broadband is speeds of 1 megabit or more, then ADSL2 is the first true broadband in Australia". He suggests, "this coupled with incumbents such as Optus and Telstra now offering VoIP solutions is helping to build the category of VoIP and raise its visibility, and SMEs are now actively seeking more information about it."
The success of VoIP is closely tied to its ability to be seamless so users don’t need to change their habits at all. As Ben Dunscombe, regulatory affairs manager at Netspace, points out, the goal for VoIP is to be as easy to use as the regular phone service, "the only time you want to think that you’re using VoIP service is when you get your bill and you see how much you’re saving over a traditional PSTN service".
The most touted benefit is in terms of reduced call costs but VoIP makes other features available that could have a greater impact in the long term. Ben Dunscombe explains that VoIP allows a business to employ a simulated distributed infrastructure and have ‘extensions’ in the old PABX terminology at home, at work, and even in another country, all behaving as if they were attached to the same PABX.
This notion of telepresence enabled using VoIP "allows a person to maintain the same presence regardless of where they are so that you have a single number and voicemail system, whether you’re at work, on your mobile, at home or in a hotel room and it’s transparent to the person calling you," explains David Stevens, managing director of Brennan IT.
Business benefits like telepresence are dependant on a business having an IP infrastructure to add value to the VoIP technology. Increasingly, SMEs are recognising this potential, Mario Vecchio, general manager of Siemens Enterprise Networks, explains, "where, in the past, only around 10 percent of the SMEs who purchased VoIP solutions were actually connected to an IP infrastructure, now around half of new SME buyers are buying with the applications in mind. Even if they’re not using them now, they’re looking at the potential for using them in the future". According to Mario, it is applications such as integrated messaging, one phone number for all devices, and click-to-call within applications that are the future for voice communications and which will result in either better business efficiencies or higher customer satisfaction.
Sydney company, ACI Global has harvested yet another benefit from VoIP. It provides online competency-based training and professional development to clients based in countries as diverse as the UK, US, France, New Zealand, and Australia. The company’s Learning Management System relies almost entirely on Skype communication and the company uses Skype’s video call recording tool to record clients as they make presentations. According to managing director, Ian Erskine, Skype has been a springboard for his company to compete with larger, multinational training companies.
Skype has for some time been synonymous with VoIP at the consumer end of the market, allowing users to make free calls to other Skype users anywhere in the world, as well as low cost calls to landlines and mobile phones. However, Skype is also making inroads into the SME market. Partnering with VoSKY technologies, the new co-branded Skype VoSKY Exchange is a PBX add-on that enables every phone extension in an office to make and receive Skype or regular phone calls. The Exchange series of products adds four or eight Skype lines to a PBX without requiring changes to the PBX or desk phone infrastructure. The user simply dials an additional digit before the number they’re calling to make a Skype call.
According to Mihai Cotarta, product manager at IW Distribution, the solution is cost effective for a business that makes a lot of STD and international calls or that has branch offices because calls will be free or lower cost than using the traditional phone service. In time local calls will be cheaper too, when Skype rolls out its Skype Pro solution in Australia. Currently available in the UK and Europe, Skype Pro offers free calls to any landline phone for a low fixed monthly charge—£1.50 in the UK, which is less than $4 AUD.
Another company making inroads into the VoIP market with another product that doesn’t require hardware upgrades is Engin. Engin offers a VoIP solution tailored to SMEs of up to 20 employees. The hardware device sits between an existing PABX and a broadband connection and sends all outgoing calls to broadband. According to Ilkka Tales, Engin managing director, "typically an existing SME would replace two thirds of its phone numbers with Engin numbers, retaining one third as incoming lines and to provide some redundancy in the phone service". He adds, "the solution doesn’t require any hardware upgrade but having dedicated broadband for the VoIP service will help ensure a high quality voice service."
Engin is also taking VoIP to the mobile market via its partnership with Nokia. The Nokia N95 combination 2G/3G/WiFi phone can be configured to use an existing WiFi connection so that calls made within range of a household or small business network can be carried by Engin over broadband rather than the higher cost mobile network. Ilkka Tales explains "with surveys suggesting that up to 45 percent of calls from mobile phones are actually made in the home or office, this solution can offer considerable savings".
As in many areas of technology, hosted options are bringing the costs of VoIP down to a price point that allows SMEs to have access to tools that previously were only available to larger businesses. Commander’s OneStream Office is a managed service which includes IP handsets and business-grade access to the internet. According to Chris Jenney, Commander Group general manager for the SME division, "it effectively delivers all the functionality typically associated with ‘big’ business including direct inward dial, voice mail, and voicemail delivered to email to a small business for a monthly fee per user".
The VoIP market is also attracting big players like Microsoft which has come to the party with integration tools that add value to a VoIP system. Oscar Trimboli, director of unified communications for Microsoft, explains "using a combination of hardware and software, you can have tools like click-to-call operating from inside everyday applications like Office. It is possible to identify incoming calls and deliver not only the caller's name but also customer transaction history to provide a better customer experience." He adds, "this is the type of functionality that has traditionally only been available in large expensive call centres, but it's now available to SMEs running Microsoft Exchange Server and Office Communication Server." Outlook Voice Access includes integrated messaging solutions which can handle and divert incoming calls according to rules th
e user sets up, and record voice messages so the user can retrieve voicemails, emails, contacts and calendars from anywhere, and forward them as easily as forwarding an email message using voice commands. This is available for organisations already using Microsoft technology and as a hosted solution on a pay-as- you-go basis from solution providers such as WebCentral and HostWorks.
The most typical time for a business to switch to VoIP is when an old phone system needs to be replaced or when a business is moving offices, according to David Stevens. If your business is considering VoIP but isn’t yet ready to commit to implementing it, John Coates, network architect at Cerulean, has some advice. He suggests that preparing for the transition is something that can be done now. "There are steps to take to enable a network for VoIP before you deploy the final solution. This involves assessing the current infrastructure to determine if the network is ready for VoIP," he says. "Things to check include determining if the WAN and LAN can handle the additional traffic, if power is available over Ethernet connections to power the IP phones, and if the network is QOS-aware so that adequate bandwidth can be allocated to ensure a high voice quality. Depending on the results of the analysis, the network may need to be upgraded in preparation for VoIP".
There’s little doubt that VoIP is now becoming a mainstream technology with the capacity to bring a range of benefits to your business. If you haven’t considered a move to VoIP, now is the time to ask what VoIP can do for you.
Spam on your Telephone
On a cautionary note, Andrew Antal, marketing director Asia Pacific for MessageLabs Australasia, points out the security issues with VoIP. "VoIP isn’t any different to email—it’s just bits and bytes going down a wire," he says. "From a risk perspective, VoIP delivers problems like SPIT, (spam over IP telephony) and Vishing, the VoIP equivalent of email’s phishing, which seeks to trick you into giving up personal or business data".
He explains that there is also the potential for trojans to arrive via email or a VoIP call which activate when certain situations occur–for example, when you call your bank, the call could be captured and a copy sent somewhere else. To protect itself, he suggests, businesses must take an active stance and implement tools such as a firewall and an internet level VoIP filtering service to ensure that only legitimate calls are received.