What's The Best VoIP System For SMBs?

VoIP can be a big money-saver for SMBs. We look at two of the best systems and give you the low-down.

February 9, 2005

8 Min Read
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Making phone calls using a broadband Internet connection, more fondly known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), is becoming more and more popular with corporations of every size. The prospect of paying a flat fee for unlimited long-distance phone calls is appealing to every company that has struggled to balance the need to conduct business phone calls with the price of those calls. Calling plans are now available that provide unlimited minutes to any U.S. or Canadian phone number by routing the voice traffic over an existing broadband connection shared with the company's Internet access.

Many companies are also finding that installation of VoIP phones is simpler than traditional Private Branch eXchange (PBX) systems, since the desk sets can share the Ethernet cables already in place for the desktop computers. Some companies are also offering Wi-Fi-based IP phones that connect through Wi-Fi access points, either in the office or at the local Starbucks -- taking wireless phones to a completely new level.

Vonage: The Pioneer
Vonage is perhaps the pioneer in spreading the use of VoIP service. The company's primary market is the residential customer with a cable or DSL Internet connection. Vonage's residential plan includes a Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) that connects to the user's router. The user's phone connects to the DTA, and when the phone is picked up, the user hears a normal dial tone. The dial tone is supplied by Vonage in the same way traditional carriers deliver dial tone. Vonage's Small Business Plan includes unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada for $50 per month.

For companies that need extensions and services that are more closely identified with PBXs found in the corporate world, Vonage is not a good choice. Its Small Business Plan is based on a single line, similar to a residential line, and doesn't provide facilities for multiple extensions, call transfers, administrative functions, and the other tasks most corporate users take for granted. Two other vendors are better suited for the corporate environment.

I tested systems from Packet8 and Centrepoint Technologies. Both companies have good VoIP answers for small companies or companies with remote offices, though they differ in their approaches.TalkSwitch 48-CVA

The TalkSwitch TS100 phone has business features, but you can use any analog phone with the system. Click to enlarge.

TalkSwitch from Centrepoint Technologies uses a combination of Internet connection and standard voice lines (sometimes referred to as DS0 lines). When you buy TalkSwitch, you are buying hardware, not phone service (a.k.a. "dial-tone service"). As for phones, you can use any analog phone, or buy a full-featured desk phone from TalkSwitch for $99.

The TalkSwitch uses your phone company's existing phone lines and phone numbers to connect to the outside world, but uses your Internet connection to connect to other TalkSwitches in your company's remote offices. This setup is simple to install and lets you keep your existing phone numbers and lines. It also lets you keep your existing phone bills, since your long-distance calls still travel over your phone-company lines. (Of course, you could replace your traditional phone lines with Vonage lines if your long-distance volume dictates such a move.)

Where TalkSwitch shines is in its features as a PBX and its ability to connect remote offices and treat them as a single phone system. When two or more TalkSwitches connect through the Internet, the company has a virtual PBX. The offices can make calls to one another by dialing extensions that may be in the same office or at a remote office without incurring long-distance charges.

The same connection can be used to make standard calls to phone numbers that are local to the remote office but long-distance from the calling office. I found this feature worked well, but it requires the person making the call to know whether the number is local to the remote office. That's something many callers won't make the effort to deal with.

The TalkSwitch 48-CVA accepts an Ethernet connection, four analog phone lines, and eight analog phones. Click to enlarge.

I tested the top-end model 48-CVA that sells for $1,795; other models start at $695. I attached the TalkSwitch to my Ethernet switch and installed the TalkSwitch management software on a PC connected to the same LAN. The software identified the TalkSwitch and I was able to set up the features easily.My TalkSwitch was already set up to connect with the Centrepoint office as a branch office. I also plugged in a local phone line to make non-interoffice calls. The TalkSwitch allows up to four phone lines and eight telephones. Telephone units can be standard phone sets or any of TalkSwitch's phones. Line 8 is pre-configured to accept a fax machine, and incoming fax calls are routed to that extension automatically.

I configured the extensions and the auto-attendant using the PC interface. I found the same configuration choices and auto-attendant functions that are standard on large-scale PBX systems with flexibility in call routing, announcements, and voicemail.

The Call Cascade feature routes an incoming call to other numbers if you're not at your desk, which is a useful feature for people out of the office. Unfortunately, that feature takes up two of your phone lines to make the transfer. The IP connection lets callers local to one office be routed or transferred to the remote office without added charges, making it simple for one office to take calls for another in a different time zone or during breaks.

I found the quality of standard voice calls to be exactly what you would expect from calls made over standard phone lines. The VoIP calls from one office to another were equally clear, but there were delays at times. Overall, the quality was significantly better than any cell phone call I've heard.

Packet8 Virtual Office
Packet8 is a service provider. In the same way that Vonage provides a phone number and dial tone, Packet8 provides a "virtual office" by means of a hosted PBX that you can connect to from any broadband connection. The equipment consists of one DTA and one phone for each extension. Minimum configuration for a Packet8 system is three extensions, but there is no upper limit to the number of extensions. Each DTA and phone combination costs $100, and there is a $40 activation fee per line.

Packet8's DTA connects the phone to your Ethernet cabling. Click to enlarge.

I installed three DTA adapters on my LAN. I connected two of them to my Ethernet switch, and the third to a Wi-Fi bridge. I connected a Packet8 model 390 phone unit to each, and as soon as the units were connected to the Packet8 PBX over the Internet, my three-extension virtual office was live.The service plan includes unlimited calls to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada for a flat monthly rate of $40 per extension. For more than 20 phones, the price drops to $30 per extension per month.

Packet8's phone has all the features of a digital phone including a large LCD and soft-keys. Click to enlarge.

Because all the extensions connect to the same PBX, calls to extensions and calls to outside numbers are made just as they usually are in a corporate office. The phones have a large LCD with soft-buttons for voicemail, do not disturb, and every feature you would expect in a corporate PBX. I found the system simple to use but also extremely flexible. Phone functions are managed using the phone's LCD and its buttons, while extension assignment, routing, auto-attendant, and system-related functions are managed through the PBX's Web interface.

Packet8's sound quality was very good. Calls between Packet8 VoIP lines were clear with no noticeable delay. Calls between Packet8 VoIP phones and standard phone lines were equally clear, though there was an occasional delay. The quality of the overall system was more than acceptable.

This is the kind of system that fits any small office whose employees need to make lots of long-distance calls. The Packet8 system is particularly well suited to today's distributed virtual businesses. The fact that all the extensions are part of the same system and work as a seamless phone system puts a consolidated face on the distributed office.

Ready To Go
Both Packet8 and TalkSwitch offer viable alternatives for moving your phone service to VoIP. The right choice for your business depends on the set of functions you need and the configuration of your offices. But even if you are not ready for VoIP yet, it's sure to be in your future.


TalkSwitch 48-CVA

  • Price: $1,795

  • 4 lines in

  • 4 VoIP trunks

  • 8 local extensions

  • 8 remote extensions

  • Expandable to a 16-line, 32-extension phone system by networking up to four 48-CA or 48-CVA units on the LAN

  • 9 Auto Attendants

  • 26 voice mailboxes

  • Built-in traditional and VoIP trunks for combined network access

  • Full-featured PBX telephone system

  • Customer installable and configurable via PC interface

  • Works with standard analog cordless or corded phones and TalkSwitch TS 100 phone sets

Packet8 Virtual Office

  • Price: $40 per extension per month, plus setup costs of $100 for equipment and $40 activation fee per line

  • Unlimited calling within the U.S. and Canada

  • Full-featured conference bridge for up to 20 participants

  • Auto-Attendant

  • Voicemail with message forwarding and e-mail notification

  • Call transfer and automatic call forwarding

  • 3-way conferencing

  • Music/messaging on hold

  • Distinctive ringing for internal/external calls

  • Caller ID and call-waiting caller ID

  • Stutter tone notifications

  • Call park/call pick-up

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