Communication revolution: Why go VoIP?

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Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) can save you money and provide features you can’t get from your traditional phone setup. Here’s how to take advantage of it, and how to avoid the pitfalls.

Voice over IP has been touted as the next generation in phone technology since the mid-90s, but only gained real traction for businesses in the past two years. Technically, sending voice packets over the Internet, instead of the phone lines, has been feasible since the early days of the Internet, but few hardware options and limited bandwidth meant early VoIP users were restricted to talking in front of their PCs via a microphone and headset, and struggled through poorly synchronised conversations and constant line drop outs.

Now, thanks to broadband and a variety of hardware hitting the market, VoIP is now real alternative to traditional phone systems, giving you extra savings and a new set of features. Unlike mobile telephony, which costs you more per call than an ordinary phone call, VoIP is fundamentally a cheaper technology. Because it essentially runs over the existing Internet, the voice conversation is treated simply as ‘data’, which means it can be transmitted across a digital network connection (billed in bulk), rather than routing through the relatively expensive phone network, where your usage is billed per connection.

In fact, if the phone call moves over the Internet entirely, that is both ends of the conversation are using a VoIP service, the call may even be free. The simplest example of this is the popular Skype softphone, where users simply click a name on their contact list, and the call is established to any location in the world at no cost.

This setup may work for home users, but businesses need a phone system that call anyone, regardless of whether they’re a VoIP user, on a mobile, or running off a traditional POTS line. Unfortunately, unlike end-to-end Internet connections, a VoIP call that crosses over into the mobile or traditional landline network, will need to play by their rules, and consequently incur a charge. The cost of the call can vary from plan to plan, but typically averages out cheaper than calling from a landline or mobile phone.The real cost
VoIP calls can cost less than fifty percent of the traditional POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) fees.

While specialised VoIP handsets may seem initially expensive, they offer advanced functions and generally more progressive interfaces such as touch screens with presence information. Especially considering the savings you can make on call costs, an investment in fancy SIP handsets will pay itself off in a short time. There are also a range of wireless handsets that support standard phone calls (DEC), combined with data access to the network for VoIP calls using Wi-Fi.

Of course, if you opt to replace a standard POTS telephone with a softphone (a computer program that carries out the phone functions, similar to Skype’s interface) your outlay required to purchase audio headsets with microphones to attach to those computers can be as low as $30 each. Softphones are certainly at the cheaper end of a VoIP solution and are dependent on the host computer running smoothly (an unexpected crash or reboot will terminate any call in progress).

For a POTS replacement, you can install a digital PBX appliance (Private Automatic Branch eXchange) and (Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) handsets. Such an installation can be established by your VoIP service provider, who will offer advice, bundle products and help plan your deployment.

How VoIP works and why it saves you money
VoIP technology breaks down the human voice into compressed packets of digital data, then sends it via a digital network (which could include the Internet) at the receiving end, the packets of voice are uncompressed and played back as an audio stream.

VoIP’s key advantage is derived from the low cost of sending data packets via the Internet. Also, the costs of administering the phone system can be integrated into the IT budget, while tasks such as setting up a phone for a new hire or swapping desks can be done more rapidly, in some cases automatically.

SIP and SIP phones
Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is a standard created by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). SIP equipment is designed to be widely interoperable and allows a number of advanced features. SIP phones are hardware handsets which can use a range of addressing functions, although SIP can be accessed with soft (software) phones as well.

SIP allows a flexible deployment, as each call can be made in a peer-to-peer mode, while advanced deployments make use of back-end augmentation via proxy servers and User Agent Servers which authenticate the users and increase routing performance. Competitors to the SIP protocol include the H.323 standard.

Analogue Telephony Adapters (ATA)
If you aren’t using a soft phone for VoIP, you can actually use standard telephone equipment for VoIP calls by adding a device called an ATA. This junction box sits between your traditional handset, a standard land line and your network connection and handles VoIP compression and decompression and some simple traffic handling. ATA devices are most often sold with consumer services and are increasingly being built into SIP phones rather than stand-alone devices.

Digital PBX and hybrid PBX/VoIP switches
For larger IP telephony installations, it makes sense to install back-end equipment to facilitate granular administration functions for your user base. Such digital PBX (Private Branch eXchange) devices can be used for controlling dialling groups and setting access levels across a broader corporate user group. For SOHO and SMB business, increasingly it makes sense to purchase new hybrid devices that combine an Ethernet switch and embedded VoIP augmentation. Since VoIP is intrinsically linked to the network and its performance, it makes sense to deploy them close together, with a design that naturally allows them to co-exist efficiently.

Free VoIP services
For SOHO and the smaller end of SMB, VoIP can be a useful tool without major investment in network infrastructure or new handsets. A number of companies use the free Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger or Skype instant messaging applications – these also support basic VoIP calls, using a computer headset and microphone. The only drawback is that the free VoIP calls using these services only work within each network’s users (although MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger are interoperable).

Types of VoIP plans
An emerging term for modern tele¬communications services is the “Triple Play”. Depending on who you speak to, Triple play services bundling can mean Voice, Data and Video, or Voice, Data and VPN mobility. Clearly the telecommunications vendors would like to on-sell more services to each customer, but there are fairly clear benefits for the end-users as well. Buying a unified service results in simpler management of all the elements affecting your VoIP - due to the single point of contact at your service provider. Billing is aggregated onto a single sheet and generally speaking you should be eligible for a significant discount on some or all of the services you are receiving.
VoIP installation
As VoIP clearly involves computer and networking related technology, it is becoming a responsibility of in-house IT staff, rather than telecommunications technicians. As the majority of SIP phones and digital PBX appliances or IP phone controllers are Ethernet based, your existing IT staff can quite easily procure and install the necessary equipment and services.

Colin MacDougall of Mitel Networks suggests that small businesses do exactly that. “It’s not hard these days to engineer a network for Voice over IP, especially over a small LAN.” he noted. “Not all customers want to hand over the configuration of their network to a third party provider.”
Q&A   VoIP
Why is the audio garbled and dropping out?
Controlling VoIP performance can be occasionally difficult with consumer or SOHO level equipment. Unless you control the entire data connection from end-to-end, features like Quality of Service (QoS) (which are supposed to improve VoIP performance) can have potentially no impact whatsoever. Serious “carrier-grade” QoS requires an unfettered control over both ends of the network and ideally, the trunking in between. Other issues such as contention ratio, an Internet Service Provider issue which basically comes down to “broadband connections per DSLAM”, which is a kind of ADSL ‘switchbox’. Well-prepared ISPs will have better planning and greater investment in their architecture, allowing fewer users per DSLAM. This creates an excellent contention ratio. Discount price ISPs have far less investments in their infrastructure and are almost guaranteed to provide a terrible contention ratio, where you share the DSLAM with far too many users, causing a generally poor quality Internet experience. Contention ratios are a major point of difference between budget and premium ISPs - as traffic through the DSLAM increases, more signals will collide with each other and you will notice that your Internet performance, especially for time-sensitive applications like VoIP, suffers.

However, Colin has some words of warning to people using VoIP on consumer broadband. “If you’re pushing voice over ADSL, customers need to be realistic.” he said. “ADSL from different service providers has different contention rates, it generally has no Quality of Service (QoS).”

Additionally, some training in PBX or VoIP switch configuration may be required. “One of the issues with VoIP on a LAN or especially a WAN is engineering of the switches on the network. If they’re not properly configured, this leads to some of the horror stories you hear about Voice over IP.”

Choosing a VoIP service provider
Colin also maintains that problem solving issues with IP telephony are simpler when a single provider has set up and installed hardware and services. Not all services are equal, and some of the points of difference can be critical.

“Ask questions of that provider. Do they provide 802.1 P & Q, do they support VLANs, do they support Quality of Service?” Colin asks.

In some cases you can obtain various performance guarantees from your provider, before work begins. Colin explains: “One thing we do is provide a statement of works. This is a customer-supplier agreement. It’s a list of items that says: these are my responsibilities, these are your responsibilities, and if we both fulfil those, this is what the outcome should be. For small sites, the statement of works can be a very small, simple document. Some resellers put a small statement of works into their contract, some don’t.”

There are some benefits of having your provider roll out your infrastructure, as Colin notes: “Getting the provider to do it means that at some point down the track, there won’t be any finger-pointing. The customer then has that single point of contact, the advantage of ‘one throat to choke’. You have someone that is capable of owning that network right from the PBX down to the handset.”VoIP Hardware: go SIP?
One point to look at as you begin to procure equipment for your VoIP rollout is what features to look for when purchasing VoIP handsets or SIP phones. Colin explains that the handset itself is less important than the back-end capability.

“All our handsets are SIP compliant. What I would urge people to do is not to make a distinction on the specific protocol that the IP handset uses, but rather on the controller and the features that controller provides. I have a very fancy touch-screen SIP phone on my desk, and I only use its most basic functions.”

Advanced VoIP Features
Few businesses seem to take advantage of telephony on steroids, which is what VoIP can become for business.

“You can go to the absolute extremes with IP telephony, like three party, four party, five party conferences and speakerphone” says Colin.
For small businesses, there’s very much two threads: They tend to be going for a more basic handset, and giving some control from their PC, click to dial from Outlook and so on.”

Colin opines that some simple features like click-to-dial may not sound especially compelling, but users refuse to abandon them once they’ve become accustomed to the convenience. “I would now far prefer to boot up my computer and use click to dial than enter the number on my phone’s keypad.” he says. “It (an advanced VoIP feature set) is also about adding notes to calls, recording calls, saving contacts and combining those things.”

Features like these are a key selling point of the Microsoft Office Live Communications Server (LCS), and Microsoft Office Communicator, a softphone and VoIP desktop application. You can also use the pre-shipped Windows Messenger program (that is bundled with Windows XP) with LCS.

VoIP beware
The very technology backbone that empowers VoIP may also expose it to threats and quality problems.

VoIP setup risks
Colin recommends companies resist the urge to cut corners
at every stage of their transition, considering VoIP’s inherent
call savings.

“Sometimes, organisations try and get the cheapest phone system they can get. Communications is probably one of the few industries that affects every other business. A lack of reliable communications can break your business.”

According to a recent story in Secure Computing, “VoIP will inevitably become a huge vulnerability for large enterprises and SMBs alike.”

VoIP an endangered species?
A number of business pundits see the VoIP acronym disappearing in 2007, as the default technology behind all voice communications becomes the Internet Protocol (IP). With such ubiquity, it becomes redundant to explain the technology with the ugly VoIP decriptor, so expect to see more “broadband voice” “Internet telephony” and simply “voice” services in the marketplace this year (which are the same as VoIP).

VoIP and telecommuting
VoIP is an enabling technology that makes an employee’s physical location less important, helping to facilitate modern lifestyle choices such as ‘downshifting’, balancing your work-life balance in favour of more time spent wearing shorts.

Colin explains: “Another thing we’re seeing in small businesses is lifestyle change. Having an IP extension sitting at your home, allows you to work from home, to appear to be in the office when you are not in the office.”

Business Startup Guide continues: Mobile Office
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