Does VoIP Still Confuse You?

VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is a terrible acronym but a great technology. But the industry thinks many people still believe many "myths" about running telephone traffic over the Internet. If Internet telephones don't work in your situation, that's one thing, but don't let old information keep you from leveraging new services and cost savings.

One vendor, Speakeasy, sells Internet telephone services called "hosted VoIP" where the only equipment on your premise are the Internet telephones and the Internet connection. The company has anointed itself the "VoIP Myth Buster" and called me up to explain why.

CEO Bruce Chatterly says Speakeasy started more than a dozen years ago as an Internet Service Provider for consumers. Over time, it shifted to supplying Internet bandwidth to small businesses with a technology Chatterly calls "Ethernet over copper" that combines telephone connections with support for higher bandwidths.

A good bandwidth foundation makes for great voice over the Internet, so the company expanded into hosted voice services. Where your old phone system needed separate wiring, a PBX box in a closet and service calls to make changes, hosted VoIP uses your existing data cabling and a Web browser interface to a server at Speakeasy that lets you make almost all the phone system changes.

Speakeasy admits, and I'll second this statement, that early Internet telephony systems stunk pretty badly. I remember meeting one local reseller who claimed to "sell VoIP systems before VoIP systems actually worked." Now they work, but some of the bad experiences still resonate for many potential customers, and Speakeasy touts five myths it wants to bust.

The first myth is that VoIP won't really save much money. Since "much" is a subjective term, that could be true. However, Speakeasy says its customers save over 45% compared to traditional solutions. Add in lower service costs gained by using a Web browser to make changes rather than calling a service tech, and the savings adds up.

While less cost is great, more features are better, says Travis Cross, CEO of OfficeTone, another "Business Connect VoIP" provider. "Cost very rarely drives businesses to adopt VoIP," says Cross. "Business owners find the new technology allows them to operate in ways they previously could not." Cross lists features such as office extensions in home offices, local numbers in remote cities, and flexible call routing as some of the features popular with customers.

In my experience, cost savings almost never triggers a phone upgrade for a small company. Most ignore their phone system, and costs, until they either need to move locations or their phone equipment lease runs out. Costs matter then, but only after the decision to change phone systems is made.

The second myth? VoIP is too much of a hassle to set up. True before, false now. In fact, Speakeasy's Chatterly says "many of our installations don't need any onsite contacts." Speakeasy has support in service areas across much of the country, but many times customers simply open the boxes, plug in the phones and start talking.

This myth strikes me as funny. If you ever tried to modify a PBX-based phone system in the old days, you hit a brick wall of cryptic command line confusion so dense you yearned to grab a sledgehammer and end your misery by smashing the PBX to tiny, tiny bits. Ahem, I'm all better now, thanks. But after fighting proprietary phone systems, a browser based administration screen is nothing but joy and happiness.

Thanks to cell phones, myth number three that call clarity is poor, doesn't matter. Cell phone quality is so bad for so many of us, anything is better. A big part of the problem is that Ma Bell limited the frequency range of early telephone equipment to between 300-3000Hz, and many modern handsets still follow those guidelines developed for days of severely limited bandwidth. If you want to hear incredible voice call quality, get a Skype account and use a good headset. It's wide frequency range and avoidance of telephone handsets provides better voice quality than you'll ever get from Ma Bell or a descendant.

Early Internet telephones struggled at times with limited bandwidth and paltry processing power to handle voice encoding. Both problems have been fixed to the point vendors like OfficeTone are delivering "HD Voice" to customers. With the right equipment and provider, you get MP3 quality, almost as good as Skype. The magic bullet is QoS (Quality of Service) protocol support in network hardware.

Quality issues are a big part of myth number four which holds that the technology is still too new. After all, it took Ma Bell a hundred years to build the "real" phone network, so how could this VoIP stuff work after only a decade? Those who believe this will laugh at themselves when they learn Ma Bell has been using VoIP technology for years for long haul communications. Telephone equipment became computers as soon as computers were available, and now the computers are fast enough and cheap enough to replace an old Central Office with a small server and some software.

Finally, myth number five says VoIP is just for big companies. True ten years ago, but not now. In fact, you can look at hosted Internet telephony systems as big company services split up into small business sized chunks. Internet-capable phones used to cost hundreds of dollars, but many models are down to $100 or so today (thank you big companies for driving the volume up and therefore the price down).

Small businesses look for phone systems infrequently so they generally look for help. The huge number of phone resellers and computer resellers are now converging in the middle around Internet telephony. I believe the phone dealers have a leg up in this because they have legacy phone customers who call their phone person first when they need to upgrade. But if you trust your computer support company, and they do Internet telephones, you should be in good hands there as well.

Big reasons VoIP works now? Bandwidth and processing power. Network connections are faster and more reliable today than yesterday, and new chips run faster and handle voice better than old chips. You can rip and replace your old phone system completely, or you can add Internet connections to the system you're still stuck with until your contract expires. Either way, the myths we discussed are no longer valid. Believe in these myths at continued peril to your phone system feature list and bank account.

This story, "Does VoIP Still Confuse You?" was originally published by Network World.

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