Business Phone Service Without Big-Ticket Hardware

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A PBX (Private Branch Exchange) offers a unified front door so callers can reach all of your employees by dialing one main phone number, which is particularly useful if your business uses more than one telephone line.

Your local telephone company will be happy to sell or lease pricey PBX equipment to set up this type of service. However, you can now get many of the same telephone call-handling capabilities at a fraction of the cost by using a Web-based virtual PBX service.

A month-to-month virtual PBX gives you the flexibility of being able to enhance or cancel the service at any time. There's no capital investment or commitment to a long-term leasing contract.

PBX Types

At its most basic level, a PBX automatically switches incoming calls from your main telephone number to two or more extensions. However, most PBX systems offer additional services, such as voice mail.

A number of virtual PBX services are available, some from traditional telephone companies and others from young startups. I looked at a simple, relatively inexpensive PBX called TelCan that runs on standard phones and requires only a dial-up Internet connection and a Web browser to manage it.

TelCan: Simple Virtual PBX

TelCan's standard service costs $10 per month, plus usage fees, for up to five extensions. It's easy to set up: Chances are you do not require any additional hardware since it piggybacks atop your existing telephone service.

TelCan provides you a toll-free incoming number with extensions you can route to ring to any telephone number, either mobile or land line. This makes it well-suited for a virtual organization, where employees are in different locations or on the road.

TelCan comes with a system Auto Attendant that answers incoming calls on the main line. Callers select an extension by pressing a number on their handset. Each extension has its own greeting and voice mail service. TelCan's basic service supports up to five extensions; five additional extensions costs an extra $5 per month.

One nice benefit of a virtual PBX is that it's unlikely your callers will ever get a busy signal. That's not always true of traditional hardware-based PBX systems, which make you pay for the number of incoming lines that you require to handle peak periods. For example, if your ten lines are in use, the eleventh caller will receive a busy signal and not get through to PBX voice mail. TelCan says its virtual PBX can handle more than 100 simultaneous calls.

Toll-Free PBX

You can search for vanity toll free numbers on TelCan. This shows the results of a search for available numbers ending in 56637, which spells JONES.
You can search for vanity toll free numbers on TelCan. This shows the results of a search for available numbers ending in 56637, which spells JONES.
You can transfer an existing toll-free number to the service, or pick whatever toll-free number you wish to use as long as it's not already taken. You choose from four exchanges (1-800, 1-866, 1-877, or 1-888) that callers can access from anywhere within North America. If you wish, you can search to see if a vanity toll-free number is available, one that spells a word or maybe the name of your business or its product.

TelCan virtual PBX makes it easy to configure each phone extension.
TelCan virtual PBX makes it easy to configure each phone extension.
After you order your virtual PBX service, you log in to the TelCan Web site to set it up. Configuring each extension is a breeze. You determine where to route each extension and when or if an unanswered call should go to voice mail. You can set a maximum voice mail message length of up to 60 seconds, though I believe that's a little short to handle long-winded callers.

I like the way you can configure the system to notify you of new voice messages by e-mail. The notification e-mail lists the caller ID number, date and time of call, and length of message. It also includes a link to the message: Click on the link to listen to the message as a WAV audio file.

Call Hunt

Call Hunt is an optional, extra-cost feature ($8 per month for five ring-to numbers) that can be activated for any extension. You can use it to ring to different telephone numbers in the priority order you establish and set the number of rings for each. For example, Call Hunt could start by routing calls to your office line for two rings, then, if unanswered, forward to your cell phone for three rings, and finally forward to your assistant's line for four rings. If no one answers, the call can then go to your voice mail.

Other features let you block incoming calls from individual telephone numbers or even entire area codes if you wish.

The online reporting features for tracking who's called are fairly basic, but they'll provide all the information most users will require. You select a date range and then view a list of all incoming calls during the period, including the caller's number as well as the date, time, length and cost of the call.

Options and Costs

TelCan offers other telephone services not related to the PBX, such as calling card and call-back services, along with speed dial. TelCan also charges for options such as increasing voice mail capacity. The standard package supports ten messages per extension; you pay $5 per month to bump that up another ten messages for each line.

Usage fees are 4.5 cents per minute (in 6-second billing increments) for calls originating in the United States and 6.5 cents per minute for calls from Canada.

TelCan's biggest drawback: Because all incoming calls must go to a toll-free number, you can't get out of the per-minute charges. If you use more than 5000 or 10,000 minutes per month, a PBX service that works with non-toll-free numbers may be more cost-effective for your business.

If you have a reliable broadband Internet service and you're willing to pay more for a VoIP-based PBX with additional call handling options, consider MailStreet Voice.

Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions about using technology in your small to mid-sized business via e-mail. PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered. Sign up to have the Business Solutions newsletter e-mailed to you each week.
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