Online Phone Service Combines Small-Business Needs

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I'm scraping together phone service for my startup, mostly relying on mobile numbers that my contacts already know. But I'm considering Internet telephone alternatives, such as VoIP calling to save money.

Some online phone services combine the routing magic I like from Google Voice with more VoIP and business features. One example, RingCentral, sells a small-business tier of service with these functions in mind. RingCentral partly replaces traditional lines and partly supplements them.

On the routing side, the RingCentral website stores the existing phone numbers for you and your employees. When a call comes in, RingCentral rings one--or any concurrent combination--of those numbers. Extensive rules can send calls from certain contacts to certain lines. Or you can route calls based on the time of day, including sending someone to voicemail in off-hours instead of ringing your phones.

All of these routing options are great for startups with or without a central office. You can forward a live call to another number, and travelers can answer calls from a temporary, local number as if they're working from their normal desks.

RingCentral Office includes a local area-code number, an 800 number, and a dedicated fax-line number for $99/month. Plus, the basic service includes an additional, direct number for each of four employees. (Cheaper bundles are available with fewer numbers.) You can add more incoming numbers for $25/month or upgrade to an 8-line bundle at $179/month. The service also lets you port over existing numbers so that you don't have to update contacts with new details.

While I think I'd get the most out of these routing services, RingCentral also includes VoIP outgoing calls as part of its monthly base fee. You can make unlimited calls across the country on a SIP phone, while international calls cost extra. However, if you carry a SIP handset when traveling abroad, RingCentral will keep it locked to your local, home number, letting you dial back home without any extra charge.

Many additional features could answer your telephone needs. Voicemail boxes store messages online and can email them as audio files. You can configure a greeting and menu system for incoming calls. The RingCentral-provided fax line handles incoming and outgoing pages.

RingCentral's flexibility is its best value, combining VoIP service, number routing, and more. Small businesses could save money versus buying many dedicated services. And since one company provides these functions--RingCentral even sells pre-configured VoIP hardware--you'll save additional troubleshooting and configuration hassles.

Zack Stern is building a new business from San Francisco, where he frequently contributes to PC World.

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