Why every SME should consider VoIP


Fibre to the home (FTTH) is slowly but surely becoming a reality in South African suburbia and with it comes a renewed interest in VoIP (Voice over IP) from home users, who can see the financial benefit in combining VoIP and fibre internet as a package, which saves them money in the form of lower call rates and multiple line rentals.  It is therefore ironic that so many SME’s fail to recognise the same cost savings, as well as the added benefits that VoIP and hosted switchboards can offer.

I still find that many smaller businesses hold onto their fixed line phone services, often paying exorbitant prices for legacy fixed line PABX switchboards and phone systems.  (PABX, or private automatic branch exchange, is an automatic on premises telephone switchboard.) These businesses typically also carry on with ADSL or other cheaper forms of broadband as they cannot afford the cost of business grade fibre.  However, more often than not the combined cost of the legacy phone system and cheaper broadband service is more expensive than business grade fibre and a hosted switchboard / VoIP phone service.

What are VoIP and Hosted Switchboard services?

VoIP, which stands for “Voice over Internet Protocol” is the technology for delivering voice communications over networks such as the internet.  The technology has been around for a long time, but earlier versions have not always delivered good quality phone calls and may have discouraged early adopters.  However, the technology has improved significantly and these days it is possible to make crystal clear, high quality voice calls using very little internet bandwidth.  We normally recommend these services on stable, high quality fibre networks, but they have become so efficient that even good quality ADSL lines provide enough bandwidth to make this work. (I personally used VoIP on ADSL while waiting for my fibre installation!)

A hosted switchboard is a managed and customisable switchboard solution that is offered as a cloud service by VoIP providers and is an alternative to on premises PABX phone systems.  A hosted switchboard is normally paid for on a month to month basis and comes at a fraction of the cost of an on premises solution. In addition, they offer more functionality than on premises systems that can be changed and adapted very easily as business needs change.

What are the benefits of switching to VoIP?

How do VoIP call costs compare to standard fixed line services?  I usually tell clients that they can expect a 50% saving on local call rates compared to fixed line services.  However, if your business makes international phone calls, the savings can be much more.  International VoIP calls to most major destinations are very similar to local call rates and in some cases may even be cheaper, especially calls to international mobile numbers, which is hard to believe.  In addition to savings on call rates, you also save the monthly cost of multiple line rentals.

Hosted switchboard services are extremely flexible and being cloud based, can offer some unique options.  One example of this is having a geographical number (something like an 021 or 011 number) that can ring anywhere.  For example, you could have an 011 number ring in Cape Town or Durban, which makes your business seem more local to clients.  This functionality is extremely easy to configure using VoIP services.

Essentially, all your VoIP services require is a stable internet connection.  So, if your business ever needs to relocate you only need a stable internet connection at the new premises. There is no need to transfer or reconfigure other services, or the costly relocation of on premises equipment.

A hosted switchboard offers all the features of expensive on premises solutions, including call forwarding, voicemail, voicemail to email, Interactive Voice Response (IVR), time based call routing, call divert, call recording, etc.  However, the main difference for me is the ease of configuring these services.  Normally on premises solutions require the assistance of the PABX system technician to assist in configuring or changing any of these options.  Using a hosted switchboard, most of these changes can be made using the provider’s online portal or with the assistance of the VoIP provider, normally free of charge.

VoIP phones require power, so in case of a power failure missing calls might be a concern.  However, these days VoIP providers can automatically divert calls to mobile phones when the VoIP phones lose power and divert them back when they come back online.  So there really is no need to worry about missing calls in case of a power failure.

What does it take to switch?

The most important requirement is a stable, good quality broadband connection.  A secondary consideration is whether to buy new IP phone handsets, which works better with VoIP services.  These handsets are not strictly required – analogue handsets can be used with the addition of a gateway – but this complicates the service and is not recommended.  Buying the IP phones are not expensive and provides a much better and more user-friendly experience.

Geographical phone numbers (011, 021, 031, etc) numbers can easily be ported to the VoIP service provider, so business can continue without the disruption of changing phone numbers.

Every business that is not yet using VoIP, should at least consider the possibility.  This is an easy way to reduce monthly spending while at the same time improving your flexibility.  It also provides SMEs with the same sophisticated communication tools that their corporate competitors use, at an affordable price.