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Transitioning to VoIP – Our Experience

September 26, 2011

© 2011 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

We decided to transition our organization to a VoIP phone system a couple of years ago.  We’re glad we did— doing so saved us a lot of money and improved our work processes.  We learned some things along the way that were not readily apparent, though.  They may help you whether you’ve already implemented VoIP or are just considering doing so.

What Is VoIP?
VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) systems communicate via IP rather than over traditional phone lines (known as PSTN, an acronym for Public Switched Telephone Network).  The size of the cable plug is the most obvious difference to most phone system users.

Most people think of VoIP as how their phone connects to the world.  While that can be true, it doesn’t have to be.  There are generally four possibilities:

  1. PSTN Inside & Out.  A traditional phone system inside that connects beyond your building over traditional phone lines.
  2. VoIP Inside & PSTN Out.  A VoIP phone system inside that connects beyond your building over traditional phone lines.
  3. VoIP Inside & Out.  A VoIP phone system inside that connects beyond your building over the Internet.
  4. PSTN Inside & VoIP Out.  A traditional phone system inside that connects beyond your building over the Internet.

We started out as PSTN inside and out, changed to VoIP inside and PSTN out, and finally landed on VoIP inside and out.  The savings we experienced after our last change has been optimal, and the quality of service has been the same as we had with our original total PSTN system.

What Does a VoIP PBX Cost?
New phone systems typically cost in the tens of thousands.  I was surprised when researching VoIP phone systems that they can either be in that same price range, or they can be free!  Free to me is a caution sign… I know free systems are not usually worth as much as they cost.  I was surprised and pleased to learn that free VoIP phone systems are different!

VoIP phone systems have become so commonplace that they are now available in Open Source form.  That’s why they can be free.  My skeptical nature caused me to research this area, and I was surprised to learn that some of the free systems are as full-featured and reliable as those that cost a lot of money.  So, though I was still skeptical— but hopeful!— we decided to take the plunge.

We decided on the Elastix system.  It’s built on a very reliable technology platform (Asterisk by Digium), but has an easy-to-use interface.  The cost: totally free!  But we’re data pros; not phone pros, so we hired to configure it.  We spent a little on them, but that was all!

What About Handsets?
We had a bit of a problem to solve regarding handsets (the telephones that sit on your desk).  VoIP natively runs over Ethernet cable, and we didn’t have extra cable runs to each of our desks to accommodate VoIP phones.  I didn’t want to spend the money to run additional cable.

Many make the mistake of connecting their computers (which want to communicate at 1000mbps, or gigabit) through their VoIP handsets, but most are unwilling to buy gigabit handsets.  So they connect their computers through less expensive 100mbps or 10mbps VoIP phones.  That slows down the computers to the speed of the phone.

So we decided to do the opposite.  We connected our phones through our computers!  We bought Bria softphones—software that runs on our computers instead of having physical handsets.  We use headsets— wired and wireless— instead of handsets.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure all of our team members would like that change, but I was surprised!  Those who I anticipated liking the headsets the least were those who ended up liking them the most!

How Does It Save Money?
Beyond the potential savings of the phone system itself, it’s possible to save lots on your connection beyond your buildings too.  Our final step was to convert from PSTN lines to SIP trunks.  SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol connections are VoIP services offered by Internet telephony service providers that connect a company’s phone system to the PSTN via the Internet.

Changing from PSTN to SIP trunks cut our monthly phone bill by about 60%.

How Does It Compare?
I’ve already mentioned how VoIP systems cost so much less to initiate and maintain, and that the quality of service is as good as what we experienced over traditional phone lines.  It has all of the usual phone system options (voicemail, transfers, call groups, etc), but it has an additional option that we find indispensible.

Many of our team work away from our office.  In fact, our team of engineers are spread throughout the country!  With our Elastix system over SIP and using Bria softphones, our team members can ‘log in’ to our phone system from anywhere and are then treated by the system as though they are just down the hall!  Each has an extension and is able to work as though they were on-site rather than off-site.

VoIP has come a long way since folks first started getting excited about it in the 1990s.  It is stable, high quality, and cost effective.  It is definitely good stewardship.

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