VoIP on a budget

Small businesses are often wary of investing in big infrastructure projects, but switching to VoIP can be affordable and easy

Traditional telephony is on its way out. It’s expensive and inflexible, is liable to tie you to a contract that runs for longer than you want, and getting set up means waiting around for days on end for an engineer to come and plumb you in.

The logical alternative is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). It’s far more versatile, and you can get up and running almost instantly. If you haven’t yet made the jump, you will also be pleased to hear that VoIP is something that even the smallest business can easily afford.

The VoIP advantage

The first thing you need for VoIP is a decent internet connection – but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need a dedicated, superfast line. According to leading VoIP provider Vonage, a one-hour VoIP call consumes less bandwidth than an hour spent browsing the web. So if you reckon you could double your workforce without upgrading your broadband, that theoretically means you have enough bandwidth to roll out VoIP to every member of your current team.

Of course, this is just a rule of thumb: In practice there are a number of variables that determine how much bandwidth you really need. The number of concurrent calls is one factor, and compression, encryption, protocol and packet size all play a part too. We’d recommend you speak to multiple providers before putting down any money: describe your infrastructure and, if possible, ask them to perform a survey to check the suitability of your line.

If you can collect together the relevant data, you can also calculate your own requirements using a handy guide provided by VoIP Studio. First, add together your headers and voice payload size to calculate the total packet size; then divide the codec bit rate by the voice payload size to work out how many packets per second (PPS) you’ll be handling. Finally, multiply the results of these two calculations – PPS and total packet size – to calculate the bandwidth required by each call. You can then multiply this by the number of concurrent calls you envisage needing to accommodate to come up with a total bandwidth requirement.

You also want to ensure that everyday email and internet services don’t interfere with your VoIP calls. The ideal solution is to use a separate, dedicated internet line for voice services, but if that’s beyond your means then traffic prioritisation is the order of the day. BT Smart Hub hardware will automatically prioritise VoIP data to help avoid break-ups; most routers can do the same, but there’s no guarantee yours will have been set up with VoIP in mind, so check its quality of service (QoS) settings and give priority to voice traffic if possible. This simple change can make the difference between sounding like a professional enterprise and coming across as a two-bit backroom operation.

VoIP hardware

There are two sides to VoIP: the back-end service and the physical hardware that you talk into. Most VoIP providers will support a wide range of headsets and desk phones, and setting up your VoIP hardware is usually just a case of entering the username and password, along with the connection details supplied by your provider. To make things as easy as possible, many providers run auto-configuring servers, which the hardware can interrogate to retrieve the appropriate settings. 

Some of the desk phone options are impressively powerful. For example, the £70 Cisco SPA303G can handle three separate VoIP accounts at once, while Yealink’s pricier T48S features a 7in touchscreen and support for 16 VoIP lines, 29 touch keys for memory dialling and the option to expand its features with add-on modules. 

If you’re looking to keep costs down, it’s worth exploring the world of certified refurbished hardware; there’s a healthy supply of VoIP handsets available through Amazon Renewed, or you could eschew physical hardware altogether and use an app such as Zoiper, which emulates VoIP hardware, allowing you to talk over your VoIP network just as if you were making a regular call. The app is also available for Windows, Mac and Linux, so staff can plug a cheap headset into their computer and chat away.

Unexpected benefits

One strength of VoIP is that it allows staff to make and receive calls from wherever they happen to be – whether that’s the office, home or even in the car. It also allows you to mask your real business location, should you so wish, as most VoIP providers can offer numbers within any UK area code, and even overseas locations. This can be a boon for small businesses that want to appear larger or more central than they really are: a tiny startup can obtain a number in Edinburgh, London or Sheffield as easily as for Eccles, Louth or Six Mile Bottom.

Nor is there any need to register numbers within a single area code. If you’re advertising services under a Cardiff or Swansea number, you might not get a lot of calls from customers in Norfolk. So why not register an East Anglian number too – and conceivably, numbers in any number of other areas – each of which directs to the same location? With VoIP, you don’t need a local office to maintain a local presence.

Behind the scenes

Small businesses may be tempted to sign up for a cut-price consumer-oriented VoIP service, but choosing a dedicated business provider – or at least a business-focused offering from a catch-all supplier – pays dividends. Even before Covid-19, remote working was becoming increasingly common as businesses strove to cut office costs and recruit from a wider pool of talent. A business VoIP service will provide detailed call logs and centralised billing to help managers stay on top of staff activity, and even track performance over time.

Sipgate Team is one such service, with dashboard-based management of VoIP calls and faxes. Sipgate can also take over your existing lines, should you choose to port them, so there’s no need to go through the upheaval of changing your phone number. There’s no line rental fee to be paid on the first number transferred; subsequent numbers attract line rental of £1.95 a month, blocks of three numbers are £4.95 a month, and for ten you’ll be paying £9.95 over the same period, each excluding VAT. Compared to traditional telephony options, these represent immediate savings. To date, more than 100,000 numbers have been ported to Sipgate, and it can provide numbers in over 650 UK code areas and 1,620 other locations worldwide. Be aware that, while setting up new numbers takes mere seconds, porting an existing line will take a minimum of seven business days, but your existing numbers will continue to work uninterrupted during this time. 

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Once you’re up and running, you can take advantage of all sorts of conveniences that make regular telephone systems look distinctly old-fashioned: voicemail messages are delivered as MP3 files, outgoing faxes can be composed within a web browser, and you can easily set up call groups for providing support or taking orders, with incoming connections placed in a queue and sent to the next team member as soon as one becomes available. If all this has piqued your interest, read our full review of Sipgate Team.

Integrated telephony

As VoIP is an entirely digital service, it can also integrate into your everyday business tools – such as Office 365, G Suite and Zoho CRM – in ways that old-school telephone systems never could. You can initiate calls from within an app with a single click, track responses and set customer records to appear on screen whenever a call comes in.

One platform that’s particularly embraced VoIP is Microsoft Teams, which brings together voice calling, videoconferencing and document collaboration within a unified environment. Its free plan supports up to 300 concurrent users taking part in audio and video calls, unlimited chat and document collaboration using web-based Office apps. Paid editions start at £9.40 per user per month (exc VAT) and add support for offline Office apps, OneDrive integration, scheduling, meeting recording and even conference hosting for remote audiences of up to 20,000 viewers.

Microsoft Teams supports Windows, macOS and Linux, plus both iOS and Android – and it’s also supported on a range of standalone handsets. If there’s a catch with Teams, it’s purely that many businesses have already made a big investment in Slack to do a similar job. However, Teams trumps Slack by including support for dialling in from the outside world, while Slack only supports calling between users of the Slack app – and even then only within your own workgroups. Still, if you’ve already built a team working workflow with Slack at the centre, it may well meet the needs of staff without a customer-facing role. Others, who prefer not to move away from Slack, can always supplement it with a separate VoIP provision.

Hosting on-site

As your business grows, you may find that a self-hosted VoIP solution starts to make sense. This will give you greater administrative control over your phone service and it’s almost certain to be cheaper, compared to the monthly fees for a hosted service. 

The software you need to run your own VoIP services is called an IP PBX, or private branch exchange. At its simplest, this is a private telephone network operated internally and used solely by your organisation; since IP PBX is an open standard, you can mix and match handsets and brands within the system as you choose, allowing you to expand and upgrade on a rolling basis. You can also choose exactly which features you want to use, without paying premiums to a third party.

One of the biggest providers of IP PBX systems is 3CX, offering native software for Linux and Windows as well as cloud-based implementations. It even provides a lean version of its PBX software for running on a Raspberry Pi. IP handsets connected to your network are automatically detected, and the 3CX software can take care of updating their firmware, saving you a tiresome maintenance task.

To connect your PBX software to the main phone network, you’ll need to sign up with a trunking provider, which connects your PBX to the outside world. The 3CX system works with a wide range of providers, and can connect to up to five at once, leaving you covered should one or more services suffer an outage. Read our full review of 3CX Phone System to see why it’s our top VoIP choice.

Taking the plunge

Adopting VoIP doesn’t have to be a big bang: you can start by setting up a single line to run alongside your existing POTS infrastructure. Yorkshire-based Localphone, for example, offers incoming numbers masquerading as lines in 45 countries, with UK numbers priced at just 75p a month. These will handle up to two concurrent calls, with no charge for incoming use unless you hit the 100 calls a day limit, at which point you’ll pay €0.01 per call received.

Should you then decide that VoIP is right for your business, you can consider which provider is best placed to take over your existing numbers, or to otherwise meet your business telephony needs, on the basis of costs, add-ons and integration.

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