3 mistakes to avoid when switching to hosted VoIP

Thought Leadership on SMB Technology Challenges presented by Progressive Computing.

Last year my company partnered with Nextiva, a leading national VoIP provider, to deliver high quality voice services to our clients. Clients were thrilled, but we were very cautious when entering this market, and for good reason. VoIP technology can be very tricky to get right, and when it is done wrong the results can be disastrous.

It is important to understand that VoIP technology uses your internet connection and the same infrastructure (computer wiring, switches and firewall) as your computer systems. On paper this sounds great, but the genius (and the devil) are in the details.

I recently read a quote that is amusing, yet painfully true: “If you think hiring a professional is expensive, then wait until you hire an amateur.” In recent years my IT services company has been called to troubleshoot VoIP installations that just simply were not working properly. Most of the time, a traditional phone system installer would implement VoIP by connecting it to the network and internet. But most phone installers are NOT IT people and thus do not understand the nuances of HOW to connect systems together. In some cases we would be able to spot problems within minutes, as the work of an amateur is very obvious to the professional.

The reality is that many problems had simple solutions, but without our expertise these minor issues became significant business problems. Here are three of the biggest problems we find.

MISTAKE #1: CONNECTING YOUR PC THROUGH YOUR PHONE

An amateur will tell you that you can plug your VoIP phone handset into the same wire you use to connect your computer to the network. They’ll tell you the phones are designed to do this, and will prioritize voice signals over the computer data flowing over that wire. And they’re right. But a professional will quickly point out a few flaws —especially when it’s not working.

First, some of those VoIP handsets operate at a much slower speed than the network connection on your computer — sometimes by a factor of 10. Since the speed of the transmission on that line is only as fast as the slowest link, your computer will only be able to send and receive data at 1/10th the previous speed. Second, this configuration requires some advanced networking concepts that the amateur can only guess at, including things like VLAN and QoS. These are required to manage the voice and data signals once they get to the switch or the firewall. Not only do you have to know how to program these options, but your data switches must also have this capability. Switches like this are typically much more expensive than what most small business use. Third, things may be working on day one, but weird problems might start to pop up many days or months later.

For these reasons, we always recommend installing a separate set of Ethernet cables and data switches dedicated just for the phones. The cost to do this is not as much as you think, and is much less than the headache of doing it on a single cable. It also eliminates the potential finger-pointing later on.

MISTAKE #2: USING A LOW-GRADE INTERNET CONNECTION

A salesperson will tell you just about anything to close the deal. They will tell you your internet connection is just fine by citing that download speeds are typically 100 times faster than what a VoIP connection requires. Again, on paper, in a perfect world, she is correct. However, most small businesses use a cable internet or equivalent service, which is a major problem to understand.

Most Cable services like Time Warner or Cablevision use a “shared” technology. This means your entire neighborhood is using the same giant pool of data services. But this service is not guaranteed, and can fluctuate as other customers’ demands peak throughout the day. Your VoIP salesperson might even send an engineer over to run “speed tests” and show you pretty graphs of how your line is “better than fine.” But those charts only show the performance for that particular snapshot in time, or might be an average over a long period of time.

VoIP technology is sensitive to the internet speed when you are on the phone — not the average speed and not the speed from yesterday morning — but right now. Understandably, most businesses, especially smaller firms, cannot afford to install Enterprise-grade services, or they may not have many options in the building or office. A simple and elegant solution follows this suggestion: Install a second (albeit) low-grade internet connection dedicated specifically to the voice service. You’ll have to do the math to see if there are still cost-savings for this route. In most situations, spending a bit more means you get to save overall, and still benefit from VoIP.

MISTAKE #3: NOT INVOLVING YOUR IT PEOPLE EARLY

Many small businesses have an “IT guy” or outsourced IT services company like mine at their beck and call. So, why do so many of you tell us after the fact that you switched to a VoIP system? Depending on your arrangement, involving the experts early on in the process will cost you nothing, or very little in comparison to the consequences of listening ONLY to some sales pitch. VoIP can be an extremely smart business move, saving you thousands of dollars per year, while adding features you only dreamed about. But, that dream can easily turn into a nightmare if it’s not installed properly.

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