Voice over IP (VOIP) telephone services can provide a telephone system for your business that's both cheaper and more flexible than a standard office PABX. Lifehacker 101 looks at the main approaches you can take.
All VOIP systems work on essentially the same premise: your calls are routed via the Internet rather than using the standard telephone network. That allows VOIP providers to offer services at a lower cost, as well as other handy options. For instance, calls to other users of the same VOIP service are generally free, which makes a VOIP setup particularly useful if your business operates in multiple locations. Calls to Australian numbers generally have a fixed fee regardless of how long you talk (15 cents is a common rate). Calls to mobiles aren't as cheap, but still competitive with general landlines. Overseas calls are also often substantially cheaper, though rates vary widely depending on the destination country.
You still get assigned a regular phone number with a VOIP service, and can have your existing number transferred to it. However, you're not usually restricted to having to take a number in the physical area code which you have been assigned to. That can be useful if (for instance) you have a lot of customers or suppliers who contact you from interstate -- switching your number can effectively give them local call rates when they ring you.
The most frequent argument heard against VOIP calls is service quality -- because calls are being routed over the Internet, which wasn't inherently designed to provide continuous voice calls, there can be occasional glitches. In practice, however, it's very difficult to notice a difference if you have a decent speed Internet connection. The widespread use of mobile phones also means that many people have changed their expectations of call quality in any case.
The cheapest and simplest VOIP solutions involve not using your handset at all, but having calls directed through software that runs on your computer. The best-known example of this kind of service is Skype (which is likely to continue to dominate the space despite its recent purchase by Microsoft). Having a 'softphone' client can be useful for travelling staff (assuming they have access to an Internet connection), but for in-office use, having the call actually directed to a phone handset generally makes more sense.
For business customers, having a traditional handset which continues to work in the usual way is generally the easiest approach. While most business-oriented VOIP providers will let you continue using your existing handsets, you may want to invest in new equipment to take advantage of facilities such as the ability to host conference calls for multiple participants. Charging for these services typically involves a per-line, per-month fee, plus related call charges.
Full office services
For larger environments, you may want to end up replacing your standard PABX switchboard with a specific IP solution. (The market for new PABX equipment is now virtually all IP-based.) This will give you more sophisticated call management features on site, though such an approach is arguably overkill for smaller businesses.
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