business voip phone services
May 23, 2011 10:32 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for a good VOIP provider for a medium size business - any recommendations or experience to share?

I run a non-profit which will grow to 50-100 employees in the next year. We currently use vonage, but we are limited by the lack of business services. Specifically, we want to be able to:
1) transfer phone calls (not call forwarding. i need to be able to transfer a call to another number after i have picked up)
2) buy a block of phone numbers and access it with the voip service
3) have an interface that can manage 100 phone lines efficiently (vonage can support several numbers, but it just isn't setup for an account with 100 lines)
4) support phones with wireless handsets
5) use our own internet connection
6) have our voice mail transcribed by humans (no thanks on your lousy automated transcription, google)

Vonage does not provide 1-4. It does provide 5 and 6 and otherwise serves us well. But we need the first four features too.

Any experience with good business voip providers?

Bad business voip providers?

Any features I should want but haven't mentioned?
posted by alcahofa to Technology (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think the services you want actually require two distinct entities ... on one hand you need the service provider who will handle the calls, route them to the PSTN, sell you blocks of numbers (DIDs), etc. But you also need someone who can assist you in choosing, install, and configure the actual hardware end of the solution.

There might be people around who are both, but I tend to see those two things as different functions.

What you might want is an Asterisk based solution, because it is relatively cheap, doesn't lock you into a vendor, and might be self-supportable on a day-to-day basis if you have some really good technical people in-house. (Though I'd still have it set up professionally.) Chances are, if you're in a major city, there are a variety of mom-n-pop consulting/integration/implementation shops around who would be happy to stand up an Asterisk PBX for you and integrate it with your existing phone system if necessary. I'd start with some Googling ("asterisk consulting mycity"), or contact Digium (the people who support the commercial version of Asterisk) directly for a referral to a local VAR.

Anyway, the PBX is basically a computer that will sit somewhere in your facility and will attach to your phones (which can be either analog phones via various types of digital adapters, or true digital phones that just have an Ethernet port on the back) and provide call transfer, hold, and other internal services. You can configure it with the block of numbers that you buy from your termination provider however you want (so that each extension has its own external number, or you have an incoming trunk and then dial an extension, or only some of them get external numbers, etc.).

Asterisk is a pretty flexible piece of software and I've seen some pretty neat setups done with it. 100 lines ought to be doable, although it might require breaking it up across multiple servers ... I'm not really sure how it scales out. But someone who does this professionally ought to be able to answer all of these questions.

The person you pick to do the installation/configuration can probably make some suggestions of reliable companies for your termination service. The nice thing about VOIP is that the "termination" is sort of a commodity product ... there's a lot of competition based on price and features and service. Personally I use Callcentric for termination of my home VOIP line, and I know they do offer termination for Asterisk PBXes, but I can't really speak to that service. Honestly if you are going to really use 100 DIDs you are going to be a fairly big account and you should see what sort of rates various places will negotiate with you, based on your estimated usage. I wouldn't assume that the rate somebody with two lines like me pays, is the same rate that you'll be paying for your 100 simultaneous lines.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:54 PM on May 23, 2011

The features you are looking for require some sort of PBX. Kadin2048 mentioned Asterisk and Digium, which are PBX's that run on a Linux box that you manage in-house. If you have Linux help in-house or nearby, either the free version of Asterisk with FreePBX or one of the commercial versions are great. Take a look at these guys for a simple implementation:

There is a Windows-based PBX on the market called 3CX ( I have tested it and found it to be excellent for smaller installations (100 users in the Telephony world is small). The Windows interface is easy to navigate and adding SIP providers is straight-forward.

There are also hosted VoIP PBX solutions where you just need a fast, reliable Internet connection and IP phones, though some will even provide you with the phones. The company handles programming the PBX, hooking it to the SIP channels, etc.

Look at

Good luck - send memail if you have specific questions.
posted by johnn at 6:24 AM on May 24, 2011

Look into Verizon business. They can do some really amazing could based phone services, they will deliver the data lines (called PRI's) AND the VOIP hardware (usually a cisco-based system). It's not the least expensive option, but it works, and if you have Verizon cell service you can integrate your dial plans for 4 digit dialing, single number reach and a whole host of other really cool services
posted by roboton666 at 6:25 AM on May 24, 2011

Where are you located?

Do you need to keep your current internet provider? If call quality is important to you, you should really get voip from your ISP, either buying a SIP trunk through them to connect your own PBX through, or to buy their hosted service directly.

I would highly, highly, not recommend running your own PBX unless you have someone on staff with a lot of voip experience, or you've hired an outside IT contractor who can handle installation and on-going support, and budget accordingly for support after installation. Roll-your-own voip solutions can be a nightmare to implement if you don't know what you're doing, though once the kinks get worked out (QOS, etc), it's usually pretty smooth saililng.
posted by empath at 6:29 AM on May 24, 2011

Kadin is right, that's two things.

(Well, it can be one thing, but that's going to be expensive. In the old days it was called Centrex. Which is where instead of obtaining your own phone system, you would rent services from the phone company. I don't know what it is called now, but I have to think it isn't going to be an optimal solution.)

Things to think about:

1- What kind of phones do you have right now? Just a bunch of Vonage phone adapters hooked up to analog phones? To maintain that set up, that is going to require a lot of wires and phone adapters.

2- What kind of internet connection do you have? Will it be able to handle the phone usage, on top of internet usage?

3- What about your LAN? How much are you going to spend to get these employees set up with computers and phones and wiring outlets?

What I'm getting at is that you are going to run into a scaling issue. The features you want aren't cheap. And they aren't going to work well at all if it is done via some remote service. All that traffic is going to require a fat internet connection, which is pricey. You can spend your money on that fat internet connection and a remotely managed system, or you can spend it on your own (or leased?) phone system.

The benefit of a traditional VOIP system (Cisco, Asterisk and SIP phones) is that it can reduce capital spending when rolling out a bunch of new employees.
posted by gjc at 6:32 AM on May 24, 2011

Btw, if you try to run 100 seats over an internet connection that doesn't belong to your voip provider, you're going to run into a world of hurt, unless you get a dedicated connection just for voip -- which is expensive, and is also going to put a hard limit on the number of simultaneous calls you can make that a shared link won't have. You're going to want end-to-end QOS, and hosted PBX's like Vonage can't provide that.
posted by empath at 6:37 AM on May 24, 2011

Empath has a point, although at the place I'm sitting right now we have a VOIP PBX that has its backhaul over an ISP that knows nothing about it. But it's a good connection, and that's what counts. What I'd recommend not doing is trying to put business-critical VOIP over some sort of consumer Internet connection.

There are basically two types of Internet connections in the world: those that have Service Level Agreements (SLAs), and crap. Most of us make do with crap, because crap is a lot cheaper than something that comes with an SLA. But if you are moving your phone service onto an Internet connection you probably want/need the SLA, which will guarantee a certain amount of bandwidth and uptime (and sometimes latency and maintenance windows and other stuff), and will also prevent the ISP from doing any monkey business with traffic shaping and whatnot. Here is Verizon's standard SLA for real connections. (tl;dr: 100% uptime outside scheduled maintenance windows, 45ms CONUS latency, 90ms NYC-London, <1ms backbone jitter.)

It's been my limited experience that the phone companies have a better handle on this stuff than the cable companies do, although supposedly you can get actual SLAed business connections from some cable providers now. Not sure that I would trust them without really going over the fine print, though.

If you are looking at non-ISP VOIP services, it makes sense to ask the provider what ISPs they use, and get an address where you can test the latency from your servers to theirs yourself. I'd be immediately suspicious of anyone who can't provide this.

Going with VOIP service from your ISP certainly reduces risk, though.

Also, nearly all PBX systems have the ability to keep a certain number of regular POTS connections alive and connected, and fail over to them under certain conditions. I think this is a good feature and one you should take advantage of. Keeping two POTS lines should cost you less than $50/mo and you can set up the PBX to route emergency calls to them, and to fail over to them for outgoing calls if the Internet backhaul goes down. While I guess this might be decreasingly important as more employees have cellphones, it has always struck me as a good idea.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:29 AM on May 24, 2011

Another variable in the equation I don't see explicitly defined is how many channels do you plan on having concurrently?

You can have one main number and 20 channels and 50 extensions which can make and receive calls using those channels. Naturally, when #21 tries to make a call or #21 tries to dial in, they will receive a busy signal.

Having a large block of DIDs is only necessary many of your extensions require direct dialing.

I've set up the VOIP systems for a few small companies, both with on-site equipment, and virtual servers, all running through providers like Voicepulse or VoIPStreet for the DID termination.

For your volume, I'd suggest an on-site server with a g.729 card (which gets you the necessary licenses) g.729 lowers the bandwidth for each channel by more than half. It can be done in software for $10 a channel, but you increase the CPU needs dramatically.

31.5kbit/channel ends up being about 3.2Mbit/sec. FiOS could handle that, but as Kadin mentions, the SLA might not meet your business need.

VoIP Handsets are going to run you between $50-$150 each, with brand names costing more. E.g. a Cisco handset is going to be more than a Grandstream.

For cordless phones, you can get converters and use regular POTS cordless phones, as opposed to using the WiFi based VoIP cordless handsets, which I find balky. If you are doing on-site equipment, you should also consider a FXO/FXS card. You wouldn't need the converters to use regular POTS handsets, and it would give you a place to plug in the analog lines you should get for backup.

Once you've got all of this set up, you can get softphones on most smartphone handsets these days, so you can use them to log in to extensions too.
posted by tomierna at 7:57 AM on May 24, 2011

My friend's company has moved a bunch of businesses to hosted VOIP at Vocalocity. The customers seem to like the service.
posted by white_devil at 8:26 AM on May 24, 2011

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