Adventures in VoIP

We recently transitioned to a full VoIP phone system, meaning there are no longer any dedicated phone lines running around our office.  All voice traffic is sent via the network, both internally and externally.  While many of the larger, proprietary systems are out of reach for small businesses, we’ve been experimenting with open source technologies that bring the power of a VoIP PBX to those on a tight budget. The Status Quo Most small businesses will use regular household analog phones, or even “business phones” (analog phones with multiple lines, the ability to transfer calls, etc).  These require a normal phone jack to operate, and generally don’t come with many bells and whistles.  You place multiple phones on a single line, customers call the line, someone answers, and yells across the office “Bob, it’s for you!” Maybe you get one with a built-in answering machine, and that’s about the extent of functionality of your “phone system”  Couple unpredictable fees, long distance charges, and other legacy billing nonsense with this low-tech phone system, and you end up with a hassle. Enter business phone systems, that include a clunky and expensive PBX located in your wiring closet, interface cards to tie them into PSTN lines (That’s Public Switched Telephone Network, or normal phone lines), cards for each user, proprietary programming languages for hunt groups, voicemail cards with built-in hard drives, and a ton of other complicated junk that still requires dedicated phone wiring to each station and still requires regular phone lines from Verizon or Comcast!  Sure, after a lofty bill you may have an autoattendant, personal voicemail, and a bunch of phones that are useless if detached from the PBX, but now you’re a legit business with a legit phone system! Enter VoIP VoIP, particularly open-source VoIP has come a long way in recent years, with the main benefit of most of the components being modular, interchangeable, and scalable.  VoIP Phones use a protocol called SIP to package voice communication and send it over the same computer network (and internet) that we all know an love.  Since SIP is a non-proprietary standard, many different manufacturers make SIP compatible phones that are all usable with SIP PBXs (in theory, anyway). For phones, we chose a simple SIP staple, the Linksys SPA942.  The phones have a simple web interface for configuration, and can show up to four extensions (or 4 instances of the same extension, as is the case normally). For a PBX, we went with Switchvox Free Edition, a branded graphical interface running on the open-source VoIP platform called Asterisk.  Asterisk runs on Linux, so we installed our Switchvox PBX on a linux virtual machine running on our Windows 2008 Server. With a few VoIP phones and virtualized Switchvox PBX, we could make all the internal extension to extension calls our hearts desire, but how do we call outside the office without the low-tech, pricey hard wired phones lines we’re used to?  The answer is a VoIP provider.  A VoIP provider gives you 100% internet-based voice connectivity, routing calls from your PBX to outside phone numbers, and routing outside calls to your phone number to your PBX!  We get unlimited calling in the continental U.S. for $30 a month per line, with no hidden costs.  It’s a much better deal than getting phones from Comcast. Bells and Whistles Once you get the basic VoIP system up and running, it’s those neat little bells and whistles that make the system very powerful. Email Voicemails – You can configure the PBX to send an email to a user when they have a voicemail, which they can play directly from their email client or web browser. Browser Dialing – Switchvox includes a firefox plugin that allows you to quickly dial ANY phone number on any website.  Right click the number, click dial, and your phone will ring!  When you pick it up, it will already be dialing whatever number you clicked.  This is especially useful if you already use a web-based Contact Management System (like us!). Remote Extensions – Even though the PBX is at our office, we can use software phones (softphones), or hard-wired phones at other locations to connect to it.  This means it’s easy and FREE for a branch office to call the main office extensions over the internet, without tying up any outside lines. If you’re interested in moving your business to a VoIP phone system, just give us a call! -Chris

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