Introduction to the PC Phone System

A PC-based phone system is simply a phone system that runs on PC hardware. These systems are not as widely implemented in the telecommuncations field as they are in the I.T. world, so my experiences have been limited. Mainly for the purposes of testing, I decided to build an Asterisk lab. Here was a low-cost way for me to have a phone system in my home, that I could tweak and monitor to my heart’s content. I could also see if this system was actually practical for business telecommunications.

Not really having the desire to learn the ins and outs of the Linux operating system (which Astrerisk runs on), I decided to use a turn-key installation that installs both the operating system and the software. Needless to say, the supposed turn-key solutions did not install without difficulties. I was able to get it to work, but only because I am a quick study, an excellent “googler”, have knowledge of FTP and Telnet connections, and had the time to spare. I am beginning to understand why the IT guys have it in their own office, yet I don’t see it deployed widely. Of course any IT company with a resident Linux guru can have one. Another option is to pay a company to build one for you, but then you may as well buy a phone system. And here’s why:

Reliability

Everyone knows that PC’s are the most unreliable pieces of office equipment. That is a glaring contrast to the reliablility of traditional phone systems, which even function when mounted in non-ideal dusty and hot locations.

Ease-of-use

Only traditional phone systems can be configured as “square”. That means that everyone in the office can see the lines and extensions on buttons (as long as there are enough buttons available). This allows them to access them directly with no fuss, and to see at a glance if the line or extension is busy. Assigning direct access to any feature by pressing a dedicated button is valued as well.

Compatibility

Connection to analog trunks and devices is either an expensive option, or simply not available. Examples of these devices are: paging systems; loud ringers; dialup devices like credit-card machines, fax machines, time clocks, and alarm systems.

Conclusion

There is a place for PC-based phone systems. Many of the hosted phone systems (where the provider has the system in their data center, and you have the phones in your office) are successfully using Asterisk or similar platforms. IT guys love things that they get to tweak all the time. These systems, however, are too complex and not reliable enough in most commercial environments.

VoIP can be cheap to roll-out, it’s pretty cheap to hook a headset to your computer and make internet phone calls. However, it is not likely that as a reader of this blog your needs are that small-scale. You are learning about VoIP for your business, and you should be informed on commercial-grade solutions.

The Traditional Phone System

Nowadays, the traditional phone system is not the only option,but for some it may still be the best one.  Telecommunications equipment are the most relaible pieces of equipment in any office. Their number one job by far is to be bullet-proof. They don’t need to be fast, powerful, or pretty. Form always follows function. As an example, an auto repair shop is dirty, hot, and not very high-tech. If they need multiple lines and the ability to page/intercom, a traditional phone sytem is the way to go.

Fortunately, most phone systems today are fully VoIP capapble. They can be configured to accept both VoIP trunks and stations (local and remote). The right phone system can fit into any conceivable telecom scenario because they can perform each and every task that the other technologies can, plus more. The only negative aspect is price. They do represent the highest inital cost of just about any other solution. The good news is you own it, and there should be little recurring costs (unless your business needs major changes).

A hosted (virtual) phone system

This can be a good option for a company looking for something to connect their workers who are spread across the country, or even the earth, without the need for a “main office” location (a traditional phone system needs to be installed somewhere). There are two types of hosted systems: the type that uses your cell phones or existing lines to act like extensions, and those that give you an IP phone on your desk.

The cell phone hosting type requires no extra equipment, they just direct your incoming calls to one of their servers that plays a menu and transfers calls to the appropriate telephone number (i.e. your cell phone). All you are paying for is an automated attendant, a simple system with simple features.

The IP phone hosting type is a real phone system, it’s just not located in your office and you don’t own it (a provider charges you each month to use their system). Often using an open-source phone system running on a conventional PC server, they do the best job of emulating a traditional phone system. You get a phone that sits on your desk, you can call other stations on intercom, and you can answer phone calls. All you need is an internet connection to run the VoIP through. This technology falls short when you have a main office with multiple phones, because the station-to-station calls have to pass from one phone out to the provider’s server and back, doubling the internet bandwidth needs. Also, you can forget about on-site louspeaker paging, monitored burglar alarms, fax machines, and any other feature that requires a local phone system/line to plug into.

Most small businesses don’t require any type of system, other than maybe a plain-old telephone. For the ones that do require something more, I usually recommend a traditional phone system. It is the most reliable option, and it is the only complete solution that you never have to change, even if you decide you want to change providers or phone techs.

VoIP deployments can be categorized under two basic implementations: Trunking and Stations. For your information, these two categories have been around for decades. When used together they comprise a traditional telephone system. Almost every phone system sold today has the ability to use both VoIP trunks and stations.

VoIP Trunking

The term “trunk”, when used in telecommunications, is your voice connection to the outside world. A common example of a trunk is the telephone line you may have at your house. As you can imagine, a VoIP trunk is one that is delivered over the internet, or more specifically, a network. I make that distinction because not only can VoIP trunks provide you a connection to the world, they can alternately provide services within your network – it can be used to link telephony equipment within your local network, especially if your local network is extended to other locations. In certain situations, is becomes either cost-effective or productivity-effective to link equipment together using VoIP trunking. As you may imagine, “outside trunking” involves paying each month to a provider for the connection and telephone nuumber(s), whereas “inside trunking” does not.

VoIP Stations

A VoIP station is a implemented whenever there is an IP telephone. IP telephones can be in the form of a traditional phone set that sits on your desk, or in the form of software designed to emulate a desk phone (a “soft-phone”). An IP phone is designed to replace a traditional telephone, so in many cases they look and function just like one. However, unlike a traditional phone, an IP phone connects to your network. It transforms your voice into data packets, which are then sent over a network. IP phones can be a very elegant solution when phones need to be deployed outside your office. All that is required is a stable internet connection at both ends.

Free calls on the internet

As stated in the previous article, sending your calls over the internet allows you to communicate with others anywhere in the world. But wait… doesn’t a plain old telephone line let you do that too? Of course, but what most people have discovered is that calls using VoIP can be significantly cheaper. However, one thing that you must consider before deploying VoIP for your business, is how suitable your internet connection is.

Two ways your current internet might not be up to the task

1. The Upload Speed Problem

One key to the cost of VoIP resides in the main feature of high-speed internet: its speed (aka bandwidth). The speed is measured two ways: “Download speed” and “Upload speed”. Most internet connections today have a download speed fast enough to support voice and even video streaming (like watching YouTube). That is information being sent “down” to you. For a stream of your likeness to be transmitted “UP” to the internet, the same amount of data must be sent. If the upload speed is not enough, you cannot communicate. Every internet connection, even fiber-optic, has slower upload speed than its download speed, except for a T-1 connection.

2. It’s not the speed, it’s how you use it

This bandwidth/speed must also be reliable, and more specifically, consistent. Unlike common internet uses (loading web pages, checking email, watching online videos), streaming live voice or video cannot be buffered. It is real-time, so any interruption will cause the voice to cut off or the video to freeze.

For example, wireless networks have problems with congestion and interference, so they can have problems delivering a constant stream of information. Living far from major metropolitan areas may be cheaper, but the internet in those areas can be terrible for streaming. You may also run into congestion problems because your bandwidth is shared amongst different users or even your neighbors.

Summary

There lies the first hidden cost of VoIP: Paying for a premium internet connection, at both ends. Where you are located dictates how many options you have, which greatly affects the potential costs. Being informed of this before deployment is crucial. Many times when I encounter a business that is having VoIP problems, it is because the provider and/or the other vendors did not tell them their internet connection was inadequate (whether it is because they were ignorant or deceitful).

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol): What is it?

Fortunately, I have realized that I should first write about the basics of VoIP, so that I can reference the information in subsequent posts. This article is intended to give a basic understanding of VoIP, written in a form that most people would understand. This should be an easy task for me because explaining telecommunications to lay-people is a large part of my job.

VoIP is the technology that allows your voice to travel over a data network. An example of a data network is the internet, another example is the local network at your office. Now, you cant just grab a network cable or your mouse and yell into it to use VoIP, you must have a device to translate your voice into “packets” of data. Us phone guys refer to these devices as Media Gateways, which translate voice calls from phone equipment to IP packets. However, your computer is such a device if you use it to talk with people over the internet (like using Skype or Google Chat). At the other end there must be a similar device to translate your voice back to something that can be heard by the human ear. Sending your calls over the internet allows you to communicate with others anywhere in the world, as long as both parties have a reliable and fast enough internet connection.

That’s it for the basics. Other articles will focus on specific subjects as they relate to VoIP.

The purpose of my blog…

First of all, I would like to say that I am not a big fan of “blogs” in general. I have discovered a wonderful mobile app called StumbleUpon, which is a free and easy-to-use electronic replacement for the common genre-specific magazine. However, its indiscriminate theme-based surfing causes me to frequently visit blogs that are clearly written by people who have no business doing so. So before deciding to unleash my own version, I needed to make sure I had a specific purpose, and that the purpose was useful in my professional life (realizing, like more people should, that my personal junk is not suitable for publishing). Individuals and organizations that wish to learn more about telecommunication technologies will hopefully find this blog useful. Cheers!