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Telecommunications

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.

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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 (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.