Digital Internet Voice for small businesses

Internet voice offers plenty of potential savings and productivity for small businesses. You can pay a fixed fee for monthly calling plans that include unlimited long distance coverage of North America and have the ability to program your phone to follow your movements without ever having to talk to a phone company representative ever again.

You can read more about the various issues to consider over on my story for here.

Saving money inside your wiring closet

Here is a brief exercise in how to save some money for your company, and make yourself a hero at the same time. Do a quick census of the gear inside all of your wiring closets. You don’t have to be too anal here: just quickly estimate the number of ports, regardless of whether or not they are in use. Now use some fudge factors for the number of watts per port – if you have this information, fine, otherwise for the purposes of this tally, use 50 watts for unpowered Ethernet and 500 watts for powered ports, and add in the power consumption figures for anything else that is plugged into an electrical outlet.


Now add up the kilowatt hours and multiply by the cost of electricity in your area. If you don’t know, say 15 cents per kwh. Surprised at how big this is? Now here is where the hero part comes into play: suggest that you replace some of this gear with switches that can turn themselves off during off-hours.


Hunh? “Our networks have to operate 24×7” you say. “We can’t turn anything off. What about the people that come in on the weekends?”


Still, think about it. I got the idea after visiting Adtran this week, and they were showing me some of their switches that do just that. You can set up profiles for particular ports on the switch to shut off at certain times of the day, or to provide less power to those ports that are just running to ordinary PC endpoints. You wouldn’t think this would add up to a lot of saved juice, but if you have a lot of powered Ethernet ports – say supporting Wifi access points and VOIP phones – it can really add up quickly, into the tens of thousands of dollars a year. This could easily pay for part of the upgrade to your infrastructure.


Switches aren’t the only things that can cycle their power loads down these days. Intel’s latest multicore chips have the ability to turn off several of their cores to save on electricity, or to funnel processing to particular tasks to match their computing loads. There are virtualization provisioning products that will automatically spin up virtual servers to match increased loads, and then spin them down when the loads drop.


It is funny, when you think about it. Going green these days means getting a more powerful box and turning stuff off. Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it? Oh, and when you are done, ask your boss to give you at least a third of the savings as a bonus, and tell them I put you on to the idea. You can thank me later.

Testing the Managed PBX Waters

Hosted IP telephony services let users sample benefits without overhauling existing phone systems.
Corporations that haven’t yet gotten involved with IP telephony have a new method to test-drive this technology without a lot of up-front investment: They can use a hosted PBX managed services provider. While that’s a mouthful, the idea is relatively simple: Take a systems integrator that can provision an Internet connection between its office and yours, buy a couple of IP telephones, and the integrator takes care of the rest.

You can read the rest of my story, which appeared in this month’s Baseline magazine, here.

Making the switch to computer-based calling

I have been a user of Vonage for my main business line for at least four years and mostly a happy customer. But a series of anticipated moves this summer got me thinking: do I really need this service any longer? And so I have come up with a rather strange plan, so stick with me here for a minute while I explain how I got to my post-VOIP mobile telephony world.

I spend about $60 a month for my business telephone service: half on Vonage, half on AT&T for providing DSL service to my home (which I share for both home and business connectivity). This summer I will be moving across town and splitting off my office into a separate location. First I thought I would just get a cable modem and move the Vonage box and line over to run on that. That is the beauty of tying your business line to a VOIP service: it can move with you. Plus, with the cable downloads at 10 Mb, I can get those mission-critical movies and other image files that are so important to my day-to-day work life.

But the more I pondered that situation, the more I thought I would be better off if I got one of the AT&T broadband PC modems and used my computer for all my outbound calls. The modems are free with rebates and a two-year service plan, and you pay $60 a month for unlimited Internet access. Some of them are USB so can work with desktops, laptops, Macs or Windows. This is the same $60 a month that I was paying for my business line. The downside is that I won’t get anywhere near 10 Mb downloads, but that might cut back on the opportunities to view unneeded visual content.

I am already a big fan of Skype, and they offer an unlimited Skype Out subscription for less than $3 a month to everyplace that I would call with the Vonage account for the most part (you can get more expensive packages if you want to call international places). You can also purchase an inbound number for Skype for a few more dollars a month, but the number of people calling me doesn’t justify this, yet.

There are a couple of important caveats to note here. First, I make a lot of calls to conferencing services, so I need to be able to continue to dial touch tones after the initial call goes through. With Skype, this isn’t a problem: you get a cute little keypad that you can type in your conference number and PIN and away you go.

Second, more importantly, I no longer will be using the actual telephone that has been sitting on my desk for the past 16 years. Granted, this phone has been in many difference cities, and at the beginning of its life was used on New York Telephone where I was paying something like two cents a minute for local calls. The more I thought about my solution, the more I began to miss this old friend and desk totem. As a friend of mine said, it is like you have to clean out the last boxes from your old bedroom at your parents’ house. I will miss the concept of this old Ma Bell ringy-dingy most of all — even though it doesn’t serve any current purpose in my new post-VOIP life.

I don’t mind the headset, and in fact I have a whole passel of Bluetooth headsets that should work on my Mac and Windows PCs for the calls, if I don’t want to use the wired one.

But the third issue is the most important one. To make this trick work, I would need to port my existing Vonage number over to one of my wireless phones. The only way to know if you can do this is to go into an AT&T company-owned store (there are other franchise stores that look exactly the same so it pays to call their support line and find out) and ask them if it is eligible for porting.

I called my local AT&T store and first was told they couldn’t port any Vonage numbers. Then after I persisted, they said I could and just stop by. So far so good.

So what I have in mind is extreme mobility: I should be able to make calls anywhere I have my laptop, as long as I have AT&T broadband service (which should be in most of the major cities I am in). This also has the extra advantage that I am not trying to find Wifi service or have to pay extra when I am in a hotel or airport, because usually those places have wireless broadband. If not, I can use my cell phone, which will be my primary business line. And under the worse case scenario, I can carry an Ethernet cable (remember those) and a phone card and use a payphone!

I am interested in your experiences with the AT&T broadband PC cards, so leave a comment on my blog if you don’t mind. Do you think I am crazy, to contemplate doing this? I think it is kinda exciting.

Digital Understanding Internet Voice or VOIP options

If you have long distance phone bills on your home phone that are more than $50 a month, it is time to consider ways that you can save some real money by making use of one of many different technologies called digital voice or Voice over Internet Protocol (also called VoIP or Internet Phone). This article will compare the various services that are offered and provide information to help you decide whether or not this service is appropriate for you. For simplicity’s sake, we call this Internet Voice.

You can read more in my article that was posted today over on Digital

Digital Understanding bundles offered by high-speed Internet service providers

The cable and phone companies now promise even more confusion with their pricing with what they are calling “triple play.” In baseball, a triple play is usually something bad for the team at bat, but in the world of the Internet, it is supposed to save you money by purchasing all of your services from one communications company. That is the theory.

The good news is that you can generally save money from having all of your communications coming from one source. I tell you how in this story that was posted today over on Digital

New VOIP services

I had a chance to compare two new Internet phone services from Ooma and MagicJack. Let me summarize what I have learned in the table below: V-Phone          
Initial cost $40 for first year $400 $40
Recurring cost $20/yr following years None plus monthly Vonage service            
911 features Uses E911 PSAP Uses landline 911 (2) Use Vonage PSAP None          
Headset or analog phone? Either supported Analog Phone Neither needed (mic included) Headset + PC          
Free calling area North America USA North America Various countries (1)          
Mac OS X support Not yet Uses phones Not yet Yes          
Notable features Headset or phone Second line Built in mic International reach          
Drawbacks Few area codes yet avail. Customer support Tied to Vonage account Dicey p2p network issues          
Email voicemail notifications? Yes No Yes Yes          
(1) Skype pro provides unlimited calling in a single country that you receive the phone number for.            
(2) Please note that in order for the ooma system to work, we will add call forward busy (“CFB”) when we provision your line, for which you will owe your landline phone company associated monthly charges

So what are these new services? Ooma is a small box about the size of an answering machine that hooks up to both your broadband Ethernet and your land voice line. MagicJack is a bit bigger than a USB key drive that connects to your computer’s USB port. They have very different approaches, and are not for everyone.

MagicJack is a way to supplement your existing landline or cellular service. If you have a loved one that is living overseas, or someone who travels a lot, then this makes sense. At a fixed price of $40 and $20 for the second and subsequent years, it is a low enough price point that you can send it to someone living abroad, have them register with a US phone number, and then you can have cheap unlimited talk time. The nice thing about the gizmo is that you can either hook up a standard analog phone to it, or use whatever PC-connected sound device you’d like: it can toggle between both. It doesn’t yet have many local phone numbers — when I tried it out, I could get as close as Memphis but nothing in Missouri as yet. But this is becoming less of an issue as many people have unlimited long distance plans anyway.

Ooma is much more expensive, and I am not sure where their market is: at $400, you have to make a lot of calls and the device requires a lot more commitment. You need to make changes to your landline calling features too. Its niftiest feature is the ability to give you a second outgoing phone line, so you can get around a chatty teen who is always tying up your phone. But it has very poor customer support despite some initial buzz and a high initial cost to get their gear.

Both Ooma and MagicJack come with their own voicemail box that can send you email notifications, which is becoming standard in the VOIP world. Both supply unlimited calling in the US or North America, with additional per-minute charges to places beyond. Both support the better E911 services that aren’t the norm with most VOIP suppliers: ironically, Vonage offers a competitive USB gizmo called the V-phone, but 1) you need to sign up for a Vonage service plan to use it and 2) it doesn’t support E911, instead, emergency calls get routed to a Vonage operator.

The other entry in this sweepstakes is Skype. They of course only work on your PC, but they do offer Macintosh support, something neither the V-phone or the MagicJack presently have. They are a bit more expensive if you buy all the various options (you need Skype In to get a fixed phone number so people can call your PC at $60/year and Skype Pro to make outgoing calls at $36/year ) than either USB device, but they do offer local numbers in various countries, should that be important to you or if both of your frequently called parties are outside the US. Their Pro plan allows unlimited outbound calling to phones in whatever country you assign your phone number to your account.

What you pick will depend on a lot of different circumstances: if you are looking for a complete replacement of your landline phone with an Internet solution, I still think either Vonage or AT&T CallVantage is a better way to go than any of these products. If you make a lot of international calls to different places, then probably Skype is your answer. If your teen or traveling salesperson is tying up your phone or racking up cell minutes, then any one of these might be a lower-cost alternative if you want to keep your existing landline.

Clearly, the VOIP market is undergoing a lot of change, and a lot of players will come and (like SunRocket) go. As someone who uses Vonage daily for the past four years, I am watching avidly what is going on. Continue reading