Are Cheap IP-PBX Business VoIP Phone Systems Right For Your Business?

The world was still listening to Smashmouth and contemplating the underlying meaning behind The Matrix when the founder of Digium.com, released his free, open source IP PBX software in 1999.

He created an entirely new segment in the open source software market… Not only did companies using Asterisk collectively save millions of dollars when installing the open software, they found it could be hosted or installed on-site, as a call distributor, a VoIP gateway, a conference bridge and much more.  It became the Swiss army knife of IP-based telephony overnight.

But then, in January 2009, one small business Asterisk customer was slapped with a gigantic and unexpected phone bill. His system had been hacked…Is Asterisk Secure?

Australian newspaper Adelaide Now reported: “A small business has been landed with a $120,000 phone bill after criminals hacked into its internet phone system and used it to make 11,000 international calls in just 46 hours.” But the Australian business owner wasn’t the only victim. Three companies in the U.S. using IP PBX systems (two from Asterisk) suffered similar fates around the same time.

Adding insult to injury, a slew of neckbeards eventually went online and posted soundless YouTube videos that exuberantly demonstrated, keystroke by keystroke, how to break into the PBX and make free calls.

So what happened?

As an Asterisk reseller said following an attack on one of his customers, “We were so focused on the telephony side [when we installed Asterisk] that we completely overlooked…the IT side, the security side.”  It was obvious in hindsight. Their failure to secure the server ensured their demise.



Since then, Asterisk has solidified enormously.  It’s now backed up by thousands of skilled IT experts in an open source community who take security very seriously. As of today, there are more than a million Asterisk-based systems in use across more than 170 countries.

The upside of Asterisk

In a nutshell, Internet Protocol Private Brand Exchange allows you as your own personal phone company. You can set up branch menus, dial “9” for an outside line, assign 3 digit extensions for every team member at the office and much more.

We’ve all used PBX and are familiar with the functionality it provides, but most people think of it as something too complex or expensive to implement on our own. Thanks to Asterisk, that’s not the case.

Asterisk offers the same functionality of a hardware PBX, for free… Below is a feature list from Asterisk.org (click on the image to visit the page)

Asterisk Features

Laying the groundwork

There are a lot of ways to set up Asterisk. The easiest and most efficient is by installing one of the pre compiled distributions. Of those, we recommend Asterisk Now because, while it’s not as flexible as home brew installations, it allows relatively inexperienced users to change the plumbing and create customization. It needs to be stressed that that you will be forced to operate in a predefined framework though.

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can always create your own from the source. When you go this route, you get a lot more control over the functionality and it’s actually not as hard as you might think (assuming you know basic command line).

When you install Asterisk from the source, it enables you the freedom of choosing your own Linux OS (we recommend Ubuntu) and then tweaking the installation for your environment and hardware to maximize performance.

Find full instructions on installing Asterisk from source here.

Parting thoughts

If you’re planning an Asterisk installation and need advice on securing the system, Ward Mundy has collected the most critical steps for locking down your installation. You’ll find further advice in the forums and wiki at the Asterisk.org website.

So while using Asterisk to commit phone fraud is no longer an issue, hackers (some of whom may be your employees, suppliers or business partners) often find ways to defraud using the system. Click here to download a Phone Bill Fraud Prevention Checklist from the Telecom Association.

AT&T and Verizon Alternatives

When the Bell System monopoly on telephone communication run by AT&T was broken into “Baby Bells,” also called Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) in 1982, the monopoly on phone service seemed to be at its end.

The original anti-trust action by the Department of Justice was initiated in 1972, but legal wrangling stalled the final breakup until 1982. Thirty plus years later, I often wonder whether the quality of service has improved.  A quick online scan shows throngs of unhappy customers’ voices have echoing across forums and consumer advocacy sites.

Freedom From Telecom Bullies

Verizon is the other major player in the space, selling its phone service under the FIOS brand.  They also bundle internet access and TV service and deliver it over a fiber network. Verizon was initially known as Bell Atlantic, one of the aforementioned RBOCs. In 2000 it merged with GTE and re-branded itself with the name we know today. Now, with millions of customers across the country, Verizon too has been inundated by hordes of unhappy customers who complain about phone service and virtually every other service Verizon offers.

Fortunately, the telecom landscape has evolved in recent years and now provides businesses many alternatives to those two incumbent phone companies. The VoIP revolution has transformed the industry, so I’d like to suggest a few companies that we feel comfortable recommending to business clientele looking for a change.



Here are our top picks:

ShoreTel

ShoreTel targets mid-sized and larger companies, generally those that need 25 or more phones. The ShoreTel Connect product is a VoIP system that can be run as a managed service from the cloud, or as a system with its own hardware and servers that you manage at your place of business. Or, if you have multiple locations, you can install Connect as a hybrid deployment where certain locations are managed in the cloud while others are managed on site. The product supports IM, VoIP, conferencing, web sharing and video. Its allows users to move from an IM to a phone call, to an online meeting then to a desktop share that can include video, all with a single click.

Ooma

Ooma began as a VoIP provider for residential customers, then expanded into business services with a clear customer demographic: small businesses that need 25 or fewer phones. Ooma works with any traditional phone (of the curly cord variety), eliminating the need to buy IP phones. You can easily set the system up to ring remote extensions off premises, including employee cell phones which is useful for sales, service and other workers who spend time outside the office. This short video leads you through the basic setup process.

Broadview Networks

Broadview Networks, discussed elsewhere on this blog, serves more than 200,000 users every day with its OfficeSuite cloud phone system. It provides not only excellent quality VoIP phone service; Broadview also lets you communicate with hi def video, web and audio conferencing, and toll-free service.

As network speeds increase and technology becomes more refined, the marketplace for VoIP continues to grow and become more relevant. Contact us with any additional questions you might have relating to finding a suitable alternative to the incumbent phone companies.

Product Review: Low Cost VoIP Phones for Remote Call Center Employees

The number of employees working from home continues to rise as the world becomes more and more interconnected.  Businesses are having a hard time ignoring the obvious cost savings and people working in call centers are among those who can enjoy some real benefit by transitioning from an office environment to their home. They no longer have to commute. They spend fewer dollars on gas and auto maintenance. They’ve got more free time after work. Most of all, people who work remotely tend to enjoy their work more than those corralled in an office.Scaling Call Center With Low Cost VOIP Solution

For instance, it can reduce office lease expense over the long term, and other expenses (utilities, office supplies, etc.) associated with people working from the office. It can let a company attract the talent it needs from any geographic location. It can increase productivity, save money and help retain that great talent.

But the question of how to connect those remote workers with day-to-day business needs some serious thought. If you’re using VoIP to connect with customers and employees, you’re already ahead of the curve. But how much do you need to spend to outfit your remote workers with a connection to your VoIP system?

Let’s take a look at two popular phones that work well on VoIP, but without the high cost of phones like the Cisco IP Phone that sets you back more than $1600 per employee.

Grandstream GXP2130 Enterprise IP Telephone

Grandstream GXP2130

If your remote workers need more than a single line, this desktop phone from Grandstream handles up to three lines. It can conference call with up to four parties and has a color LCD display and speakerphone. Its dual gigabit network ports, integrated Power over Ethernet (PoE) and nearly automatic provisioning make it a strong choice where multiple lines are needed. Grandstream has published a YouTube video here that discusses the GXP2130 and its sister products in the GXP lineup. A variety of headsets are available as accessories. Another plus is that this phone normally retails under $100.

Plantronics CT14

Plantronics CT14

The CT14 is a single-line cordless phone using DECT6.0 that lets your employee stand up and move around, up to 300 feet away from the base unit. The headset is comfortable: It can be worn over the ear or over the head. The dial pad gives the user volume control, a mute button and access to voicemail with one touch. The unit clips onto a belt or clothing, includes a dial pad and can be linked to an iOS or Android device.



The company claims the unit delivers up to 10 hours talk time, while the headset uses a noise canceling mic. The street price for this phone is under $100 and gives your team everything they need to manage calls.

Why Not Use a Soft Phone?

A soft phone is a piece of software that runs on a PC or IOS device. They tend to be much harder to use than a real phone. Here is a YouTube review  of one particular soft phone I’ve chosen at random that will give you a sense of why I say they tend to be less user friendly than a physical phone, especially in a high volume situation like a call center.

Learn More

Click here to learn about the options for low cost, cloud based phone solutions for small offices.  Also, we’ve worked with numerous VoIP phones and I’m glad to share my thoughts and recommendations, so feel free to reach out.

DECT 6.0 Helps You Get Rid of Business Phone System Wiring Nightmares

Whether you’re opening a new office and need phones, or planning to update your existing phone system, there’s a technology you need to know about that eliminates phone system wiring hassles and expense.DECT 6.0 Saving The Day From POTS

With only one phone jack in the entire office it lets you put four cordless phones in service with no need to run cabling, no need to install phone jacks at each desk, and no need for any servers or computers. It’s simple, reliable and economical. It’s called DECT 6.0.

Well, maybe I should clarify that last statement. If you’re still using POTS (the “plain old telephone system”, aka the monopoly phone company) you don’t need any computers or servers. But if you have moved (or are about to move) to VoIP, of course you’ll need a computer that connects you to the Internet.

So, what is DECT 6.0?

It stands for Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications. It’s an industry standard that defines how dial tone can be passed via radio signals to a cordless phone.  A DECT phone system comes with a base unit. It plugs into the phone jack that delivers dial tone into your office or building. When you make or receive a call, your cordless handset communicates by radio with the base unit. DECT phones are digital, not the analog cordless phones of years past.

How Does DECT Help You?

• The DECT cordless technology works whether your dial tone is delivered by a POTS phone line or a digital VoIP line. If you’re still using POTS but plan to upgrade to VoIP, your DECT phone will continue to serve you well
• DECT phones are cordless and convenient. Many can be used with headsets, giving you continuous communication no matter where in the office you may be
• If you’re currently running voice over your data network and do not have quality of service (QoS) technology installed, DECT will eliminate the dropped words, noise, static and distortion your phone system probably generates
• You can forget about the complexity of punch-down panels, wiring closets and cabling when you switch to DECT. It eliminates the costly nightmare of pulling phone cables through the walls and ceilings when you need a phone in a new location

Is DECT Right for You?

The original DECT 6.0 technology limits the number of cordless handsets to four. Subsequently, manufacturers (such as Spectralink) have extended the capability of DECT 6.0 using proprietary hardware to support more than 4,000 phones. However that’s a much more complex and expensive solution. I want to focus on the simplicity of DECT for small businesses in this article.



Clearly, a company with a boat load of inside sales reps dialing out or receiving calls all day isn’t a good prospect for a four-line DECT phone. Yet for millions of small businesses DECT makes the perfect phone system. Retailers, service companies (think lawn care, plumbers, electricians, contractors, medical and dental offices) and others who rely primarily on face-to-face contact with customers rather than phone contact, are ideal candidates for DECT.

DECT phones have been available in the U.S. since 2005.  Manufacturers competing for market share have differentiated their products and added important features. For instance, you can buy DECT phones with Bluetooth to link with one or more cell phones, allowing you to make or receive cell phone calls at your cordless handset. If you’d like to learn more, check in at Cordless-Phone-Update.com for their summary of phones and the overall DECT marketplace.

How To Find An Inexpensive Cloud Based Phone Solution For Your Small Office

For around 15 years, hosted VOIP providers have been telling business owners that they can save money by abandoning their high priced phone service for a cloud based solution.  Initially, that idea was great in theory while real life played a different tune, as features (like hold music, intercoms and wireless handsets)  that everyone was accustomed to weren’t available through VOIP phone systems.

Cheap VOIP Phone GraphicThankfully, steady improvements to the technology have dissipated the usability concerns.  In my most recent conversations with small and mid-sized businesses about phone service, most of them have great things to say about their hosted VoIP systems. They’re sold on the convenience of having services off site with one low monthly fee, as well as saving the time and cost of server maintenance, upgrades, backups and other busywork. Some also talk about feeling in control of their telecom budget as opposed to dealing with the costly monopoly phone company.

Those who are still evaluating a move to VoIP running in the cloud often ask about the phone handsets and accessories they’ll need. What features do they have? Does a certain phone system offer cordless handsets? Intercom? Speakerphone?

Then too, even though broadband is ubiquitous, others raise concerns about the bandwidth they’ll need to accommodate all their usual WAN traffic and still obtain good quality VoIP calls. Fortunately, there are a number of calculators that quickly show the bandwidth VoIP requires.

The Erlang B Calculator is online and free to use if you’re analyzing how much bandwidth “x” simultaneous voice calls require. For small and mid-sized businesses with 5 to twenty lines, the calculator advises you’ll use 400 kbps for 5 calls and 1,600 kbps for twenty using the G.711 codec.

What Are My Options?

You can find inexpensive VoIP phones in a number of form factors.  Here are some examples:

Desktop Phones

Desktop Phone Example
Desktop phones look much like a conventional multi-line office phone. Many, like the Grandstream GPX 2130, include a color LCD screen, 3 line capacity and conference calling with up to 4 participants

Integrated Handset Phones
Integrated Handset Example
Integrated handset phones like the Grandstream GS-DP715 sit in a base unit that provides power and a connection to your router. The handset can be used as a cordless phone and includes speakerphone functionality

USB Phones
USB Phone Example
USB phones plug directly into the USB port on a PC and are single line phones, such as the Plantronics Calisto P240

VoIP phones range in price from under $60 like those mentioned above, or can run up to a few hundred dollars for premium phones with 12 line capacity from Cisco, Panasonic and others.

However, choosing, installing and configuring a cloud-based VoIP phone system reveals an alphabet soup of acronyms—DHCP, VLANs, PoE, SPCP, SIP, G.722—to name a few. If you’re not experienced with the many tech considerations involved, you’ll be better off contacting an experienced VoIP phone expert.

 


With all the configuration options and technical requirements, buying a phone and trying to install it yourself is likely to be difficult and time-consuming, at best.

Perhaps last, quality of service (QoS) is a feature of your routers and other network devices between your phone and your broadband connection. QoS as it pertains to VoIP requires support through your entire network, including NIC cards, switches, bridges and routers. If any device along the data path does not support QoS, your VoIP traffic is handled on a first-come, first-served basis. Without QoS, achieving acceptable call quality is unlikely.