Avoiding Problems With Business Use of VOIP

The latest research from Illume Consulting puts the current number of users at 1.4 million.  This is up 8%, at the same time sales of premised based phone systems (PBX) are declining with many companies considering a change to a cloud based or VOIP telephone system.

VOIP can be a good solution for many businesses – as long as you avoid the pitfalls.  Dave Millett of independent telecoms brokers Equinox (www.equinoxcomms.co.uk) highlights some of the key questions you should ask potential suppliers including the ones they don’t want you to raise.
Is the Supplier part of the Telecoms Ombudsman scheme?
It shows they are sufficiently confident to accept independent binding arbitration. See: www.ombudsman-services.org/communications.html

They may say they are part of ITSPA (www.itspa.org.uk).  ITSPA is a trade body, not a regulator, and does not offer the same protection.
What is the system built on?
Ideally it should be built on larger carrier grade platforms such as Broadsoft, Nortel CS2K (aka Genband), Mitel, or Cisco HCS.  Many Asterix based-platforms struggle to scale and there can be difficulties if you wish to change supplier or the supplier goes out of business.

How many locations do they have their core software installed on? If only one location then that creates a vulnerability; if it goes down then your business has no phones.

Where their switch is hosted? It is important that is in the EU to comply with data protection act legislation.  Also the further away from the UK, the greater the potential there is for delay on a call.
Does any of the call traffic go over the public or private Internet?
If it goes over the public Internet it can affect call quality; private is better.  Ask how regularly they measure the latency and package loss of the connection.   Also what codec do they use for the call traffic; G711 is a better answer than G729 as it is uncompressed and gives better quality but needs more bandwidth.

As a guide, unless you have a fibre broadband or higher spec connectivity such as EFM, you should not consider using the same broadband connection for voice and data once you get above three users.
What do they see as the benefits of VOIP over PBXs
VOIP can offer many advantages over PBXs but free intra site calls, business continuity, cheaper calls, number retention, and absence of capital expenditure outlay have all been countered with SIP and attractive credit terms.   Be wary of companies using those arguments.   Those that focus on ease of deployment, flexibility and scalability better understand how VOIP fits into the current marketplace.
Do they issue their own new numbers?
Does the company issue their own numbers or do they have to source them from another operator? This can impact porting in the future.

You can check who issued your numbers: www.telecom-tariffs.co.uk/codelook.htm

If in London, do they have access to new 0207 and 0208 numbers or do they just have 0203 numbers?
How many users do they have?
As a guide, the larger suppliers have in excess of 15,000 users – asking this question will give you a rough guide to their levels of success.
Are they the supplier or are they reselling someone else’s solution?
It is always better to have a direct contract with the supplier as there are fewer steps in the support process should problems arise; customers can become victims of people passing the buck.
What phones will be supplied?
Most larger suppliers have standardised around Cisco, Polycom and Mitel as these offer better call quality and reliability. We have seen examples of smaller companies supplying end of life phones, which could make replacement difficult if they break.
What are the call rates?
As a guide, UK landlines should be <1p per minute, UK mobiles should be <6p per minute. There should be no minimum charges, no call set up fees, and calls should be billed per second.

Also ask who carries the call traffic; some providers quote very low rates but may be using lower quality carriers particularly on international destinations.
What is the length of the contract?
Generally we don’t advise signing for more than 12 months unless there is a significant financial advantage. Some companies offer to rent or lease handsets if you take out a three-year deal. If you go for this option check you can change suppliers and reuse handsets with another supplier.
Can I alter the number of licences?
Knowing you can turn some licences off if needed could be important.  Some suppliers who work with seasonal organisations, such as schools, let them have inactive periods as part of the agreement.
What does the web portal look like?
A key part of a VOIP is the web portal through which you can make changes such as call flows etc.   We would therefore recommend asking for a demo of their portal.

In addition, as with any telecoms contract, always make sure you have checked the cancellation notice period and the penalties you would pay for early cancellation.  VOIP is an attractive solution and can be right for many businesses.  But as with any major investment it pays to ask the right questions before investing.  And remember that the cheapest solution may not be the best decision in the long term.