Is TC ready for business VoIP?

Unless you've been living in a tent on Manitou Island you have certainly heard the term "Voice over IP". I'm sure you have seen those funny Vonage commercials featuring people in embarrassing accidents and that annoying tune you can't get out of your head. You may have tried one of those free VoIP services on your computer, switched your home phone to take advantage of a low cost unlimited plan or even work for a company that has made the investment in VoIP.

But the majority of discussions usually raise more questions than answers. The most popular question from the business community is "can I get a low cost VoIP calling plan with the voice quality that I am used to with my plain old telephone service?"

Low cost VoIP plans are available for businesses but the challenge is providing high voice quality on EVERY call. Without getting into a lengthy education on TCP/IP, VLANs, packet switching, router technologies and different voice compression codecs, I will try to offer some insight about bandwidth and equipment. These items are always on top of the list when it comes to factors that affect voice quality.

Bandwidth – Your Internet connection is typically the most influential piece of the VoIP puzzle. Dedicated T1 circuits from a Tier 1 carrier with QoS (quality of service) are the preferred option. Large corporations in metropolitan areas have been using this technology for years to connect complex data networks and are better prepared to add VoIP to their existing infrastructure. But the monthly IT budget for most northern Michigan businesses I speak with is usually smaller than the lease payment for that shinny new hybrid vehicle you've been looking at.

Broadband Internet (cable, DSL and wireless) offers a reasonable cost solution that we are happy with most of the time. It allows us to surf the web faster then ever, send and receive email and connect small offices together to share data. The main issue is that it is a "shared" connection and the speed is greatly affected by how many users are on the same segment and if they are just sitting idle or downloading the latest Harry Potter movie. I haven't even touched upon QoS which can improve voice quality by prioritizing traffic, but this also drives up monthly cost.

I have worked with many companies that successfully use broadband Internet for one or two simultaneous VoIP conversations, but the sweet spot we are looking for is the business with 3-15 voice lines.

Equipment – VoIP equipment is responsible for taking the sound of your voice and converting it into data packets that it can be transferred over the Internet. The latest hardware from a major VoIP manufacture sounds much better and offers more features than your standard two-line telephone connected to a simple conversion box. Cost is also the barrier here and again we are looking for a solution that allows us to either connect an existing PBX or install a new VoIP system that doesn't require a team of engineers from San Jose, Calif. to configure it. Just like all other new technologies, we constantly see lower cost, high-quality products that are easier to install come out every day.

Is Traverse City ready for business VoIP? Yes…but make sure you get advice from experienced professionals and ask for local references. New applications that integrate voice and data together will allow us to work more efficiently, saving money indirectly. Also within the last 18 months, most telecom carriers have come up with a "dedicated T1" VoIP solution that includes high speed Internet and voice. This service is easy to install, connects to your existing PBX and can save money with as little as four voice lines. Keep your eyes open, the benefits of running voice over data networks are so compelling that every company is pushing hard to find a solution we can all afford.

John Sohacki has over 20 years of experience engineering data and telecom networks for large companies in Detroit and Grand Rapids. He is the hardware sales manager at Anavon Communications, a telecom solutions provider located here in Traverse City.