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VoIP Convergence

Vonage In Print News

Equipment Resellers

September 20, 2004

By Erika D. Smith


It's the latest buzz word in almost every industry.

It sounds good. (Using words with three or more syllables can make people seem intelligent.) It feels good to say. (``We're a company that's moving toward convergence'' -- kind of like, ``We're a solutions-oriented business.'' Pun intended.)

But in truth, few employers actually know what convergence means, what its benefits are or what it takes to achieve it. Adopting Internet telephone service may be the first step to figuring that out.

In the simplest terms, voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is an alternative to conventional phone service. It works by turning voice calls into data packets and sending them over the Web. When the packets approach their destination, they are reassembled and delivered in the form of a traditional call.

For companies, Voip eliminates the need for separate voice and data networks. Your company's communications infrastructure can be converged, saving money on everything from voicemail to long distance and creating new features like unified messaging and remote calling.

``Some of the things you only dreamed about as a small company you can do with VoIP,'' said Jim Puchbauer, marketing director for Voip equipment provider AltiGen Communications.

The sound quality of a Voip call is almost indistinguishable from that of a conventional call. Voip phones don't look that much different from regular phones. Neither does the back-office equipment that most employees never see. Voip phones can even ring regular phones, and vice versa.

There are some drawbacks to the technology, but not many.

If you choose to upgrade in stages, it can be difficult to integrate your old phone system with VoIP. And if you go with an equipment supplier, such as AltiGen, instead of a Voip service provider, such as AT&T, you'll still have to pay a provider such as SBC for a dial tone.

Those are minor issues to Jay Frameli, telecom manager for Medina General Hospital.

Its AltiGen-made Voip system is saving the hospital ``oodles'' of money, especially in its call center. Features that Medina Generalhad to pay for, such as call routing, caller ID and auto-attendant support, come standard with VoIP.

Plus, he said it's less time consuming to add extensions or track down a problem from a Windows-based PC, than to do it the old-fashioned way on a conventional phone system.

``It will pay for itself within its depreciable life,'' Frameli said. ``You can't say that about many things.''

Equipment resellers

AltiGen Communications, based in Fremont, Calif., does Voip a bit differently than some business owners might expect.

It's a manufacturer and hawks equipment through resellers nationwide to install a Voip system. That includes IP phones and private branch exchanges (PBXs), or hubs used to share a certain number of outside lines.

AltiGen doesn't do anything else. But even that can give companies new functionality.

Voip means your phone system will be plugged into your company's computer network. Any call made on an IP phone linked to that network will be treated as data, shuffled across the Internet the same way as e-mail.

That means, if your company has offices in Akron, Amsterdam and Los Angeles that share the same computer network, employees can call each other like they're in the same office. No dialing 1 plus the area or country code. Just an extension.

Furthermore, IP phones ``remember'' the phone number assigned to it. If your number, is 330-555-5555, for instance, you can unplug the phone in Akron and plug it back in Italy, and it will use the same number.

There's no long distance.

``Our best customer is a multisite customer,'' Puchbauer said.

Because of the network connection, employees also can do some pretty sophisticated call routing over the Internet.

If you only want to talk to your husband and boss, for instance, you can specify that online and route everybody else to voicemail. Or, you can make the system read e-mail to you over the phone because it's linked to the company's network. (Convergence, remember?)

IP phones aren't necessary to communicate in a company using VoIP. Analog-to-digital converters are available. However, companies should buy them to take advantage of VoIP's features.

IP phones range from $200 to $1,000. But be warned, not all models are compatible with all Voip systems. Those standards are being developed now.

For the other equipment, AltiGen charges $500 to $1,000 per user.

Other companies may charge much less or much more. The prices are all over the place for Voip because the technology is so new and so unregulated.

In the current free-for-all, vendors such as Level 3 and AT&T are trying to attract companies looking for an easier way into VoIP.

Both offer hosted services, meaning maintenance and upgrades get handled by them instead of by your IT department.

This is something to consider if your IT specialists already have too much on their plate. Time and money can be saved.

``In terms of total cost of ownership, hosted service wins big time,'' said Michael Ballard, a sales specialist for Amos Data Systems Inc. The Akron company is retail partner for Level 3's (3)Tone Voip service.

``You end up with a similar product,'' Gary Amos, president of Amos Data, said of companies like AltiGen, ``but you have to (maintain) it.''

Hosted services also provide virus protection so your company doesn't have to. Yes, Voip is vulnerable to online scum like everything else on your network.

Electricity is another issue because Voip doesn't work without it. (Conventional phones in a corporation don't either.) Instead of getting an on-site uninterruptable power supply, hosted services provide all the infrastructure at their headquarters.

Unlike AltiGen, Level 3 and AT&T charge by the month.

A basic plan for (3)Tone ranges from $22 to $19 a month per seat. The plus plan, which has additional features, such as e-mail synchronization and conferencing, ranges from $30 to $27 a month. There's also a $15 activation fee for each extension.

Spokesman Mike Pruyn said AT&T's rate plans vary widely based on a company's size and therefore he couldn't cite figures.

``VoIP is being used by companies of all sizes and various industries, too,'' he said.

Vonage, the industry leader on the residential side of VoIP, recently started courting small businesses.

Companies with fewer than 100 employees can get unlimited calling within the United States and Canada for $50 a month.

``International rates are dirt cheap,'' said Louis Holder, executive vice president of product development.

Overall, Holder and others said companies can cut costs by 40 percent by switching to VoIP. That's likely to grow as more people switch to that form of communication because network-to-network calls are cheaper to connect.

``There's a question in the long run of how long are we going to have dial tone service,'' Amos said.

If at all possible, he advises jumping on the Voip bandwagon now.

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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See for details.

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