Shortly after the opening credits of the film Tomorrow Never Dies, James Bond received a cell phone from the Q Branch of the British Secret Service. The phone was able to transmit incoming and outgoing calls, of course, but it also was able to scan, analyze and transmit fingerprints. And pick locks with a stylized antenna. And fire away as a stun gun.
Not bad for 1997.
A little more than 13 years later, there is nothing that lethal anywhere in the world of telecommunications. There are, however, plenty of developments, especially regarding Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, that might make you feel a little bit like 007. And cut a chunk of money from your monthly expenses.
Developed in earnest during the first Internet boom of the early 1990s, VoIP utilizes the Internet to make inexpensive, if not free, phone calls to just about any number around the world. All you need is a computer, broadband Internet access and a voice on the other end of the digital line. For years, media and industry experts trumpeted VoIP as the next big thing, but the Internet capabilities lagged behind the technology, leading to garbled conversations and snowfalls of static.
With the rise of faster and more efficient Internet access during much of the last decade, VoIP increased in scope and performance. Dartmouth University installed a network across its campus in 2003. Oprah stumped for a popular VoIP service last year. Even the government is starting to take advantage of the new technology, with the Social Security Administration in the process of converting to a VoIP network at its more than 1,500 field offices.
All of that means VoIP is not the next big thing. It is the now big thing.
“The entire industry has gone beyond the experimentation phase,” says Tom LoFrisco, executive director of business product management, AT&T. “Carriers, manufacturers, everyone is headed in the direction where they will be able to supply Voice over IP.
“It’s decided. It’s a business standard.”
Make technology work for you
Just what makes VoIP so special is what it is able to do for you, for your business, for telecommunications as you know it.
There are the audio and video calls, yes, available for either nothing or next to nothing on a number of popular Web sites. But if you choose to rely on those sites and the public Internet to run your business, industry experts say, you will leave yourself susceptible to many of the problems common to insecure data networks, including hackers, spyware, malware and any number of viruses.
A better option might be to install a VoIP network through a larger carrier, to ensure that your voice and data will be secure. The cost to install a new network is high – normally between $20,000 and $30,000 for businesses with 50 or so lines, though quotes and actual costs vary from case to case – but the savings can add up thanks to the 20 to 30 percent most industry experts say you can save on your monthly bill. And besides, you will have plenty more tools, the kinds once thought limited to secret agents, to enhance how you do business.
“There are just a slew of new features that existing networks don’t have,” LoFrisco says. “There’s Find Me Follow Me, where calls can ring your different assigned handsets simultaneously. There’s integration with other voice applications. And the key is that most of those features can be provisioned and managed at the user level.”
Many of the features provided by larger carriers have been available for more than a decade, but at a far higher price. As recently as a couple of years ago, only Fortune 500 companies and the like were able to afford IP features, including unified messaging, where your voice mails are converted to text and arrive seamlessly with your e-mails, and secure access to the company network for employees working anywhere in the world.
“For me, personally, the biggest benefit is probably unified communications, where I have access to my e-mail and voicemail wherever I am, whether it’s on my phone, on my Blackberry, on my PC, I’m always connected,” says Tim Hinson, vice president of Cox Business, Orange County. “The unified communications, and the speed of the unified communications as compare to what it was when it initially came out, is probably the biggest time saver for me and the biggest tool that I use. I think companies have benefited from everybody’s improved productivity.”
Your employees can even work from home with the same equipment, technology and access available to them at the office. Just hand them a VoIP phone, tell them to take it home and plug it in, and they will be able to work, and sound, as if they are at their desk. This feature is ideal for call centers and companies that offer 24-hour service because it opens the door to hire remote workers across the nation and around the world. It will also benefit employers who might want to decrease the size of their office and the amount of their rent but maintain the size of their workforce, or smaller companies that want to appear bigger to customers.
“VoIP phones are able to take advantage of a lot of newer features that were either not available or were very expensive in a TDM phone environment,” Hinson says.
Think about the future
Though VoIP networks might smack initially of some sort of futuristic technology that will be difficult to install and more difficult to understand, it will likely be an easier transition than rotary to touchtone or analog to digital. You might not even need to install new phones or schedule much time, if any, to train employees how to maximize the new features.
“Nothing’s ever simple, but the way the process works is, when you come aboard, there is some level of knowledge you need to have in order to learn, and you need to be willing to learn,” says Rich Klepacz, senior product manager for core voice and broadband services, Cbeyond. “For the most part, it is fairly simple. Once it’s turned on, it’s almost a matter of plug and play.”
If you can figure out how to use your remote control to flip channels, record your favorite shows and insert a DVD with the push of three buttons, you will probably be able to figure out a few additional features on your phone, especially if they help you run your business more efficiently.
Of course, a VoIP network might not be necessary for all businesses. If you have only one office and a handful of employees who never work in the field, if you receive far more calls than you send, or if you want to install the newest technology just to say that you have it, you probably have little need for VoIP. But if you have offices in multiple cities, even multiple states, to tie together with one network, or if you have any employees out in the field, a VoIP network might be a sound investment.
“Over the years, I’ve seen that the small business owner is becoming a lot more technically savvy,” Klepacz says. “They really are becoming smarter users.”