Our company has been using Voice Over IP phone systems for many years. We were lured by promises of convenience and mobility.
Indeed, we love that we can get work calls while out of the office on business – or even pleasure for that matter, that our remote employees can all use the same phone system, that we can check our call history online, and that we can forward calls based on various options. These would all be great features if they were fail safe but, unfortunately, they’re not.
Voice Over IP Pricing
We have used three or four different VoIP companies, including Ring Central, Vonage, and Skype.
RingCentral had maximum minutes per line each month and would cut us off in the middle of calls with customers, simultaneously turning off our 800 number when the monthly budget ran out unexpectedly.
Vonage doesn’t handle forwarding calls as well as Ring Central did but the service is a little cheaper, not that that is why we switched. We did a little research and then took a stab at the service, pricing being less of an issue than features and functionality.
Skype doesn’t really have any features at all and their website is horrible but they have turned out to be a cheap solution to one of the problems we have had with Vonage, namely, that our call quality sucks. Skype isn’t a stand-alone solution for businesses as they don’t offer 800 numbers, line transfers, or anything really, but international calling is free and it works for us as a softphone (I’ll explain what that is in a minute).
Complexity of Interface and Features
Most services we’ve used have complicated online interfaces that require spending hours with tech support just to get the system setup correctly. After that, if you didn’t take notes on the configuration, you’d have to call back and start from the drawing board just to make a simple change. (I created a document on our Vonage configuration because I were to die, my co-workers would have no idea what’s going on with the phones!) While we were shopping around, we spent hours on the phone with customer service just to see if the system could accommodate our needs. Once, we had to cancel service after just two weeks because it wasn’t up to par. What a waste of time!
Softphones and Answering
Vonage, one of the services we’ve used, requires some kind of a softphone to answer calls from anywhere. You can use theirs (which didn’t work very well for us) or a third party softphone app like Bria. Bria itself requires configuration so that’s more time with tech support. We had problems with Bria since day one and finally had to look for another solution due to issues with background buzzing. We found Skype works as an online phone but doesn’t have the features of a traditional softphone. It works better than Bria but randomly doesn’t send calls to one or other of our tech support crew. Problems persist.
Sound Quality and Internet Connection
Our biggest issue with all of the solutions we’ve used has been sound quality and reliability. The simple fact that your phone call and quality is reliant upon your internet connection is, frequently, itself a disaster. It has been my experience through all of this that most internet connections fluctuate. Unless you are downloading files constantly, playing games over the internet, or doing some other real-time upload or download, you almost certainly wouldn’t notice the fluctuations. Movies and videos buffer so even with that you probably wouldn’t see these hiccups. But with VOIP there is no buffer. The system converts your analogue voice, encodes it digitally in real-time, and delivers it to the listener at the other end. If there is even a millisecond of interruption the listener will hear it.
It’s kind of like a cell phone except, these days, most cell phone reception is pretty good. You have to be in an area with bad coverage or under a bridge to cut out. With VOIP it can happen sitting at your desk at any random time. Using bandwidth-heavy programs like screen sharing, for example, also greatly affects line quality.
Is it the VOIP system or your Internet?
To verify there is an issue with the internet, I’d do this:
- Open up a Command Prompt window
- Enter: ping google.com -t
This brings up a window that shows how fast you’re pinging (or talking to) Google. I use Google because I know Google is fast. So I can be relatively certain that any fluctuations are issues with my own internet connection, rather than that which I am trying to ping.
What you see in the window is a continuous stream of data. I’m interested in the ‘time’. Zero to 50 milliseconds is great. Under 100 is good. When you start getting up to 1000 you’re almost certainly going to have issues with your phone system.
By issues, I mean the sound of some kind of digital interference. This sounds a little different from a cell phone cutting out. You don’t really hear static but the voice becomes choppy and distorted.
Does the VOIP provider matter?
Now, over the years, I have noticed that some connections are better than others. Comcast has pretty much given our entire company problems (but as the worst company in America, what would you expect?). Switching providers made a smidgen of a difference. But what has proven to provide total connectivity superiority is my personal AT&T hotspot. Who would have thought! I have an excellent connection without fail on my hotspot while with any DSL or cable internet there is some kind of problem. With Comcast, it was pretty regular dips in speed, which meant regular sound quality issues. DSL had the same problem. With the radio internet connection I use now (a satellite talks to an antenna using radio waves), my connection is faster and more consistent, but on occasion quits altogether, which means calls are dropped entirely.
All of what I am explaining generally occurs when we are using an internet phone. When we forward calls to a land line we don’t typically have sound quality.
So, the bottom line for Voice Over IP is that if you don’t have a killer internet connection, you will experience major problems unless you forward to a cell phone, landline, or Skype over 4g. They are all very complex and several are expensive. If you don’t use a softphone, you can’t do things like transfer calls put the customer on hold with hold music. Overall, it’s been a difficult experience using VIOP and we still don’t have the perfect system for our needs. We occasionally entertain the idea of finding a new system, but who wants to spend 10 more hours hunting, setting up, troubleshooting, etc.? We’ll just stick with the one we have found that gives us the least problems.