Business Phones in the 21st Century

Now that we are trying to setup our Seattle suboffice, we have a chance to do things a bit different. In our original office setup 8 years ago, we went safe. We have:

* An inhouse PBX called Intersat or something like that and have T-1s that connect to it and another T-1 for data.
* The phones are analog and we have voicemail, but in truth, I think for professionals, 99% of the calls are actually on mobile phones, no one uses voice mail and I personally haven’t used my phone for outbound calling in three years.
* We do use Polycoms for conferencing quite a bit and that’s the main reason to use a desk phone although Blackberry’s are great small conferencers (iPhones are not).
* The administrative staff is different, although we have direct dial in lines for everyone, no one uses them, instead, the main thing is the main number and making sure it rings to autoattendent and so that the receptionist can pick up. Ideally, it would ring at all the admin desks in case the receptionist isn’t there.
* We have one of those gigantic mopiers with a fax, scanner, printer and so forth from Ricoh that is networked

So what happens in the modern world? Well, the first thing is to:

* Cell phones for professionals and a Polycom bluetooth speaker phone. These are highly personal devices as are the phone numbers. Since no one expects a company to have numbers that are consecutive, it makes sense to do like the Chinese, just put the main number on your business card and then put your mobile number for everything else. Get everyone to big minute plans. AT&T now has $100 all-you-can-eat voice plans per month and $50 all-you-can-eat-data for Blackberry and $20 all-you-can-eat for iPhones. Seems like a good choice. Actually, for me what works better is a $100 2100 minute per month with free mobile-to-mobile (40% of my calls are to my partners who are also on AT&T) and then I can hang an iPhone off of that plan for a mere $10/month and share the bucket. The voicemail is free, so we don’t need that.
* In each professionals private office, they would get a polycom of some sort so they could do conferencing so this would have an outbound number only and a way to dump a cell phone call to the conference phone. There is a Polycom that apparently knows how to use a cell phone for the call. We need to test that to see if it works.
* For professionals in cubicles, they don’t need a polycom, but need some sort of high quality mini-Polycom again so they can do conference calls. We give associates a new Blackberry or iPhone with a number. If they have a phone already, they can just forward the number over. We need to see how caller id works in that case, but mainly I’m pretty sure most folks will want to merge business and personal phones. When an associate leaves though, we keep the business phone number and phone so we can give to the next person. It’s an easy way to assure continuity. So don’t give out personal numbers, but give out the business number and it rings to a phone we supply or it is forwarded to their personal phone.
* Conference rooms. These should have polycoms (or something of similarly high quality) and they should have their own phone number so people can dial in directly and a way to dial out. You don’t want to depend on a cell phone for that, so these are ideally SIP Polycoms.
* Receptionist and main number. You do need a main number. The ideal thing would be to have a phantom system where it just rings all the admin and receptionist phones. Personally, I don’t think you really and extension dialing, since the only calls we get that way are really salesman or over the transom soliciters, so if you don’t know a professionals mobile number, then you are SOL. So one main phone number that should ring to a bunch of phones. Ideally, there is a receptionist mobile phone, the desk phone for the receptionist and then to all the administrative numbers during business hours. Out of business hours, dump it all to voice mail.
* Fax lines. We need one fax input which is really an ATA (analog telephone adapter) which you hook up to the mopier like the HP 9500 for instance. This thing can convert a fax into email which is the way it should really work or it can just print. That means there has to be a real fax number two (so just two numbers for the whole business).
* Administrative folks. Same plan I think as above, give them a cell phone ideally a Blackberry or something that does email. The only difference is that they have to be able to pick up the main number. Most of these folks would also get a deskphone that is SIP mainly because admins in the US seemed used to having a desk phone. If you think about it really makes no sense if they have a mobile for that. We do the same things as associate, people get a phone number that stays with the job rather than with the person. Same drill, you either carry that business phone around or you forward it over to your personal phone.
* Conference call numbers. We should assign everyone their own dedicated conference call number so we don’t keep swapping them around. They are quite cheap now. But we need to reshop for these as prices are really falling.

Given this, its pretty clear, we need a few things:

h2. PBX

Some sort of IP PBX that is either hosted or where we have our own hardware. Internet Telephony had two 2007 winners for hardware which is

* “3Com VCX Connect 100 IP Communications Platform”:http://www.3com.com/products/en_US/detail.jsp?tab=register&sku=3CRC100A which is a classic rack mounted chassis PBX with voice mail and all the other features. You hook it to a the phone LAN (hopefully, you put all the SIP phones on a separate LAN/Wifi network as an easy way to solve traffic issues) and then you connect it on the other end to XO which has a SIP trunk that takes all the voice traffic out. This thing is expensive at $6K according to “pricegrabber”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getoffers.php?keyword=3Com%203CRC100AUS&search=3com%20vcx%20connect%20100 and might be a little much.
* “EdgeBOX Office”:http://edgebox.net. This is really overkill, it is a server that does file server, PBX and just about everything else. There is a model which if bare CLK-EBAP-WF-40 that seems about right, you handle everything as SIP. Underneath it uses open source Asterisk. “Junction Networks”:http://www.junctionnetworks.com/blog/2008/03/04/connecting-to-the-pstn-gateway-via-edgebox/ has a good review.
* “3Cx IP Phone System”:http://3cx.com. This is software only and there is even a free version that runs on any Windows machine. Kind of cool.
* “Asterisk”:http://asterisk.org. Finally there is the open source project itself, you can actually compile it on a MacBook and run your whole phone system yourself on there if you really want to be a hacker. Not really recommended, but it is way cheaper.

h2. Hosted PBX

There are lots of “bad”:http://www.voipreview.org/Business_Telephone_Systems/compare_business_voip_providers.aspx?zip=98101&features=1,130,30,16,113&country=1&users=10&featuresbiz=0&pg=1 reviews of voip providers that you can see. For instance, Packet8 gets absolutely slammed as do most of the services listed here.

* “Panterra”:http://www.voipreview.org/Business_Telephone_Systems/Panterra%20Networks_reviews_ratings.aspx?users=10 is just about the only decent one I see, but again, it adds a second vendor on top of your ISP to work with.
* “XO SIP”:http://xo.com/smb/voip/Pages/sip.aspx since we are using XO as our underlying provider, then maybe their hosted SIP solution makes some sense. You get analog lines (technically called FXS lines for fax), you get auto attendent and it is bandwidth priced.
* “Speakeasy”:http://speakeasy.net. If we hadn’t signed the XO contract, I would have probably gotten Speakeasy as they are local here and they seemed to have a pretty good service model at least before Best Buy acquired them. They also have a IP PBX offering.

My personal bet right now is to sign up for the XO service and try the Asterisk on the Mac for fun.

h2. Hardware

Well there are lots of choices in IP phone hardware and most are so completely over engineered with buttons that I can’t see anyone ever using them. Frankly, I’d rather everyone just use an iPhone and Blackberry most of the time as the cellular guys networks are more reliable anyway and most folks know how to conference and so forth and caller id works really well. But, since we have to buy something:

* Blackberry. Its still the enterprise choice mainly because we use Exchange and we need it particularly for group calendaring. Also it seems to be the only choice that really knows how to deal with 7,000 contacts without blowing up and the one that knows how to handle long phone numbers (conferencing).
* iPhone. These I really don’t recommend until the 3G version and enterprise integration ships in June. They are fun toys now, but sync of calendars is really broken. I am also praying that one day an iPhone will know how to “wait” and handle things like “pause” in dialing. Right now I can’t autodial conference numbers which is incredibly frustrating.
* “Polycom”:http://polycom.com. Amazingly on the Internet, there don’t seem to be any reviews of these conference call boxes so we will have to try things. The appropriate “small-medium”:http://polycom.com/usa/en/products/voice/small_medium_conference_room/small_medium_conference_room.html models seems to be the “SoundStation IP 4000”:http://polycom.com/usa/en/products/voice/small_medium_conference_room/soundstation_ip4000.html which is SIP based and has a nice LCD screen for the conference rooms and the “SoundStation 2w”:http://polycom.com/usa/en/products/voice/small_medium_conference_room/soundstation2w.html which is a little bit of a hack. It is analog on backend, but if you use a wire, you can plug your headset jack into it and then use it like a speakerphone. Unfortunately, the jack is 2.5mm so it won’t plug directly into an iPhone or a Blackberry which both use 3.5mm. It is also wireless so you don’t need some ugly wires hanging out to the Polycom which is very neat, but it is on 2.4GHz, so will create interference with your Wifi. You also need an ATA since it is analog (on the other hand, it will work on old lines too which is nice).

As an aside, “configuring” a SIP phone is indeed a mess compared with analog. There is a special boot server, so when the phone comes up, you actually have to edit the menus or modify your DHCP server to tell it where to get the configuration file that tells it what is its name and so forth. That means you have to know the Mac IDs of every SIP phone. Doesn’t that sound like fun? That’s because unlike analog phones where each wire is known, in SIP, you are on the Internet, so you have no idea what the devices are. I need to buy a 4000 and see how the defaults work. Makes it more important to have a vendor to install and configure these phones as well.

As an aside, “Speakeasy”:http://speakeasy.net/business/voip/hardware.php has a much clearer web site than XO and they support the Polycom SoundStatio IP 4000. I hope we don’t regret signing that long contract with XO! One nice thing that Speakeasy has is that the receptionist big phone is just a software application so you don’t have to buy a fancy phone, just use the PC that is already there.