Is it time to look for a new solution to your telecommunications requirements? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Is it time to look for a new solution to your telecommunications requirements?

ADAM BERNSTEIN reviews the options available for updating your telephone system or changing your telecoms provider

IT wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted a
telephone you had no choice but the GPO and its
successor, BT.

But since 1984, UK
telecommunications have been
opened to competition and in recent
years the combination of
technological development and
deregulation has made choosing your
communications solution a very
complex, if not impenetrable, task.
Indeed, we are now served with
technologies that include fixed line
phone, mobiles and internet
telephony.

So if you do want to update your
technology to one that costs less to
run, or even change telecoms
provider, where do you start?

Fixed lines

Starting at first base, a simple fixed
analogue line with an accompanying broadband
connection is a business essential. For a premises or
business-wide implementation you will require a
private branch exchange (PBX) system, which is, in
effect, your own private telephone exchange to
control and route calls around the business and to and
from the outside.

Very basic products start at £1301 and will serve
two BT exchange lines with six extensions, but more complex systems can reach into tens of thousands of
pounds, especially if you want niceties such as
voicemail, music on hold or call diversion.

But your fixed lines don’t have to
be rented from BT. It’s true that the
physical line is still provided and
maintained by BT, unless you’re on
cable, but you can source the line
rental from firms other than BT and
at lower rates too.

Utility Options, for example,
charges £32.91(plus VAT) for a
standard business phone line per
quarter, which compares favourably
to BT which charges £43.35 (plus
VAT) per quarter.

IP telephony

Consider IP telephony, the global
term for telephony that combines a
standard analogue telephone line and the internet. Here you have, as an
example, a fixed line for outside calls, but internally you may have, say, six IP phones that connect to the
business’s internal computer network which in turn
connects to your fixed line via broadband.

IP telephony uses “Voice over the Internet
Protocol”, or VoIP for short, as a method of
converting speech into data – you may have come
across this in the form of Skype. Now whilst a
standard BT phone can only handle one call per line,
VoIP uses the internet and your broadband
connection to handle several simultaneous calls at any
one time, assuming your broadband is fast enough.

The beauty of this system is that if it’s a VoIP to VoIP call, it’ll be free. But even if it’s not VoIP to
VoIP, but VoIP to standard landline, it may well cost
less than a BT made phone call, especially if it’s to an
international or mobile number.

Skype, for example, charges £3.99 (plus VAT) per
month for unlimited calls to landlines and mobiles
with at least another £10 for three months if you
want a virtual number to receive calls from landline
users.

Vonage, another VoIP provider, has a basic £5.99
call package that is similar to Skype’s £3.99 package.
Vonage, however, charges from £2.99 per month for
a virtual number that will permit calls to be received.
Both Skype and Vonage have free apps for on-the-
road users of iPhones.

IP Telephony’s other advantage is that it’s a much
simpler method of wiring up a business than buying
in a full-blown switchboard, which can cost from
£130 to thousands of pounds.

Softphones – software that turns your computer
into a phone (think Skype and Vonage) – is free and
separate IP phones are available from £50 each. The
downside is that providers such as Skype use non-
standard proprietary technology that can make
integration with other systems difficult. Indeed, some
consider these services to be more for the consumer.
This is where you may need to look at alternatives.

SIP

A more business-orientated variation of IP Telephony
is SIP trunking. Here VoIP calls are directly
connected to the outside world via a PBX and
broadband. However, each SIP line can only handle
one call at a time; if you want to make or receive, say,
six calls at a time, you’ll need six SIP trunk connections.

SIP, if you use an IPPBX, where your computer
becomes a PBX, can be quite cost-effective whereas
using add-ons to make a standard PBX work with SIP
can be expensive. Hostcomm, for example, offers
trunks from £2 per line per month and calls that, as
above, cost 1p/minute to geographic
UK numbers and from 7p/minute to
mobiles.

A benefit that comes with SIP is
that SIP trunks each come with a
geographic style number of your
choosing – you could have the same
dialling code and a range of numbers
for different locations. SIP phones are
available from £40.

Hosted telephony

For any business wanting a number of
extensions, it can, as noted earlier, prove
quite expensive to install and maintain a
PBX system. An alternative is a hosted
service based on VoIP where you rent
the services of a hosted telephony
system, leaving you only needing to
install the cabling and phone sockets
around your building and purchase
suitable phones (which are available from £70).

Each service provider offers differing levels of
service but they are broadly similar in that hosted
telephony is highly configurable: you can choose the
number of lines, how calls are queued, where calls are
routed to, greetings callers hear, call recording and so
on. And the costs can be quite low. Hostcomm, for
example, offers a service for £6.99 (plus VAT) a month that will have most of the features you’d want.
As for call charges, calls between locations or premises on the same hosted telephony account are
free, irrespective of where they are in the world. For
calls to other phone numbers, Hostcomm charges 1p/minute for calls to geographic UK numbers and
from 7p/minute to mobiles.

Upsides of non-fixed line
solutions

Traditional phone lines are fixed to a
location and the numbers are limited
geographically to the local exchange.
Repairing them following a disaster
can take weeks. With hosted telephony,
or an IPPBX and SIP trunks, you can
make calls from anywhere there’s an
internet connection, and people can
still call you.

Downsides of non-fixed line
solutions
Whilst calls over VoIP can be cheaper
than over a standard phone line, VoIP
does have its own disadvantages.

Firstly, you are dependent on a
good broadband connection. Unlike e-mail, where data can be sent in any order if the
connection is poor, voice data needs to be sent in
perfect order. Anything else and the call will be
garbled.

With VoIP comes a greater risk of failure. For
example, in simple terms, a standard phone system
can fail at the handset, on a PBX, on the line or at the
exchange. VoIP has most of these weaknesses plus other points where failure can occur such as on your
own network equipment, at your broadband provider
or at your VoIP provider. A good solution is one that
is mixed: VoIP backed up by two standard phone
lines.

Those choosing this route ought to have their
VoIP and broadband provider as one. Not only does
it mean that a problem will not be passed between
two different firms, but it should also mean that the
connections in your system should be designed to a
suitable standard.

Finally – remember that VoIP cannot make 999
calls, so for this reason alone you really should still
keep a standard landline.

Save on costs

Apart from maybe utilising a cost-saving technology,
consider also changing the provider of your telephone
line. As we saw earlier, don’t be fooled into thinking
that only BT can operate the phone line. Look
around.

The way telecoms providers structure their
services only serves to muddy the water. Indeed, the
options available are just too numerous to mention
here. However, all hope is not lost.

The advice from Utilities Options is that what
looks like the cheapest deal in terms of call charges is
not always the best deal. Telecoms provision and
pricing is quite different from that of the gas and
electricity utilities where it doesn’t matter who you
buy the fuel from: it’s all the same stuff – the
difference is found in the price you pay and the
service offered.

With telecoms, all firms are free to buy and use
whatever equipment they choose and the service provided, standards adhered to and
reliability can vary accordingly.

In cold cash terms, you need to
look at the actual cost of the call
especially as many providers have
different charging structures and much
that is hidden in the small print. It’s no
good going for a capped call charge
where, say, a 10 minute call won’t go
above a certain price – in reality you’ll
probably find that not only are most of
your calls only a minute or two long,
but that you’ll also be paying for a call
with a loaded connection charge.

Instead, look at the per minute
charge, the minimum call charge and
also note what the connection charge is.
At the same time, see if the billing is
made up by the second or to the
nearest minute as well as checking to
see if the time is converted to the
nearest penny or tenth of a penny.
With this, and knowing your actual
usage – call volumes, destinations and
call lengths – you can make an
informed decision.

It’s also important to know if you
are in contract to your provider. Many
contracts require 30 or 60 days’ notice
and providers can levy some hefty
penalties on those who want to leave
mid contract. This can be quite galling
if you don’t realise that the contract
automatically restarts if you don’t give
the correct notice.

But you can make further savings.
According to a recent survey by
Top10.Com, 55% of mobile users
never use up their free bundled
minutes. This means that many users
could save money by changing to a
cheaper tariff. Alternatively, those users
could make (free) calls to other mobiles
from their mobile phone instead of
paying for a call from their landline.

BT benchmark

As a benchmark, BT offers One Plan
Traditional, which is £14.45 per month
and for that (on a 12 or 24 month
term) you get capped calls that cost (for
up to an hour) 10p to 01/02/03
landline numbers, 25p for calls to
mobiles or 20p to international
numbers (certain destinations only). On
a 24 month tariff, you also get 500 free
minutes to 01/02/03 numbers. If you
want to add unlimited calls to
01/02/03, mobile and certain
international numbers you’ll need to
sign up to a £22.50 per month rental.

BT prices off plan are too complex
to list but, as an example, local daytime
calls are 8p per minute, night time are
4p per minute and weekends are
charged at 2p per minute – and there is
also a 9p per minute set up fee for each
call. All prices are excluding VAT.

When it comes to making a
comparison of various providers, there are no sites that offer
“uSwitch” type online
comparisons. Instead,
you’ll need to make
contact with the firms
behind the sites.

There are
multitudes of firms out
there – just Google
“compare business
telephone providers”.
Also, consider the
Federation of Small
Businesses as it offers members free
business line installation and
preferential call rates.

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