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VoIP: Proceed With Caution
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By Carl Weinschenk

For all its promises of lower costs and increased efficiency, VoIP is an immature technology. That's troublesome, because an outage could sever a company's link to customers, partners, suppliers and vendors. This can be fatal to a startup or small business.

Clearly, companies should proceed with caution. The problem is, however, that small and startup businesses seldom have IT staffers who know the right questions to ask potential vendors and service providers.

One option is to use a consultancy or other expert to manage the move to VoIP. Even if that step—which is universally thought to be a wise one—is taken, experts say that startup and small businesses should be familiar with key issues.

Experts point to several areas that startup and small businesses should explore before signing with a service provider or vendor:

Make sure it works. "The number one thing I would start with is absolutely, without question, reliability and availability," says Phil Edholm, the chief technology officer for Nortel's enterprise division.

It behooves users to ask precisely how the services being offered compares with other VoIP services and with traditional phone networks. While nobody suggests that executives become VoIP experts, basic familiarity with key concepts is appropriate simply because the telephone system is so important.

Shoppers must pay attention to the fine print of what is being offered to them. For instance, a "best effort" service will be cheap—but, as the name implies, leaves a lot of wiggle room for the service provider. Some best effort-based contracts will allow the reduction or even suspension of service in an emergency in favor of another company paying more.

These terms usually are detailed in a service level agreement. SLAs include different measurements, or metrics, that spell out whether the contract is being fulfilled. It's a good idea to have them scrutinized by a specialist. One example: SLAs generally promise that the system will be up and running ("available") a certain percentage of the time. It is important to understand how that promise is structured. It may be aimed at individual users or based on an aggregate average across the company. This is important, since the use of an average as the base metric could mean that individual users receive poor service—but that the SLA is not being violated.

The company telecom shopper also should understand the underpinnings of what is being offered. "Contention" is a key concept with which he or she should be familiar. No phone system has capacity available for every potential caller. Traditional phone companies have spent a century figuring out precisely how many lines to make available for a given number of people at any point in the day. Companies should quiz service providers on what contention level they support, says Rafael Fonseca, the vice president of product evolution and system engineering for VoIP equipment vendor Cedar Point Networks. He said that anything less than four connected devices to one IP connection could be a problem.

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Carl Weinschenk is the Editorial Director of SmartBiz.
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