Cheap, reliable and high quality: If Voice Over IP (VoIP) is all that and more, why haven't more businesses begun making their phone calls via the Internet?
Pundits have been saying for more than a year now that VoIP is poised to claim a significant chunk of business in the local and long-distance market. Internet-based calling is supposed to be a boon the businesses in particular, reducing dramatically the cost of calls.
However, the changeover to VoIP has been slow in coming. Among small business owners familiar with VoIP, only 12 percent use the technology, according to a Harris Interactive poll conducted online in January.
The slow adoption is due in part to perceptions about the technology's ease of use. Harris found that among those who don't use it, 22 percent said VoIP is just too complicated.
And Then Came VoiceStick
Developed by i2Telecom International, this compact device delivers VoIP in a simple, self-contained appliance. It's about as plug-and-play as anything you have ever seen, and depending on your current price plan for calls, it really can save you money.
Standard VoIP installations can be complicated, so follow us carefully here: Remove the $30 device from its package, take the cap off the end and plug in into your USB port. Okay. It's installed.
You'll need to plug the headset/microphone (included) into the speaker jack on your computer, and follow the prompts to load and register the software. Set up your voice-mail, enter a credit card, and you're ready to make calls.
Pricing varies by volume. A $10-a-month plan buys your business 400 minutes per month to the U.S. and Canada, with additional time at two cents a minute. Unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada costs about $20 a month.
VoiceStick is hardly the only contestant vying to attract VoIP customers with a mixed offering of connectivity hardware and calling plans. The iConnectHere Broadband Phone, for instance, delivers unlimited business calling for $50 a month. Industry leader Vonagesells 1500 business minutes for $40 or unlimited calling for $50 a month.
Vonage requires an Ethernet connection, however, while iConnectHere asks you to plug their free broadband adapter into your home router. These are just the kind of details VoiceStick hopes to side step. Got broadband? Got a USB port? Good enough. Get on board.
Despite its apparent simplicity the VoiceStick packs a range of features, enough to put it on a level footing with any traditional phone service. These include:
- Multi-way conferencing
- Call waiting
- Call Forwarding
- Do not disturb
- Line hold
- Speed dial
As for sound quality, it's as good as any traditional phone line the vast majority of the time. It is possible to experience some degradation in cases where the broadband connection is unstable or where too many users are gobbling up bandwidth. Even in those cases, though, the worst you're likely to get is something similar to a poor cell phone connection: A slight echo, or a bit of a 'you-sound-far-away' effect. Sound quality over a wireless connection likewise may be slightly less reliable, but quality overall is solid.
|Talk it Up — it may look like an ordinary memory stick, but plugging this gizmo into your PC's USB port lets you make calls anywhere in the world — over the Internet.|
As to the hardware, the headset comes from Plantronics, a market leader of such devices. While it delivers clear sound, it is a very basic model, and if you make frequent calls you might want to upgrade to a headset with more features and functionality.
VoiceStick claims benefits that a traditional phone line cannot offer. Take for instance the scenario of a business traveler equipped with a laptop. Want to make a call? Your phone number travels inside your VoiceStick appliance, so you need only find a high-speed hotspot, plug the appliance into your laptop's USP port, connect your headset and you're ready to talk. In addition, the device includes a built-in phone book, so your contacts all travel with you. And if that isn't enough, VoiceStick also doubles as a memory stick, providing 50MB of space for your data files.
Features like these may help to address at least one barrier to adoption rate noted in the Harris survey. Specifically, 36 percent of business executives said VoIP providers have so far failed to tell a convincing story. By delivering features comparable to traditional phone systems, providers have begun to make that case in earnest.
Other hurdles may be harder to overcome, however. Thirty-four percent of respondents said they are waiting for VoIP to become more mainstream, while 47 percent said they simply don't know much about Internet telephony.
Which brings us back to VoiceStick. With its absolute ease of use and low startup cost, this is just the kind of device small business owners might try as a starting point. Factor in the cost of the device and the $20 plan, and it's possible to get three months of service for under $100, which ought to be well within the budget of any small business looking to explore VoIP possibilities.
Launched nationwide at the beginning of this year, VoiceStick already has the backing of several major retailers. These include Amazon.com, Target.com, Musicland's Media Play and Hudson News, which operates retail stores in America's busiest airports.
With that kind of support, business owners will no doubt be tempted to check this one out.
Adam Stone writes extensively on business and technology issues. He makes his virtual residence at email@example.com and his physical home in Annapolis, Md.
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