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Small Business Telephony Alternatives

When setting up a small business, telephony is one the first choices that one must make--you have to have a phone number on your business card. Telephony can be easy, full featured and expensive or it can have somewhat fewer features and be surprisingly inexpensive. The article that follows discusses a few options and considerations in coming up with a bare-bones telephony solution for your small business. The article is divided into the following sections:

Major Telco

A major telco will provide the best options, but at a very steep price--about $600/year for a very basic package in my case. The primary advantage of a major telco is the ease of getting your business name to show up on caller ID. For most other capabilities, there are free or much lower cost alternatives, such as Google Voice and MagicJack or one of the other voice over IP (VOIP) solutions. The remaining sections will review some of the advantages and disadvantages of using Google Voice and MagicJack in particular, although the same issues will apply to other VOIP solutions. If you use Google Voice or some other VOIP solution, make sure that you can port the phone number to the incumbent major telco so that you have a fall back plan if you encounter problems, and to handle the situation when you outgrow a VOIP solution.

Voip.ms

Voip.ms is a voice over IP (VOIP) service that is very inexpensive (about $0.01/minute), but which requires some technical expertise to set up. If you go this route, you will need to get a device like an Obi202 to connect a phone. This does provide a way to set up the CNAM for outgoing caller ID, unlike Google Voice and MagicJack. Voip.ms supports NoMoRoBo phone spam blocking which Google Voice and MagicJack do not.

Vonage

Vonage is a VOIP provider that is about $25/month or $300/year--about half the cost of a traditional telco. It claims to send out the subscriber's last name and first initial with caller ID. Vonage also provides an app for cell phones that can be installed on up to 5 devices.

MagicJack

MagicJack is a VOIP company that sells a USB or wall plug device for about $60 with subsequent annual service costing about $30. If you configure 911 for emergency dialing, it will add another few dollars to your subscription; the amount depends upon your local community’s 911 fee. The voice quality is good and it is as reliable as your internet service, but like Google Voice, it does not send any information with Caller ID.

When you sign up for MagicJack, you also get free calls using the VOIP cellphone application, although the Android application drains the battery quickly; my Nexus 5 normally gets through the day with 10-40% battery left but runs out in late afternoon when I have the MagicJack application running.

Google Voice

For a start-up consulting firm or sole proprietorship, Google Voice has several advantages, most significantly that it is free for domestic calls, and that it can ring multiple phones (your land line, Magic Jack and/or mobile) for an incoming call. Some but not all Google Voice numbers can be ported to your local telco; before you order business cards, check to make sure that your Google Voice number can be ported to the local telco. Google voice has a transcription service for messages, but it doesn't work very well.

On your Android cell phone, the Google Voice application will allow you to dial using either your cell number or your Google Voice number; this makes it easier to keep your personal and professional lives separate. The Google Voice app also keeps a separate voice mail box which can be convenient.

There are a few downsides to Google Voice:

  • If you lose access to your email account, you lose access to maintaining your phone number. DO NOT use the Google Voice phone number as the recovery number for your Gmail account.
  • By default, it will pass your phone number and "OUT-OF-AREA" for caller ID, which some customers will iterpret as a spam marketing call. You can partially solve this with some of the information discussed in the Caller ID and Information section that follows.
  • To make an outgoing call on the Google Voice number from a land line or VOIP line, you will need to log in to the Google Voice web page and initiate the call there. Google Voice will then call your land line; once you pick up, it will complete the call to the phone number that you are dialing. It is fairly cumbersome.

The Obi202 SIP device will allow you to connect your Google Voice to a traditional phone, and makes this solution much more convenient.

Caller ID and Information

If you are using Google Voice or MagicJack, the caller ID line will show up as unknown or out-of-area, which many people will interpret as a spam telemarketing call. This is the downside to using Google Voice for a business phone number. You can partially mitigate this by listing with services that some telcos use to provide directory assistance information. The sections that follow provide information on some of these services.

List Yourself

List Yourself provides a 411 directory service. Some (but by no mean all) telcos use the information provided by List Yourself as the text for caller ID, so this may help in getting a meaningful Caller ID info presented for a Google Voice phone number. The List Yourself page that discusses CNAM information gives a good description of how this works.

If you are using a Google Voice number, make sure to turn off the following options while doing the List Yourself verification:

  • Requiring unknown callers to announce their name
  • Routing spam calls directly to the spam folder

If these options are turned on, the verification call from List Yourself won't go through. Once you are finished with the verification step, you can turn these options on.

Conclusions

There are lower cost and even free alternatives to an expensive land line, but you will lose the marketing advantage of outbound caller ID with the least expensive alternatives. In all cases, make sure that the number is portable to the telco carrier in your city before you begin using it.

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