Almost 40 percent of small businesses have said goodbye to their traditional, hardwired plain old telephone services (POTS) and hello to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) because of the significant cost and productivity benefits that VoIP delivers.
If you're like most small business owners, you rely heavily on the phone to communicate, so reliability is critical. VoIP uses data packets to digitally transmit voice over the internet and performs extremely well as long as the network is properly provisioned.
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Given that voice travels over the same lines as data and is sensitive to the fluctuations within data transmissions, call quality can be degraded by internet slowdowns and low bandwidth. This is often related to underperforming or overly constrained networking gear. When evaluating VoIP solutions, keep in mind the other applications contending for bandwidth – web, video, email, file transfers, etc. Having the right connection and network infrastructure in place is critical to high-quality VoIP calls.
If you've made the decision to switch, now what? One of the first things to ask is if your network can support a VoIP deployment. Let's look at ways to prepare your network.
1. Evaluate the WAN connection.
It's important to allocate the right amount of bandwidth to ensure optimal results for VoIP, which means knowing what you need. Bandwidth requirements depend on the number of VoIP clients (phones) and the number of concurrent calls you want to make. Beyond your maximum call volume, it's good to identify which other network applications consume a portion of your available bandwidth. To determine your bandwidth, run a throughput test on a site like Speedtest.
Now, let's talk connection. Forget DSL. A fiber T1 line or coax cable connection is much faster. SMBs deploying VoIP should look at a business-level internet provider with a decent throughput. Check requirements of your VoIP service to determine minimum download and upload speeds based on VoIP lines. The quality and number of lines on a VoIP system will be higher with a faster internet connection.
Today's minimum business internet options are 75 Mbps, 100 Mbps and 150 Mbps. For a small business with 20 connections or fewer, 75 Mbps should be adequate. Failure to account for bandwidth requirements will greatly limit the reliability of your VoIP system and put a burden on the network infrastructure.
2. Assess your network infrastructure and replace outdated equipment.
Speed alone doesn't guarantee optimal results for VoIP. The backbone of the network is important, and old network infrastructure is one of the biggest barriers to VoIP success. Know your network and make sure it's properly prepared before cutover. If you don't have a solid hold on your network infrastructure, you risk dealing with headaches down the road.
Research shows that many SMBs use outdated networking equipment. How old is your switch? Is your network infrastructure gigabit-ready? For example, the speed of the switch is not the only problem – it's about reliability. Old, outdated networking gear can have undetected problems that surface with latency-dependent applications like VoIP.
I recognize most small businesses don't have the budget to replace their entire network infrastructure – and you don't necessarily need to. Consider upgrading specific equipment that's key to network performance, like the routing and switching gear. If you decide to replace, don't skimp. Low-quality, underperforming equipment will cost you in the long run (remember those headaches?) and degrade your call quality. Equipment plays a major role in the success or failure of your VoIP deployment.
3. Prioritize, segregate and segment VoIP traffic with a VLAN.
When there are different services running on a network, it can impact the performance of an application that needs more bandwidth, like video conferencing, or more priority, like VoIP. For the best quality of service (QoS), dedicate bandwidth for voice by segmenting the network with a virtual local area network. VLANs enable you to prioritize data traffic for applications that are sensitive to network delays, improving performance and maintaining QoS so you don't have to worry about dropped calls, latency or jitter.
Network segmentation typically starts at the router, so invest in a business-class router with QoS features, and pair it with a managed or smart switch that offers other key features we will address later. Create a VLAN with a separate Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) range and apply it to the switch to specific ports, giving high priority to ports used for VoIP lines. For switches, look for hardware with gigabit ports that have high throughput and auto-configurations that adjust to QoS for each phone.
4. Go big with PoE+.
Move over, PoE, there's a new sheriff in town: PoE+. Before we get into why the latter is better, let's start with the basics of VoIP power requirements. Power over Ethernet was a technology initially built for VoIP devices. Simply put, PoE allows you to provide power to a device over the same wire that supplies the data or voice. This allows for simple, safe and efficient power provision to all PoE-enabled devices, like VoIP phone systems.
Unlike a traditional phone system, which continues to work during a power or internet outage, a PoE VoIP system relies on the electrical power from a network switch. If power to the switch goes out, VoIP will not work. This is easily fixed with UPS backup power.
In addition, by deploying PoE-enabled switches on the back end, you simplify installation for wireless access points, IP cameras, phones, and other equipment that needs data and power simultaneously. PoE allows you to control the power in the network via the switch. When you centralize power on the switch side, you streamline VoIP phone rollout and simplify connections for users – and minimize possible future problems.
Most business-class smart and managed switches offer PoE, but only a few SMB networking manufacturers build PoE+ into their switches today. A regular PoE switch can only do a maximum 15.4 watts, whereas PoE+ switches offer up to 30 watts per port, a higher power budget than standard PoE switches to connect more devices, and provides more options when choosing devices. Some VoIP phones require more power than others, especially if they have cameras or video displays. For example, Linksys has a 28-port PoE+ gigabit managed switch with two combo ports. This means a business can power up to 24 clients or peripherals and use combo ports for uplink or interconnection between switches using Ethernet or fiber cables.
How much power do you need? Check the maximum power wattage your phones need and the minimum power budget of the switch; the consumption by phones or other powered devices in the office has to be less than the switch budget. And plan for the future: Buying a bigger switch (i.e., more ports) and one with a bigger PoE budget will allow you to easily add devices in the future as you need them.
Here's a simple PoE calculation: Max PoE consumption of the peripheral (camera, VoIP phone or other client device) times the number of devices connected equals the minimum PoE budget of the switch.
Achieving high-quality VoIP
A VoIP rollout requires a proper connection and adequate bandwidth, plus the right networking gear with a battery backup to protect the office in case of power failure. If you're switching to VoIP and your business relies on communication, then it's critical to ensure that your network infrastructure is fully optimized for VoIP.