VoIP has been part of our office life for the better part of a year. We have three geographically dispersed offices running off a central VoIP server. FusionPBX is our VoIP platform as I was familiar with the it before we started the project. FusionPBX builds on the Freeswitch platform with an overlaid GUI that makes life with Freeswitch easier. It’s a powerful and flexible platform used by organizations of all sizes. It makes some of the journey to VoIP ridiculously easy. And that’s the segue into the reason for this post. I want to share some of the things I’ve learned along the way to help make your journey to VoIP that much easier. There’s way more to the process than just plugging in and switching on!
Lesson 1 – VoIP Carriers Matter!
FusionPBX is a pure-play VoIP system. That means it relies 100% on SIP and the rest of the “voice over IP” stack. There is no bridge to POTS copper connections. Your choice of carrier in the backend will make all the difference to the quality of your service. And the physical location of your carrier can have a large impact, as well. We discovered the first carrier we selected had issues handing off calls to/from Canadian mobile carriers (we are located in Canada). The carrier itself is located in the US and the partner they use to handoff to Canadian carriers definitely had issues. It took sometime to figure this out. We added a second carrier with better Canadian presence and the call issues to/from mobile callers went away.
Another important aspect of your carrier is their point-of-presence location. You are sending and receiving calls over the Internet. The number of hops your traffic has to make to get to/from your carrier is critical. More hops means more latency and high latency is a call quality killer. You have no control over what happens to your traffic once it leaves your local network. Do everything you can to minimize the route between you and your carrier. In other words, try to avoid using a carrier that only has points-of-presence a long ways from you.
Finally, there is a wide spectrum of quality between the lowest-cost carriers and the premium providers. In many cases you DO get hat you pay for. If lowest cost is your over-riding priority then be prepared for less than stellar call quality.
Lesson 2 – VoIP Connections Matter!
Surprise! Surprise! Your Internet connection matters when dealing with VoIP. Call quality relies on timely delivery of the voice packets. Low cost Internet or, worse, consumer grade Internet at your office is a recipe for disaster. If your bandwidth is already constrained, if your users already complain about the Internet, DON’T add VoIP! Do whatever you can to get the best connection you can afford.
In the same vein, your firewall is also a critical factor in the overall success of your VoIP system. Do your research regarding your firewall and VoIP. Some firewalls are WAY better than others about handling VoIP traffic. Ultimately, you want your firewall to be pretty “hands off” when it comes to your VoIP traffic.
Lesson 3 – Networks Matter!
This should be obvious but it bears discussion. Your internal networks have a great impact on your call quality. Poor design, poor wiring and cheap switching will cause you grief. I learned this the hard way! Your networks should be VLAN’d with a specific VLAN for Voice. The networks should handle QoS so that voice traffic has priority. Networks should NOT impede your VoIP traffic.
If possible, stick with a single switch vendor and learn how to properly configure their switches. When I started our journey to VoIP I had switches from 5 different vendors and of varying capabilities. It was a nightmare trying to get them all to play nice when each vendor did things differently. I pared down my vendors AND flattened my networks. Do everything you can to make your networks as “clean” as possible. The payoff is better VoIP AND better network traffic flow as a whole.
Lesson 4 – Patience Matters!
The journey to VoIP requires patience. Lighting up your VoIP system will expose all sorts of inadequacies in your network. It will take time to work through them all. Don’t rush to put your system into production until you have worked through as many of the exposed issues as you can. Users are unforgiving of phones that don’t work as they expect. Pilot if you can and test, tweak and test again.
Lesson 5 – VoIP Ain’t Ma Bell!
The cold reality is that VoIP will probably never deliver quite the same call quality as good old copper POTS. Cell phones are ubiquitous and we all have long got over call quality “issues” with them. VoIP is similar and needs to be approached the same way. You can tweak your system to the Nth degree but there will always be some call quality issues. Educate your users so they know what to expect. Be prepared to find workarounds for the things that can’t be fixed.
The journey to VoIP can be very rewarding. Our call costs have dropped dramatically from what we were paying to the phone company. We are more “unified” as all three locations are on one phone system. We have way more flexibility with our phones than we had in the past. The journey was worth it for us but it did happen without a lot of pain along the way. Perhaps our lessons learned will help you in your journey!