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One size does not fit all

For many small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), the initial investment in voice-over-IP (VoIP) hardware and software, combined with the ongoing support and maintenance of this equipment, is too much to bear. Instead of making large investments in telecommunications equipment, many of these companies are turning to virtual solutions.

Two hosted (also known as “virtual”) communications solutions are available for SMBs looking to take advantage of the benefits of IP-based services, including the increasing need for a communications system that provides the image, productivity and professionalism of a large onsite PBX system.

The first is a virtual PBX service, which is hosted offsite and functions similar to the million-dollar PBX systems large companies use, but at a fraction of the cost, and without the need to purchase expensive hardware or software and to keep it updated. Such services provide the umbrella of a traditional fixed PBX, integrating all employees under one toll or toll-free number, regardless of where they are located physically.

Typical features of a virtual PBX service include an auto-attendant, a unique toll-free or local number, voice mail, multiple mailboxes, custom greetings, music-on-hold, live call forwarding, find me/follow-me calling (which can automatically route calls to any employee regardless of the location or device), Web-based management and other professional virtual office features.

Some virtual PBX solutions are able to work hand-in-hand with VoIP service providers to “front end” VoIP service. In this way, the business utilizes the VoIP service provider to obtain inexpensive outbound long-distance and international calls. In the meantime, the virtual PBX service handles burgeoning inbound call traffic just like expensive on-premise PBX hardware and software would.

This type of virtual PBX service is most often used by small businesses with one to four employees, home-based businesses and mobile professionals. Pricing for virtual PBX service is typically set in monthly service plans with low fees starting at under $10 a month, plus per minute usage charges. Customers can typically upgrade to service plans that offer more features and minutes, all without the need to sign a long-term contract.

The second hosted solution option is an enterprise-level PBX without the high costs of purchasing or maintaining equipment. Such services offer a network-hosted voice application that provides business users with local dial tone, long distance and voice features similar to that of an onsite PBX.

The service often encompasses a number of IP telephony services that offer voice to companies that transmit calls as packets across a broadband access network. A single broadband access network is used to carry the packetized voice streams for multiple calls. The hosted PBX service provider typically buys telecom services in bulk to ensure customers always receive reliable, carrier-class service at low rates. Thus, when calls are not active, more bandwidth can be allocated to high-speed data sessions over the same broadband connection. Customers supply their own phones or lease them from the service provider.

Typical enterprise-level hosted PBX customers have 40-60 users per site and are organizations that want to take advantage of cutting-edge features of IP technology, while lowering overall costs by eliminating in-house telephone systems and the need for on-site technical expertise to run them.

Hosted enterprise PBX service is usually sold on a flat-rate basis in bundles that include local and long-distance voice, Internet access, voice mail, e-mail, unified messaging and Web hosting. Typical monthly costs can range from $30-$80 per employee.

This article was provided by David Hauser, chief technology officer of GotVMail Communications, Newton, Mass., which offers on-demand voice communications service.