Whether you're a startup or a major corporation, phones are essential for business.
When Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first patent for the telephone in 1876, he can’t have imagined the effect that his invention would have on life generally and on business in particular.
Despite the introduction of newer communication options such as email and instant messaging, the telephone remains an essential tool for businesses. According to telecoms regulator Ofcom, 83% of small and medium businesses say they wouldn’t be able to achieve their goals without telecommunications services.
A phone line is one of the first things to arrange when you start a business or move to new premises. But there are various different types of business phone lines available, so you need to look at the options and decide which best meets your needs and offers you the optimum value for money.
Types of line
There are essentially four different types of phone line available to business users. The single analogue line is essentially the same type of circuit that you have at home, delivering a connection via just one line. Although you can have multiple extensions, only one person at a time can use the phone and incoming callers will be presented with an engaged tone when the line is in use.
A multi-line system, as the name suggests, gives you several lines, so a number of calls can be taking place at the same time and there’s a better chance of incoming calls getting through. This usually involves having a switchboard or PBX system in place in order to route calls to the appropriate person. This type of arrangement gives you the flexibility to give each person in the business their own direct dial number and access to external calling. Exactly what features you get will depend on the system you install.
Multi-line systems are still analogue; effectively they are several single lines bundled together. For larger businesses or those needing higher audio quality, there’s a digital alternative in the form of ISDN (Integrated Digital Subscriber Network) first introduced in the 1990s.
ISDN business phone lines come in two flavours, ISDN2 and ISDN30. ISND2 is what’s called a Basic Rate Interface (BRI) circuit. It has two channels each operating at 64 kilobits per second. It is possible to combine a pair of ISDN2 lines together to offer speeds of 256 Kbps which is useful for activities such as video conferencing. ISDN 2 lines can be used for phone calls and data, or a combination of the two.
ISDN30 is a Primary Rate Interface (PRI) circuit. This has 23 channels giving a total speed of 1,544 Kbps. ISDN30 is primarily used for telephone services. It’s suitable for larger organisations that have a PABX system operating inside the company serving multiple extensions.
Both types of ISDN line offer digital clarity and are thus suitable for high-quality use, such as broadcast voice. This does, however, come at a higher cost. To some extent, ISDN has also been superseded by the fibre optic data network, and indeed BT has announced its intention to retire its ISDN infrastructure by 2025 in favour of an IP-based telephone network.
Advantages and disadvantages
So, what do these various types of telephone connection mean for your business? The answer will rather depend on the call volume that you currently handle and how you see that changing in the future. If you’re looking to upgrade an existing connection it will also depend on what type of circuit will work best with your existing equipment.
You also need to look at how your business operates. While landlines offer high quality and levels of reliability, the world is increasingly becoming mobile. This means that businesses are often looking for more flexible telephone options which a traditional landline struggles to provide.
Many firms are starting to implement hybrid options that offer a mix of traditional landline and modern VoIP connectivity. The latest PABX systems are able to combine the two on the same hardware so that calls can be routed by the most effective method.
As we’ve seen, the world of business telephones is changing. Some of the options on offer today won’t be around in a few years’ time and so companies are starting to explore alternatives.
Most common amongst these is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) which allows calls to be made over an internet connection. This is already a viable alternative to a small business phone line, particularly for making long distance or overseas calls, retaining an analogue landline for incoming and local calls.
The move to IP services also means that it is now possible to do away with your in-house PABX. Instead, you can switch to hosted PABX. This is effectively a telephone exchange in the cloud, allowing you to handle all of your call traffic without the need for hardware on your premises. This also facilitates mobile working since calls can be easily rerouted to employees’ mobile phones, allowing them to work from anywhere.
Another consequence of mobile working and the more geographically diverse nature of modern businesses is the use of teleconferencing or video-conferencing. Whilst this can be achieved over ISDN circuits, it’s increasingly something that is carried out using internet connections.
There are, of course, some drawbacks to current VoIP systems. Call quality can vary because of the way in which the calls are routed over the internet, and if you lose your internet connection you also lose your phones. For smaller businesses, the initial setup and switch to VoIP can also prove costly. While some IP calls may be free, that’s usually only the case if the person you are calling is using the same network unless provided with an inclusive call bundle.
Choosing a supplier
When looking for a supplier for your business phone lines, there is a wealth of choice, so how do you decide which service to choose? The first thing to consider is that the majority of providers market actually deliver the same product installed and maintained by BT Openreach. So, when choosing individual suppliers, you will clearly need to consider the cost of business phone line rental, but there are other costs too. You need to look at the call packages available and at any additional costs that may be incurred by installing a telephone line, for example.
Remember that business tariffs are different from domestic ones, so understand what you’re paying for. If most of your outgoing calls are made during daytime business hours, these will be considered as ‘peak’ so look for a package that offers you the best rates at peak times. It is also important to take other types of rates into account as many providers may charge a setup fee for making a call in addition to the pence per minute rate
If your business uses mobile phones then you should consider a combined deal for your mobile and landline communications. This will help you to control costs and streamline the distribution of calls to the appropriate people.
Of course, when you’re relying on any service for your business, you need to be sure of its reliability. For that reason, you need to look carefully at the service level agreement (SLA) any supplier offers. Look at the turnaround time for repairs and at the level of uptime that is offered by any potential supplier.
Downtime of your telephone lines will have a negative effect on your business, so reliability is important. Even if an SLA offers 99.9% uptime this could mean that your phones are down for around 10 minutes each week. This might not matter if it occurs at night, but it could seriously disrupt your business were it to happen during the working day.
In addition to looking at the contracts, you should consider a wider examination of the supplier’s record in customer service. Look at independent reviews and see if it’s possible to talk to existing customers about their experience.
96% of businesses in the UK currently use a landline phone line. Whether these are used as the main telephone line, to carry fibre broadband for VOIP, the alarm line or even for a fax machine, phone lines remain an essential business tool. It is therefore imperative to choose your phone line supplier with care.