15 May 9 Steps to Optimize Your Network for VoIP
Voice over IP (VoIP) is by far the most popular business phone service, especially for small to midsized businesses (SMBs). It’s generally cheaper, and because it’s software it’s far more flexible, which means it’s able to provide not only voice conversations but other communications channels, too, like team chatting, conference calling, video conferencing, and even electronic faxing. But though basic setup is fairly easy, once you add real-life conversation load to your data network, things can get tricky.
Making this kind of project successful means staying aware of several key networking challenges that can spell the difference between clear conversations and sudden hang-ups or unintelligible call experiences. In some cases, switching to VoIP might require a physical office restructuring, a different approach to using wireless networking, or a trip to the store to purchase a lot more Ethernet cables.
To help you anticipate and prepare for these networking issues, we spoke with Curtis Peterson, Senior Vice President of Cloud Operations at cloud-based business phone system provider, and PCMag Editors’ Choice winner, RingCentral. We discussed some of the obstacles Peterson witnesses when helping companies move to RingCentral products. Keep in mind: Some of the terminology and phrasing you’ll read in this article may sound confusing, which is why most VoIP providers offer guided installation services to smaller organizations. If you’ve got networking expertise in-house, then you’ll be able to manage most of these issues on your own. However, if you don’t know the difference between Wi-Fi and dial-up service, well, then your vendor will work with you to get you set up fast.
1. Determine What Kinds of Calls You’ll Need to Make
Before we get into networking specifics, there’s some prep work you should do. First, figure out what the majority of your company’s phone calls are about. Do you do a lot of sales over the phone? Handle a big help desk internally or to customers outside the organization? Are your workers at their desks most of the time or in the field? And a big one is: Are some of these common voice conversations moving to another medium, like chat? Figuring out the basic blue print of how your business communicates is key to choosing the features you’ll want in a phone service as well as planning for how to implement them.
From that data, you can start choosing not only what kind of service provider you need, but what kinds of VoIP devices your organization will use. You can purchase dedicated VoIP phones that let employees make and receive calls from their desk. You can also make VoIP calls directly from a computer without ever touching an actual phone. To piggyback off that technique, you can also make VoIP calls from smartphones. Determine which, if not all, of these endpoints you’ll be using immediately. “Before the network requires more thought, determine that,” advised Peterson.
2. Check Your Cabling
This is a no-brainer but, now that you’re making the switch to VoIP, you’ll need not only enough Ethernet cables to connect your devices to the internet, but also the right Ethernet cables. Peterson recommends buying Cat 6 cables if you can afford them. These cables can typically support up to 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) at 250 MHz for up to 328 feet. You can get 1,000 feet for anywhere from $90 to $170. Just remember that if you’re interested in running such a fast network of Ethernet, you’ll likely also have to upgrade your networking infrastructure. Most SMB network devices default to a single gigabit rather than 10. Additionally, there are often some reliability and tweaking issues that go along with such a fast network, so if you’re upgrading both your cables and your network infrastructure, too, then it pays to check out alternatives to Ethernet for 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) traffic, especially fiber.
If you’re on more of a budget, then Ethernet is definitely the way to go. If you can’t afford Cat 6, then Peterson recommends you use Cat 5e cables, which can still support the more popular 1GbE traffic loads. Peterson discourages his clients from using older Cat 3 cables, because those will have trouble handling not only the additional load but the reliability management that goes along with VoIP which he said can present a “troubleshooting nightmare” for Cat 3 users.
3. Plan Your Power
Most vendors will tell you that the easiest way to ensure you’re getting power to your VoIP phones is to do it via Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE simply lets lets devices that aren’t plugged into AC sources pull that juice right through your Ethernet network, generally from the nearest device to which they’re connected. So for phones, that’s often the PC sitting right next to them or the router or switch in the closet down the hall. It sounds strange to newcomers, but if you look around, you’ll probably see some examples of PoE around you right now. Companies use PoE for surveillance cameras, ceiling-mounted access points, and even LED lights.
The trick with PoE is twofold. First, you need devices that support it. Typically, anything either pulling or providing power will need to specifically support PoE. It’s an independent standard, so you shouldn’t have to worry about mixing and matching hardware from different vendors, but as is the case with most networking hardware, you’re probably better off sticking with the same maker.
Second, while it’s not traffic, electricity is still running over your network cables and that will have an affect on overall performance. That means testing and then preparing a workable management plan for your IT staff. Fortunately, PoE is a very popular solution for VoIP providers when delivering desktop phones, so your chosen provider should have lots of experience on hand in the customer service department should you need help. If your Ethernet switch doesn’t allow for PoE, then you can order a PoE injector, which is an additional power source that can be used alongside non-PoE switches.
4. Explore the VLAN Option
There’s lots of stuff competing for the limited space on your network. Every web page your employees open, every database query, every new customer relationship management (CRM) record, it’s all running over the same wires. And for software, that’s not a big deal as the network contains features that let data “heal” itself should a…