Skype Means Business

Popular telephony wisdom says computer-based VoIP services aren't "good enough" for business. One small firm says "nonsense."

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted May 11, 2006
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Skype and Skype watchers have been saying for some time now that a surprising proportion of users of the low-or-no-cost VoIP service are using it for business. This is probably truer in Europe and the Far East where phone companies often charge for local calls and long distance typically costs more than it does in North America. But the idea of using Skype for business is evidently starting to catch on here as well.

Robert Lane and his far-flung partners at RNC Services, a small Web development and e-commerce solutions firm, may be the thin end of the wedge. The company is nominally headquartered in northern Maine where Lane lives. It also has six employees there, but it's really a virtual company. One of Lane's partners is in Florida, the other in Sacramento, California. And Lane is talking about relocating to the Caribbean for six months and running his business from there.

RNC is probably typical of businesses using Skype in that its partners and employees are all heavily computer-centric. If you ask Lane what it is he likes about Skype, besides the cost savings, he says, "It's just the convenience of having it on my computer. It's nice especially when you're in an airport—you can plug the headset in and start taking calls."

RNC switched to Skype for most of its internal and external calling at the beginning of this year. The partners make about 60 percent to 70 percent of all calls on Skype now. Call quality and reliability have for the most part been acceptable. Lane uses a $25 USB headset from Plantronics. "I can probably think of only about half a dozen times when [we dropped calls or couldn't carry on an intelligible conversation on Skype]," Lane says. "And most of those times, it was because we lost the Internet or power."

Because of the nature of the business, RNC has a 3 Mbps business DSL service, which may be a more reliable conduit than slower residential services, Lane says. "You might sometimes have problems with [Skype on] cable modem services at 256 or 500 Kbps." He often encounters problems trying to use Skype in hotels. He speculates this is either because the hotel's so-called broadband service is in fact only 256 or 500 Kbps, or there is a lot of contention for bandwidth from other guests—or both. But he also, like his partners, carries a cell phone, so he's rarely without phone service.

The switch to Skype was part of a larger overhaul of RNC's telecommunications systems. The firm had been using several conventional business lines from Verizon with Verizon-provided trunking services. It switched this year to using a virtual PBX service from RingCentral Inc. The main motive was economy. With line, trunking and long distance charges, the company was paying Verizon about $180 a month for telephone service—too much, the partners thought, for such a small company.

RingCentral provides a single toll-free number for incoming calls. Configurable auto attendant and find-me-follow-me features let users program the system to forward incoming calls to an appropriate virtual extension—typically an existing business or residential line, cell phone or Vonage-style VoIP line. RingCentral also includes a bucket of minutes for forwarded calls, 500 a month with the service RNC chose.

The RNC partners bought SkypeIn phone numbers so they could receive calls forwarded from RingCentral on their computers. They also, of course, wanted to save money. SkypeIn gives users a PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) phone number that callers on regular phones can dial to reach them on their computers. Skype switches SkypeIn calls from the PSTN to the Internet and delivers them to users' computers as it would any PC-to-PC Skype call. Each SkypeIn phone number costs €10 for three months or €30 for the year, or about $3.25 or $4.30 a month.

You can choose a number from any of 14 countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and China. U.S. numbers are available now from 244 area codes. Lane ended up getting a Las Vegas number, but it doesn't really matter, he says, because it's only used to route RingCentral calls to Skype. When the partners talk to each other over Skype, they place calls PC to PC using the Skype software.

RNC's RingCentral auto attendant gives callers options such as 'press one for sales, press two for service.' If the caller presses one, he may be routed to Lane or one of his partners, depending on time of day or day of week. If the call is routed to Lane, it will first try his SkypeIn number. If he doesn't answer on Skype, it will try his cell phone, and then his home phone.

RingCentral also provides Call Controller software that Lane can use to reroute a call in real time. When a RingCentral call comes in, a message pops up on his laptop screen with the caller's name and number and four options: accept the call, reject it, send it directly to voice mail, or reply. When he clicks the accept option, a drop-down list lets him choose the number to which RingCentral forwards the call. This comes in handy if he finds himself in a hotel where Skype doesn't work well. He can simply reroute the call to his cell phone.

RNC also uses SkypeOut for long distance calls. This is the Skype service that allows users to call a PSTN line from their computer. It costs €0.017 per minute to call anywhere in North America, western Europe, Australia, New Zealand or parts of southeast Asia and South America. Calls to other regions are priced individually but rarely cost more than a few cents. RNC spends bout $3 or $4 a month on SkypeOut calls, Lane says.

"I like to use SkypeOut when I'm working at home so I don't tie up the phone for the kids," he says. "And it's a lot cheaper than having another phone line."

RNC has halved its phone bill since switching to RingCentral and Skype, but a good part of the saving is attributable to RingCentral. The firm saves about $30 to $40 a month by using Skype, Lane estimates.

Is it worth the downside risks? Lane doesn't see much in the way of downsides. He considers using his computer as a phone to be a benefit. And for a small Web-centric firm like RNC, dealing for the most part with tech-savvy clients, the occasional flaky call is probably not a big deal. If you're a realtor or stock broker, it may be a different matter. While we don't see mass adoption of Skype for business anytime soon, there are probably many more small outfits that could benefit from using it.

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