8×8 Virtual Office

The hosted IP PBX model just went mass market.

VoIP pioneer 8×8 Inc. is partnering with IP phone maker Aastra USA to market 8×8’s Virtual Office PBX service bundled with the co-branded 8×8/Aastra 6755i IP phone in Office Depot stores across the country. (See our coverage here.)

VoIP Planet had a chance to test the bundle recently. 8×8 set us up with a small PBX connecting three home offices in different corners of the continent. We were impressed.

The 6755i, a 39-button screen phone, is by no means the cheapest IP phone on the market at $199, but based on our testing, it’s a pretty good one. Most of the time, audio quality on the 8×8 system was markedly superior to what we’re accustomed to on the PSTN.

Prices for 8×8 Virtual Office—which 8×8 first started actively marketing in 2006 and which it says is already in use by over 16,000 businesses—start as low as $4.99 a month (but you pay 5.9 cents a minute for long distance calling with that package.)

In our test system, each phone was provisioned with the $49/month Unlimited Extension plan. It includes a DID (direct inward dial) number, standard PBX features—auto attendant, user-configurable voicemail, voicemail as e-mail, ring groups, one-number access, etc.—plus unlimited calling to landlines in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and the UK.

The company also charges a $39.99 one-time activation fee, whichever service plan you choose.

8×8 Virtual Office works with broadband Internet services rather than dedicated IP connections. The company provides a multi-part online test to weed out connections that don’t come up to snuff, and recommends companies use network routers with quality of service (QoS) features that give priority to voice.

The Internet connections at two of our locations were deemed inadequate for highest-quality VoIP performance. Despite downstream throughput of 3 Mbps or more and better than 300 Kbps upstream, the 8×8 tool found Quality of Service was below 50 percent. This “shows that your connection is unable to produce a constant stream of data,” the tool reported.

The bulk of our testing for this review was done from a Rogers service in Canada with similar downstream and upstream throughput, but which the tool reported as having over 75 percent Quality of Service. Despite the poor report on two of our locations, Virtual Office worked as well as or better than other VoIP services in internal testing, with only occasional minor problems.

8×8 sent each participant a phone. Hardware set-up—assembling the phone and plugging it into a router using the supplied Ethernet cable—was simple enough.

The company had already partly programmed the phones and set up a portal site for our virtual PBX. It also assigns a “technical installation lead” to each account, a technician who is available at a toll-free number to walk individual users or administrators through the rest of the set-up process.

We dispensed with the over-the-phone installation sessions. Each participant logged into the portal site and configured features for their own extension by entering name and other basic information and choosing a DID number. (Most U.S. area codes are available.)

Once these steps are completed, the phone automatically logs in to the 8×8 site and configures itself. Approximate time to complete per user: 20 minutes.

The set-up at one site did not work properly at first. Audio was only one way—outgoing audio was heard, but incoming audio didn’t come through.

8×8 technical support determined the problem was with the ISP’s DNS (domain name server) not being able to resolve 8×8’s media server. Adding 8×8’s DNS as a secondary in the Virtual Office configuration files for that extension and tweaking the QoS features on the router at our location solved the problem.

The 6755i is a conventional-looking office screen phone, with a footprint of about 9 x 9 inches. It’s wall mountable, but also comes with detachable, multi-position legs for desk mounting.

One design quibble: The handset fits too snugly in the slot on the phone base making it difficult to hang up without concentrating on the task.

The 3 x 2.25 inch (144 x 75 pixel) monochrome screen displays softkey options and status information.

The home screen includes softkeys for corporate directory (internal names and extension numbers stored on the virtual PBX), call forwarding, voicemail, intercom, do not disturb (DND). When you place a call, additional options appear, including conference, drop, transfer.

There are also dedicated buttons for caller list (call history), options, user phonebook and the services menu (directory, voicemail and optional WebApps—the Aastra phones support XML applications). Plus, of course, the usual disconnect, hold, redial, speaker phone (or headset) and mute buttons.

8×8 also set us up with a virtual number for the PBX. This is a central number that a virtual company with employees working from different locations could give out to customers. We set up the auto-attendant features to work with this number.

Setting up the auto attendant using the browser interface was as simple as with any virtual or hosted PBX product we’ve tried, simpler than most. It mainly involves selecting options from pull-down lists.

You specify schedules for after hours and holiday answering, write greeting scripts (main greeting, after hours, holiday, sub-menus, etc.) in the fields provided and specify actions you want the PBX to take in response to caller button presses. “If the caller presses 1, then…”—choices include transferring to an extension, activating the dial-by-name feature and transferring to voice mail.

At the end of the process, 8×8 sends the administrator an e-mail with the scripts and instructions on how to record them (by phoning an 8×8 number and following prompts). It’s not possible to record greetings on a computer and upload audio files, which is unfortunate because this method can deliver better audio quality.

Most of the configuration tasks and phone procedures are reasonably intuitive, and work as advertised.

That said, we did have some difficulty setting up One-Number Access, the option that lets users specify multiple numbers—e.g. office, mobile, home—where the system can try to reach them by ringing sequentially or simultaneously.

The information needed to make it work properly—the slightly counter-intuitive fact that you have to enter 9 before a ten-digit outside number—is there in the help information, but could perhaps have been included in the interface itself.

Similarly, the process for setting up a teleconference when you’re on a call and want to conference in a second incoming call requires more steps than necessary. Also, at one point you get a dial tone but have to ignore it and press the phone’s conference button to complete the three-way connection.

We did also notice occasional short pauses when making connections. When calling a Virtual Office number set up with One-Number Access, for example, there is a brief pause after the system answers but before the message plays asking callers to state their name.

And on some occasions, callers heard a slightly truncated version of user voice mail greetings.

But these are quibbles. In most test calls from the main test site, Virtual Office and the Aastra 6755i performed very well together. Audio quality and volume level on the phone are both excellent, especially on speaker phone.

We did notice slight echo on one call, occasional clipping due to dropped packets during parts of others, including some between our PBX extensions. And there appeared to be slight latency in some cross-country connections.

But these are flaws that rarely if ever made conversation difficult—that most users would hardly notice, in fact. And they likely had everything to do with the vagaries of ‘inadequate’ home-office broadband connections and connecting over the open Internet, and little to do with 8×8 engineering.

In general, on two-party calls, connection quality was equal to or superior to other hosted PBX services we’ve tried.

Conference calls involving all three of our virtual extensions were almost as impressive. In stress tests with the three participants talking at once over each other, there was little jitter, voices were still intelligible.

However, on a couple of conference calls, one participant reported muffled audio and low volume from one of the other sites—making conversation difficult in one instance.

Bottom line: the 8×8 Virtual Office IP PBX service may not be the absolute cheapest available, but the inclusion of unlimited calling in North America and some overseas locations means the Unlimited Extension plan very attractive. It also worked well in our testing, with the exceptions noted above, and was relatively easy to set up.

The fact that it’s from a national supplier and is easily available at retail may not guarantee superior reliability, but surely makes it more likely. It will also bring Virtual Office to the attention of small businesses that might not otherwise consider the hosted PBX option. And that’s probably a good thing.

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