If you’re a small business—especially a virtual business, with highly mobile employees or partners distributed across a city, state, country or the globe—hosted IP PBX services make a ton of sense.
Hosted PBXs work over any high-speed Internet connection (over dedicated, managed connections too) with either IP phones in an office environment or softphones on personal computers or smartphones for mobile or work-at-home users.
And they deliver big-company features such as automated attendant, dial by name, integrated voicemail, voicemail as e-mail, hunt groups, conference bridges, etc.—generally at fairly reasonable rates.
We tested just such a system recently when we set up a PBX using Junction Networks’ OnSIP, a session initiation protocol (SIP)-based hosted service, and the Bria 3.0 audio/video softphone from CounterPath Corp., which is available for Mac, Windows, and Linux platforms.
Our PBX linked three, sometimes four, members of VoIP Planet’s highly distributed team—two in the eastern U.S., one on the west coast and one alternating between Spain and Canada.
Our overall assessment? Call quality even over standard home cable and DSL Internet connections was frequently excellent. When using the super-wideband HD (high-definition) codec included with Bria, it was sometimes (but not always) the best we’ve heard on any VoIP service.
Call quality was almost always at least acceptable, even on three- and four-way conference calls. On the best of the test conference calls, all participants could hear all others even when they deliberately spoke over each other—a test on which other VoIP-over-Internet services often fail.
But call quality was by no means always great. On some test calls, quality would be less than stellar at one end, with break-up and drop outs, but excellent at the other. In a couple of cases, one party could hear nothing, but that person could be heard loud and clear at other end points.
As always, it is virtually impossible to determine if such sub-par results are the because of telephony service provider problems or poor broadband connections—or a combination of the two.
OnSIP is also not the easiest of systems to set up and use. Ditto for Bria. Part of the reason is that both are very full-featured products, which always increases complexity.
Bria, for example, offers not one, not two, but three different ways to set up conference calls, and OnSIP adds a fourth, an optional conference bridge for use with non-SIP-compliant PSTN callers. This is a good thing because it provides conferencing solutions for every conceivable scenario. But it does add complexity.
Bria also offers complete control of audio and video codecs. Some codecs ship with the product and it finds others already on the computer. Users can hand pick which codecs the softphone will attempt to use when setting up a call.
Most softphone clients let you set up one audio device at a time. Bria lets you set up one device for use in headphone mode and one for speakerphone mode, so users can switch back and forth between the two as they can with office phone sets.
OnSIP offers almost endless flexibility in how you set up the PBX, and customers can do it all themselves online. Using the administrative portal interface, they can add new users, on the fly, including users who only have access to a PSTN phone. (PSTN-based users can even be assigned a four-digit OnSIP extension.)
Customers can also provision or modify applications—conference bridges, auto attendants, hunt groups, etc.—and account options online. This self-provisioning capability is one of the product’s strengths, but may daunt non-technical small business owners or managers.
Nor is it just the inherent complexity of the products that makes them sometimes difficult to use. A couple of simple examples:
If you’re an administrative user of OnSIP, you need to remember three different logins and passwords to access all the features and settings—one for the MyOnSIP instant messaging and presence interface (yes, OnSIP does offer some of the features of a unified communications solution), one for individual user configuration options, and another for PBX configuration settings.
Why not one login for all? We asked, and a company spokesman indicated that it had little choice but to follow industry security standards.
The newly redesigned interface for Bria 3.0 looks slick, but in our opinion is not as intuitive as CounterPath’s earlier eyeBeam softphone. To record a call, for example, you have to click a tiny down arrow beside the call button to access a drop-down menu of call options.
But the record-call option doesn’t appear there unless you’re actually on a call. So you need to read the documentation first to even know it’s an available feature. In CounterPath’s EyeBeam interface, the call record button is always visible in the main dial pad window.
Similarly, to ‘merge’ two calls (one live, one on hold) to create an on-the-fly conference—a very useful feature in Bria—you need to click a tiny down arrow beside the End button in the currently live call to access the call menu with the merge option. Not highly intuitive.
And it was not possible to access Bria’s presence and instant messaging features. Other PBX users should appear in contact lists with presence information. Carefully following the provided set-up procedures for creating an XMPP account that supposedly makes this possible, did not work—even though it was possible to dial another PBX extension by clicking the user’s name.
It should also be possible to set up Bria to integrate with directories that use LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) and Microsoft’s ADSI (Active Directory Service Interfaces) but, again, according to a Junction Network spokesman, OnSIP doesn’t support either directory protocol.
Are these killer flaws? Probably not, if you have IT or other in-house staff willing to tackle the complexity issue and solve the problems as they arise. Both products do offer superior features which may make them worth the trouble.
Are they worth the price? You decide.
Bria costs from $38 to $50 per seat depending on quantity ordered, just slightly more than the earlier eyeBeam softphone product.
OnSIP bundled pricing starts at $39.95 per month for a SoHo package and goes to $199.95 for a “Medium Biz” bundle. The pricing includes unlimited extensions and unlimited on-net calling—meaning calls within the PBX (even if the extensions are in different physical locations) and to other OnSIP PBX users.
However, it does not include any off-net PSTN calling. And the bundled features are limited. With the SoHo package, for example, you get five voice mailboxes (the small business package 15, the medium biz package 50). If you have more users who need voice mail, you pay an additional $2 per month each for mailboxes.
This is not such a bad thing, as it provides a great deal of flexibility and allows customers to pay for only what they need. They can also add features to any bundle—a conference bridge that supports up to 15 users for $19.95 a month, for example, or an ACD (automatic call distribution) queue for $19.95—and provision them themselves online.
The bottom line is that OnSIP and Bria are probably the most fully featured combination of hosted IP PBX and softphone you’re going to find, and they provide the kind of flexibility and user control that many companies wary of outsourcing PBX functionality will appreciate. But these are not products for the technically faint of heart.