9 Steps to Optimize Your Network for VoIP - PCMag.com

9 Steps to Optimize Your Network for VoIP - PCMag.com


9 Steps to Optimize Your Network for VoIP - PCMag.com

Posted: 16 May 2020 12:00 AM PDT

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


Closeup of a VoIP desk phone

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.


Image of depressed man tangled up in PC cabling

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.


Image of a mobile phone battery indicator

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


Image of cables coming out of a working switch device

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 packet go missing or arrive at its destination a little late. Voice, however, is a different animal since it's a real-time application. The last few syllables of your sales pitch can't be healed if they arrive late, they're just dropped, which means your customer will hear static. You don't want that and there are several ways that network administrators and VoIP providers can configure your network to avoid. One of the most popular is the virtual LAN (VLAN).

Building one of these is the same principal as building a virtual PC "inside" your physical PC, only in this case it's a virtual network inside your physical network. Essentially a portion of your network cabling (or "pipe space") is now managed as a network unto itself, running its own traffic. That's advantageous for VoIP because if that's the only traffic running over your VLAN you're far less likely to have that traffic drop or have other difficulties. VLANs let you re-distribute voice network traffic into its own protected space to ensure that voice and video calls don't get dropped when someone starts downloading a large file. If you dedicate your VLAN only to phone and video traffic, then you'll be able to isolate and manage VoIP traffic without having to worry about tertiary traffic.

Of course, the flip side is (a) how much of your pipe should you apportion to this VLAN, and (b) how will the loss of that overall bandwidth affect your other applications? Those are important questions and you can really only answer them with some real-world testing, so make sure that's part of your roll-out process for any VoIP implementation. Voice is important, but if protecting it means crashing everything else on a regular basis, you're not doing yourself any favors. What are your most resilient apps when it comes to loss of bandwidth, and how can you configure your network infrastructure to support the rest of your software portfolio? Your network administrators need answers to these questions and only some quality testing time can provide them. 


Product image of a Meraki access point

5. Manage Wireless Traffic with Access Point Handoff

Mobile VoIP is becoming a popular solution in many business settings, partially because it adds flexibility to certain workloads and partially because it reduces data transfer costs over mobile devices. That's essentially done by automatically having voice communications move to your Wi-Fi network whenever your company-owned mobile devices see your on-premises network. But many of the same challenges network managers face when adding voice traffic to their wired network are mirrored when it moves to wireless.

"Traditional Wi-Fi networks are usually a small managed system designed for laptops and tablets, and not for voice and video," said Peterson. Because of this discrepancy, it's important that you analyze your network to determine how many simultaneous calls your wireless connection can manage. Peterson recommends managed Wi-Fi that supports access point (AP) handoff for when one network becomes overburdened. That capability helps network administrators ensure a smooth traffic handoff when a mobile device moves out of the range of one access point and into the range of another. Failure to optimize that little step can result in auditory problems at a minimum all the way up to outright dropped calls. He also suggests a system that is set for smaller packet sizes as well as an on-premises or cloud-based controller that can manually control access points when necessary.  


Concept image of data security

6. Expand Your Firewall Function

Peterson suggests taking any vendor's maximum published throughput with a grain of salt. "This is not enough of a benchmark for how much media you can drive through a firewall," he explained. If you don't have someone in your organization who can help you determine the difference between media and data traffic, then contact a professional, which companies like RingCentral or Intermedia are usually happy to provide.

If you're IT-savvy, then know that Peterson recommends using software-defined firewalls, which are designed to filter internal data traffic and packets rather than just data traffic. Of course, that means building a software-defined network on top of your physical network, which usually has it's own planning and implementation process. 


Image of a wireless router

7. Evaluate Your Router

Determine if your router has functionality dedicated to providing traffic shaping and policy-based management. This can make things drastically less complex and time consuming for your already-stressed IT managers because it lets you prioritize voice and video data on your network in multiple ways.

"What we look for is basically assuming one out of every five people will be on a 1-megabits-per-second [Mbps] voice call, and one out of every 7 will be on a [video] conference at 100 megabits per second," he said. Multiply the number of voice users at your company who will be on a voice call and a video call at any given moment, and then multiple that number by a minimum of five. That's how many Mbps of traffic your router should be able to manage without any issue.  And, again, these same issues will happen on your wireless network should you opt for mobile VoIP connectivity.

Fortunately, this can all be solved with the same process: testing. Proper network testing is simply a matter of running the right kind of simulation traffic through your current network configuration and then tweaking our settings until VoIP and application traffic can exist peacefully. Naturally, IT managers and likely some professional services engineers from your VoIP provider will do this work, but on the upside you probably won't have to spend additional money on network tools as testing is generally part of any existing network monitoring tool suite. On the wireless side, however, you might want to look at beefing up your network management capability with tools dedicated to wireless traffic management, like J2 Global's own Ekahau Pro


Concept image of network traffic

8. Test Prioritization Options

As mentioned above, once you start running voice traffic over your data network, you'll quickly realize that this traffic becomes real important real fast. For example, few things ruin a successful sales call faster than the customer getting cut off or having your sales pitch turned into a series of unintelligible bleeps and blurps. Bottom line: you want to protect your voice traffic over your application traffic because the latter can withstand rough network conditions like latency, jitter, and other network traffic problems much more resiliently than voice.

We've mentioned that one of the best ways to protect any traffic stream is through judicious use of a virtual LANs (VLAN), but you've got other options as long as your router and other network infrastructure support it. One of the most popular is quality of service (QoS). This is a technology based on industry standards, but it can get implemented differently depending on which router and switch hardware your network is using. So if your IT manager thinks QoS is a better option than a VLAN first find out why and then second make sure to sit down with your IT staff and your VoIP provider. During that conversation work out a short but thorough test of these features on your existing network infrastructure and replace or update as necessary before rolling VoIP out in production. Your business will thank you.  


Concept image of network management architecture

9. Decide Whether a VPN Is Right for Your VoIP Calls

VoIP is a long-time standard, and as with many mature technologies, security wasn't exactly top-of-mind when it was invented. One of the key security issues with VoIP is its underlying transport mechanism, the Session Initiated Protocol (SIP). While there are a couple of ways you can secure SIP, one of the best is to simply encrypt the stream by running it through a virtual private network (VPN).

While that's relatively easy for a single call, however, it becomes complicated quickly when you're talking about many phone calls in a business setting. Spend some time evaluating VPN solutions from vendors that understand the requirements of securing VoIP traffic, and test those solutions under load to make sure you're not increasing your security at the cost of call quality.  

Further Reading

VoIP & Phone Service Reviews

Best residential VoIP services for your home - Mashable

Posted: 14 May 2020 12:06 PM PDT

By transmitting your conversation through the internet, VoIP calls are usually crisper and more clear, meaning you can feel more in touch with the loved one than dealing with old-fashioned phone lines.

Best Overall

RingCentral

This popular VoIP service is perfect for residential use with an easy-to-use interface and unlimited calls.

All products featured here are independently selected by our editors and writers.If you buy something through links on our site, Mashable may earn an affiliate commission.

Traditionally, VoIP services are seen as primarily for businesses and professional needs, but they're increasingly popular within home environments too. If you're looking for the best residential VoIP service for you, you've come to the right place. 

At its simplest, a VoIP works kind of like FaceTime or Skype, allowing you to make calls through the internet rather than having to rely on traditional landline or your cell phone. Many services also offer additional features as part of your subscription or for a small fee. Generally, VoIPs are far more advanced and specialized than something like FaceTime, so you need to know precisely what you require, so you don't end up spending more than you need to. 

Most VoIP services involve a subscription fee on a rolling basis, but they often end up saving you money in the long term by providing you with free or low-cost calls as part of a bundle deal. That's particularly the case if you have many friends or relatives who require you to make international calls at peak times. VoIP services are often far more reliable, too. 

Read on to discover everything you need to know about residential VoIP services and the best ones for your individual situation. 

Why are VoIPs necessary? 

While you can still choose to use a landline to call loved ones, using a VoIP is typically far more reliable and also often cheaper. By transmitting your conversation through the internet, calls are usually crisper and more clear, meaning you can feel more in touch with the loved one than dealing with old-fashioned phone lines. Costs are also often much lower, especially when dealing with regular calls made long-distance. If you want to enjoy extra features like recording your calls, that's often an option, too, through VoIP services. 

What's the difference between a residential VoIP and a business VoIP?

Simply put, there isn't really any difference. Most VoIP companies offer features that benefit both residential homes and businesses. It's down to you to know what to look for and what is excessive for your home needs. Not that there isn't some overlap in features that can be useful for both scenarios. 

What to look for when buying a VoIP service

It's essential to think about what you need from your VoIP service. Do you simply want cheap calls with high quality? Or do you need voicemail features and automatic call recording? With so many different VoIP services out there, it's crucial to have an idea of what you want so that you don't spend too much on unwanted features. 

Another thing to consider is your budget. It's possible to spend a lot on a VoIP service with many residential users rarely needing the advanced features that heftier subscriptions provide. 

Simple to use interface • Flexible price options • Unlimited calls within the US/Canada
Not strictly the cheapest option • Not all features necessary for home use
RingCentral is a big name in VoIP for a good reason. It's simple to use and reasonably well priced, albeit not the cheapest.

1. RingCentral

This popular VoIP service is perfect for residential use with an easy-to-use interface and unlimited calls.
  • Essentials: $19.99 per month
  • Standard: $24.99 per month
  • Premium: $34.99 per month
  • Ultimate: $49.99 per month

One of the best-known options in VoIP, RingCentral is popular for a good reason. It's simple to use and well priced too. It has a dedicated app that's easy to understand, making it simple to make voice calls or text to your heart's content. On the Essentials plan, you can enjoy unlimited calls within the US and Canada, which is perfect for relatives strewn around North America. Alternatively, if you want to enjoy unlimited audio conferencing and video meetings with everyone possible (up to 100 participants), you can upgrade to the Standard package for $5 per month more.
Elsewhere, the features can be a bit business heavy, but you'll still enjoy the useful essentials throughout. One neat bonus is the voicemail-to-text ability, which could be incredibly helpful if you have any relatives who are deaf or who have hearing challenges. Another convenient extra is the ability to share documents that can easily be used together with family chats. Call quality is consistently regarded as high-end, so your interactions should always be clear and crisp.

Unlimited calls across the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico • Video Conferencing functionality • File sharing options
Overpowered for most home users • Can seem complicated
Intermedia Unite may look overpowered for some residential users, but we like its extensive cloud storage for keeping everyone together.

2. Intermedia Unite

Push past the intimidating surface, and this is an excellent VoIP for organized families.
  • Unite: $28.99 per month
  • Unite Pro: $38.99 per month

On the surface, Intermedia Unite seems a bit intimidating for home needs, but it has a lot going for it. Crucially, it offers unlimited calls within the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico — a notable feature as other VoIPs don't often cater for Puerto Rico. There's unlimited texting too, which can be useful in certain situations. On the lower-end package, you can easily arrange video conferencing with up to four people before extending to an audio conference with up to 200 people. 
What we like most is that Intermedia Unite bundles in cloud storage for file sharing and backups as standard. You get 2GB per user, which is perfect for sharing cute video files of the grandkids or even sharing recipes and other virtual family hand-me-downs. 
Intermedia Unite offers more than you'll need as a family given its business integration tools, but stuff like automatic spam call protection and automatic call recording remind you that these business features can be useful whatever your situation. 

Unlimited calling within 14 countries • Mobile and desktop app options • Video conferencing
Site is intensely business focused • Gets pricey if you need more countries
If you have loved ones scattered around the world, you want a VoIP service that takes that into account. 8x8 is one of the best options out there.

3. 8x8

It's a little complex for residential users, but 8x8 offers convenient support for calls to more than just North America, which makes it great for international calls.
  • 8x8 Express: $12 per month (and 30-day free trial)
  • X Series X2: $25 per month
  • X Series X4: $45 per month
  • X Series X6: $115 per month

Have relatives or friends who live abroad? Calls will no doubt end up being pretty pricey on your landline, which is why 8x8 is the perfect solution. For roughly the same price as other VoIPs, you can enjoy unlimited calls to the US, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. That's a huge bonus for many. The downside is that if you need more countries than this, then the price goes up a lot. Still, for many, this is a great starting point.
As well as that, 8x8 offers crisp HD voice calls, HD audio, and video meetings with screen sharing options, and you can enjoy some conveniences like voicemail. With comprehensive apps for mobile and desktop, it's the perfect setup for those who regularly call abroad. There is even voicemail transcription and automatic call recording for those times you might want to check back on something.

Cheap unlimited calls for six months • Voicemail • Virtual number support
Little pricey once the introductory offer ends • Limited features
Simple to use with some great introductory offers, Vonage for Home is good for a while but can get expensive.

4. Vonage for Home

A well-known name, Vonage is reliable and has useful offers for those wanting to call a lot.
  • Unlimited North America: $14.99 per month
  • Unlimited World: $19.99 per month
  • US & Canada 400 minutes/month: $14.99 per month

Vonage is a big name in business VoIP services, and Vonage for Home is just as good for residential users. At its simplest, it offers unlimited calls to the US, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, whether via your landline or your mobile. Just slot an adaptor on your landline to enjoy the service. 
Upgrade to a more expensive service, however, and you get access to unlimited calls to 60 different countries from your landline or ten via your cell phone. It's nearly as simple as making a regular call, so it's perfect for relatives and friends who aren't so savvy about tech.
The best offers come from tying into a 12-month contract, but you can also opt to pay by the month, which can be useful during certain situations such as if a loved one has traveled abroad temporarily. Other features are a little limited on the ground compared to more business-focused VoIP packages, but that means you don't pay for services you don't require so it works out to be a good deal.

Useful near free plan available • Quick set up process • Broadband isn't necessary
Premier plan is needed to get the most out of it • Initial outlay is required
Particularly ideal for users without a home internet connection, Ooma Telo works out as an inexpensive deal with a nearly free plan that should suit a lot of people.

5. Ooma Telo

This dedicated residential VoIP plan requires the purchase of equipment starting out but it can work out to be a lot cheaper in the long run.
  • Basic Plan: Service is free (you pay only monthly taxes and fees), though the device will run you $99.99
  • Premier Plan: $9.99 per month

Unlike some other companies listed here, Ooma has a fairly straightforward pricing plan. Crucially, Ooma Basic only requires you to pay monthly taxes and fees which often works out at only a few bucks a month. For the small price, you get free calls within the US along with features like answering machine functionality, and low-cost international calls. On this plan, you'll need to pay a one-off fee to keep your existing number plus whatever plan you choose and you'll need to buy additional equipment, but oftentimes, it still works out as a great deal.
There's also a huge advantage to the Ooma Telo 4G equipment which doesn't require you to have home broadband set up to use it and just involves a $12 cellular access fee instead each month. That's perfect if you're looking for a set up for a less tech-savvy friend or relative or simply someone who has no interest in broadband, but who still wants to save a lot of cash on their phone bill.
Just bear in mind that you'll need to upgrade to Ooma Premier if you want features like three-way conference calling, more extensive voicemail, and call forwarding, amongst other things. 

Free plans available • High-quality video • Unlimited meetings
Ideally need to buy extra equipment • Better options out there for audio
If video conferencing is vital for your family, then Lifesize is a good option at an even better price. Just don't expect many features.

6. Lifesize

Video calls are great for feeling closer to loved ones. Lifesize is a well-priced way of doing precisely that.
  • Six months: Free
  • Standard: $16.95 per month
  • Plus: $14.95 per month
  • Enterprise: $12.95 per month

Want to see your loved one's face while you talk? There are a wealth of options out there with Lifesize being one of the fastest-growing. With six months free, you can enjoy unlimited meetings with up to 25 participants ensuring that mass family gatherings from around the world just became a reality. The service includes native desktop and mobile apps, although there is the suggestion that equipment via Lifesize makes the experience even better. Whatever you choose, it's a bargain.
Upgrade to a paid service, and you get even more participants in your meetings, along with the option to host one for up to 24 hours. Lifesize isn't really any use for those looking for regular landline style calls, but if you're keen to video chat all day long, you can't go wrong here. 

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