IP phone integration for your small office/home office and residential VoIP

Most residential VoIP customers use an analog telephone adapter (ATA) and their regular office desk phone hardware to access VoIP phone service. However, using an IP phone to access VoIP phone service in a residence or small home office is also an option.

IP phone integration with a residential or small office/home office (SOHO) setup is not difficult, but the steps to follow and/or even the phone models to use might be dictated by your VoIP service provider. Since compatibility is always an issue, be sure to consult your VoIP service provider before making any investments in IP phones or other hardware.

An ATA vs. IP Telephone Integration

Many residential or SOHO VoIP service providers, such as Vonage, include a VoIP adapter for quick and easy setup of a VoIP phone system. (Skype was originally designed as a PC-to-PC phone service, but now sells an ATA for home use for $59.99.) An ATA enables a residential or SOHO VoIP consumer to use their office desk phone without the additional expense of an IP phone or any other hardware.

Why Use a VoIP Adapter?

A VoIP adapter works by converting analog signals to digital signals and packetizing the voice call. The voice call is then sent over the Internet as data, bypassing the public switched telephone network (PSTN) of the traditional telecommunications network. (The PSTN basically sends calls out as electrical signals.)

An ATA usually sits between the router or cable modem and the phone, but does not involve the computer at all. (The computer can be on or off to make calls. It doesn't matter — you're only using the Internet signal from the router or cable modem.)

Sometimes the ATA can be part of a combination router and ATA, allowing the computer and phone to plug into one external device at the same time. A router/ATA combo creates digitized packets of data and passes them on to the next station on the journey, but involves fewer cords, outlets, and power bricks. Vonage supports several compatible models of router/ATA devices, such as the Motorola VT2142 and the D-Link VWR. Phone.com also supports one model that combines a router and an ATA.

Why Use an IP Phone?

IP telephony integration translates your home office phone system into a purely IP-based network for voice calls, video, and data. IP telephony integration can also streamline your home office network and introduce more convenience features.

Using an IP phone eliminates the need for an ATA. IP telephony integration simplifies the VoIP process by incorporating the functions of an ATA in the office desk phone.

An IP phone includes all the hardware and software needed to convert, compress, and packetize a voice call right in the phone itself. This one-step method of IP phone integration means that the IP phone can be plugged directly into the Ethernet, or local area network (LAN), just like the computer. In fact, Vonage supports an IP phone model (the Uniden UIP1869V) that includes a router in the office desk phone, so that the computer plugs into the phone, which then connects to the modem.

One less device cluttering up your desk or office, one less cord to trip over or accidentally unplug, and one less power drain smashed into your power strip (or UPS, if you're smart) are all equally valid reasons to accommodate IP telephones in your SOHO or residential VoIP setup.

Phone.com supports another method that involves adding more hardware — Phone.com's recommended models support an Ethernet pass-through as an option for IP telephony integration. The pass-through is connected to the computer and uses it as an Ethernet hub. The IP phone plugs into the Ethernet pass-through, which is plugged into the computer.

IP Telephony Integration with Residential/SOHO VoIP Phone Service

In an office setting, IP telephony integration would be as simple as plugging an IP phone into an RJ45 wall or computer jack and accessing the LAN or Ethernet. In a residential or SOHO situation, it is unlikely that the office location (especially if it's a spare room, study, or basement) is hardwired for Ethernet, unless it's a new development in an area that has adopted fiber to the user (FTTU) and future-proofed homes with structured wiring.

For most residential or SOHO VoIP users, the physical setting is likely wired strictly for the PSTN. If your small office is too small to consider a hosted PBX solution (which would also typically involve purchasing a VoIP gateway or SIP trunk), then converting the analog PSTN signals to digital, VoIP-ready data chunks is the answer. (However, don't discount the hosted PBX option — some businesses such as Phone.com or Cloud Phone 7 cater to SOHO clients with custom VoIP PBX packages for few or no-employee situations.)

To produce Internet-ready voice calls in a SOHO setting without a hardwired LAN, you either need:

  1. An intermediary between the phone and the Internet connection that can handle the signal conversion, compression, and packetization (an ATA), or
  2. A way to incorporate an IP phone into the LAN, probably using a device such as a VoIP router

IP telephony integration will most likely involve one of these options:

  • VoIP router with SIP and other protocols
  • IP phone with built-in router
  • IP PBX for small office
  • Ethernet pass-through
  • Power over Ethernet (PoE) device

A premise-based IP PBX for a SOHO is a less common solution, because it is usually more complex to set up and may require the help of a VoIP professional, but it is a possibility. Something like the OvisLink IP PBX, available for under $400, claims to be easy to install, and offers features such as an auto attendant, voicemail-to-email, and ring groups.

The Benefits of IP Telephony Integration

With IP telephone integration, a VoIP phone system and a small home business can support more advanced functions and features. For instance, IP phones can facilitate improved customer relationship management (CRM) through applications, or just the convenience of basic IP phone features.

CRM phone integration can include features such as incorporating a contact list or company directory in the phone, or clicking a phone number online and having the phone dial the number. With IP phones and the right CRM phone integration, incoming calls can register as screen pops with identifying information, call histories, and other data.

CRM phone integration may also support more advanced situations, such as a remote worker able to access the same advanced CRM functions as office-bound colleagues. With CRM phone integration, an employee at home with an IP phone might be able to provide customer service while recording notes, tracking answers, and more. Remote workers can be added to an automatic call distribution (ACD) call queue, with access to customer account details, and be reached through 4-digit dialing, use call recording if applicable, and more.

Home office employees using Cisco's Virtual Office solution, for instance, use a router with an IP phone to access the same unified communications communications tools as in-office workers, including wireless, voice, and video, as well as access to company networks and data. Cisco IP phones require a separate power source, or PoE device.

IP Phones: The Cost

IP phones have dropped in price as VoIP phone systems become more widespread. Even an entry-level Polycom phone is affordable at just $117 for a SoundPoint IP 335 (Amazon.com, 5/24/12). A Cisco SPA 303 phone for the small business market is priced at $85 (Amazon.com, 5/14/12).

Grandstream offers a range of entry-level phones at very affordable prices. The GXP 1405 retails at $59 (Amazon.com, 5/24/12) and the GXP 2000 is $75 at TelcoDepot.com (5/24/12).

IP phones with more advanced features can be a much bigger investment. The Aastra 57i CT can support as many as 9 concurrent calls, and retails for $279 (Amazon.com, 5/24/12). The Cisco Unified IP Phone 9951 features HD voice and supports video calls, and sells for $543 at Hardware.com (5/24/12).

Of course, if you want to connect IP phones directly to the LAN, your hardware budget might need to be increased. IP telephony integration will likely require the purchase of a/an:

IP Telephony Integration Alternative

If you don't live in a multifamily housing situation such as a condo or apartment complex, and have access to the Network Interface Device (NID) or Demarc box (probably located on the side of your house closest to the telephone pole), you have another option for IP telephony integration: Turn your phone jacks into VoIP-ready IP jacks.

Converting your regular PSTN jacks into IP phone jacks is a cost-efficient and rewarding way to accommodate IP phones without having to physically rewire, buy a special VoIP router with SIP protocols and QoS features, or attach an Ethernet pass-through to the computer. Creating IP jacks is:

  • Easy
  • Free
  • Perfectly legal
  • Non-destructive
  • Totally DIY

To convert your standard phone jacks, you just need a few tools — such as wire cutters — a little confidence, your landlord's permission if necessary, and a VoIP adapter, and you can turn your house into a totally progressive, envy-of-the-neighbors VoIP paragon.

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