Can I use softphones, like Lync, Google Voice, or Skype for my business phone service?

The short answer to this question is yes – many software-based phone systems exist that allow for communication through a range of devices.  That answer doesn’t tell the whole story, though.  The real question to ask as a business owner is: “how important are my phones to me and what do I want to use them for?”

What is a softphone, and what are the advantages of using softphones instead of hard phones?

A softphone is simply a piece of software that acts like a traditional phone, but runs on some type of computer, like a PC, Mac, tablet, or smart phone.  Examples include Microsoft’s Lync, Counterpath’s Bria, and Broadsoft’s UC-One.

Softphones allow users to speak through the microphone/speaker or headset of their device and communicate in relatively the same way that they would through a traditional “hard” phone.  A big advantage of softphones is that they require very little cost to purchase, and can be used anywhere in the world that has a decent internet connection.  Softphones retain many of the features that traditional IP phones possess, and require little to no maintenance when moving from place to place with different internet connections.

Softphones can also integrate presence and Instant Messaging (IM), allowing users to see exactly who in their contact list is available or not with a quick glance, and chat with them.  These are extremely powerful tools, especially in fast-paced organizations that need to be able to communicate and exchange vital information quickly.

What are some of the drawbacks to using a softphone?

There are a few things that users will need to adjust to in using softphones.  For one, the reliability of the voice quality is largely dependent on the quality of the internet connection.  Decent sounding voice calls will require 80Kbps and latency of 100ms or below, which is not always guaranteed with shared internet connections like the kind you might see in a hotel or a local coffee shop.  When using a WiFi connection, problems can also arise from interference from other devices on the network.

Even when using a fully dedicated, hard-wired internet connection, softphones can create audio problems.  There is no way to manage a network and prioritize audio traffic from softphones over regular data traffic (browsing the web, sending emails, etc.).  If there is ever a conflict between devices on the network, the audio quality can and will suffer.

Simply put, there is no way to effectively control the quality of the audio using this type of system.  That being said, softphones can be very effective when alternative methods of communication are not available, e.g. when traveling in remote areas or internationally.

The Polycom VVX 500 is an example of a "hard" IP phone

The Polycom VVX 500 is an example of a “hard” IP phone

What are the advantages of using a hard phone?

Hard phones allow for consistent, high-quality audio.  Most phones and service providers these days can provide High Definition (HD) phone service, which allows for crystal-clear audio, and eliminates the need for saying “F as in Frank”, etc.  Having a hard phone also allows a voice appliance or router on your network to monitor and prioritize your audio traffic.  This happens in two ways: Quality of Service (QOS) and Mean Opinion Scoring (MOS).

Functionally speaking, hard phones can do everything a softphone can do as well.  A user may need to use another application in conjunction with their hardphone to see presence or engage in Instant Messaging (IM), but after a few attempts this type of communication becomes seamless.

What is QOS and why do I need it?

QOS allows users on a network to use both computers and IP phones at the same time on the same network without fear that their voice quality could be affected by their data needs.  For example: if ten people are on IP phones in an office, they would be using up more than 1/2 of the bandwidth provided by a T1 circuit.  If someone in that office chooses to download a movie at the same time, the QOS router will slow down that download while the other workers are on the phone, ensuring that each of those phone conversations remain high quality.

Network appliances these days are smart enough to even allow a single connection for both a phone and computer at a desk, while still being able to distinguish voice packets from regular data packets.  This is done through the use of VLANs, which are set up by a (good) VoIP engineer.

Softphones do not have the ability to be tagged in VLANs, and cannot be recognized by a router or other such appliance for prioritization.  Therefore, if there is a fight for bandwidth, voice quality will lose and the conversation will become unintelligible.

Scores range from 1 - 5 and are a standard measurement of voice quality among providers.

Scores range from 1 – 5 and are a standard measurement of voice quality among providers.

What is the importance of a Mean Opinion Score (MOS)?

MOS measures a multitude of different factors that could possibly affect a voice conversation in a negative way.  This allows VoIP providers to constantly monitor the voice quality of each individual hard phone to ensure it is always working properly.

If and when an audio problem occurs, engineers use MOSs to determine what went wrong, and how best to fix it.  Softphones do not allow for MOSs to be measured.  If there is a problem with the audio on softphone, a provider will not be able to diagnose the issue or recommend any solution.

How important is voice quality to me?

This is the real question to ask when deciding between softphones and hard IP phones.  We’ve all had conversations with 1-800 support lines that have call centers halfway across the planet, or spoken with someone in a bad cell phone area, and the results typically range from aggravating at best to disastrous at worst.

The other consideration is determining what your customers’ expectations are.  VoIP may be the wave of the future, but one thing that traditional copper line service has always provided is clear, consistent quality – every single time you make a call.  Customers that can’t communicate effectively with your workers may quickly become frustrated and decide to move their business elsewhere.  In addition, your workers may become frustrated when they can’t accomplish tasks that they used to be able to when audio quality was consistently high.

Many people wrongly believe that VoIP is not a proven technology.  The fact is that the large majority of voice carriers in the world today process ALL of their calls using VoIP, because of the tremendous efficiency gains and lower costs that VoIP brings.  However, there are still many ways that VoIP can go wrong and calls can sound poor.  When implemented properly, a good VoIP system will not only improve call quality, but also enhance the way your business communicates with the outside world and conducts business in general.  Therefore, if voice quality is important to you, stick with hard phones and supplement your service with softphones only when necessary.