Vol. 83, No. 10, October 2010
With the ongoing downturn in the economy, law firms continue to look at ways to cut costs and improve efficiency. Telecommunication expenses can be one of the major overhead items for law firms of any size, and telecommunications is often one of the most neglected technologies because telephones haven’t changed much (or so it seems) for many years. With the expansion of broadband Internet throughout Wisconsin, Internet-based telecommunications has moved from a rarity to a reality in many areas and may come from nontraditional sources such as cable television providers. Although voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) might not be the right solution for every office, VoIP can not only result in reduced telecommunication costs but also have a direct and positive effect on the effectiveness and efficiency of a firm and its staff.
What is VoIP?
According to the Federal Communications Commission:
“VoIP services convert your voice into a digital signal that travels over the Internet. If you are calling a regular phone number, the signal is converted to a regular telephone signal before it reaches the destination. VoIP can allow you to make a call directly from a computer, a special VoIP phone, or a traditional phone connected to a special adapter.”
Because of their digital nature and use of the Internet, VoIP phone calls bypass the majority of the traditional public switched telephone network (PSTN) – also sometimes referred to as POTS for plain old telephone service. Calls are divided into packets and routed across public networks in much the same manner as other types of Internet traffic and in much the same way that information moves across your office computer network.
VoIP is viewed by many in the legal technology community as the immediate future of voice communications for law firms because of its ability to use a single, integrated network for data and voice communications. This capability presents potential cost savings and allows for advanced call-management features, integration with other network services, and greater usability beyond that available through existing PBX (private branch exchange, which is the phone system used within a private company) or hybrid phone systems and traditional analog phone lines.
Also, unlike traditional phone service, VoIP services can be obtained from several Internet providers, and you can place telephone calls from your computer (either in your office or on the road), from telephones designed specifically to work with VoIP, and from existing telephones. You can use special adapters (commonly called ATAs, for analog telephone adapters) to convert your traditional telephone signal into a digital signal to be carried over a broadband connection. Because VoIP uses the existing Internet connection, it can run seamlessly on both wired and wireless Internet connections.
Benefits of VoIP
- VoIP transforms standard telephone capabilities into another streaming Internet service, which will revolutionize the way telephone calls are made and the features offered. VoIP calls also avoid much of the regulatory structure of the existing telephone industry because of their digital nature: VoIP telephone calls bypass much of the traditional telephone network when calling a phone number and if calling another computer, bypass traditional phone networks and traditional fees entirely. One example is making a long-distance call: if the person at each end has VoIP, there are no long-distance charges.
- VoIP phone providers generally offer additional services such as call waiting, three-way calling, caller ID, and call transfer and forwarding as part of their standard packages.
- Many residential and SOHO (small office home office) VoIP plans include unlimited local and long-distance calling for a flat monthly fee and avoid charges associated with traditional phone services.
- A user with a notebook computer and a headset can make phone calls using a softphone (a software program for dialing and connecting calls) wherever he or she can connect to a wireless hotspot.
- More telephone calls can be carried at lower cost using VoIP technology because of the efficiencies of digital-signal transmission versus analog-signal transmission.
- VoIP is helping to make “unified communications” (discussed below) a reality. VoIP is especially attractive as firms can use a single infrastructure for both data and voice communications. This also has the added benefit of providing advanced features without the need for dedicated equipment, as traditional phone systems do; equipment is subject to obsolescence and is not very user-friendly.
- VoIP phone services can be run across existing computer cables, allowing for better integration between telephone and computer networks to take advantage of unified communication capabilities.
Disadvantages of VoIP
- VoIP requires a high-quality and reliable broadband Internet connection. If you want to be able to surf the Internet and use VoIP services, you may encounter difficulties with slower broadband connections and experience loss of phone quality as a result of dropped telephone-call data packets.
- Because VoIP is dependent on the Internet, when the Internet goes out or slows down, you will either be unable to make VoIP phone calls or the quality of the call will diminish.
- Unlike traditional telephones, which are self powered (their power is provided by the switching equipment of the phone network), VoIP depends on an outside power source. If you experience an electrical outage and do not have a battery backup to power your computer, Internet modem, and ATA device, you will be unable to place telephone calls.
- VoIP calls made on softphones can suffer a loss of quality because of older or slower processors and not enough memory.
- Because voice streaming often takes priority over data-packet transmission, the installation of a VoIP switch may result in quality-of-service requirements degrading data-transmission performance.
- Integrating 911 services and VoIP can pose challenges, because 911 services are not offered by every VoIP provider (most notably Skype). You can certify a firm’s VoIP equipment by calling the local emergency-services provider and certifying that the system is providing correct address and contact information.
More information about VoIP basics is available at the following:
The four primary (although not the only) ways to place and receive VoIP calls are:
- on a computer, using a softphone application;
- on telephones designed specifically to work with VoIP;
- on existing telephones using adapters; and
- through an unlicensed mobility access (UMA)-capable cellphone.
Each method has strengths and weaknesses. One method may be more appropriate for use in one environment, such as residential or SOHO, but not in another, such as a firm of 10 users. The different methods, and some of the options and service providers available, are discussed below.
Nerino J. Petro Jr., Northern Illinois 1988, is the advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411™). He assists lawyers in improving their efficiency in delivering legal services and in implementing systems and controls to reduce risk and improve client relations. Visit the Law Practice Management area at www.wisbar.org regularly for practice management guidance. You can reach Petro at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6012, or email email@example.com.
Computer-based VoIP is the least costly and easiest to use of the VoIP technologies currently available. Some computer-based VoIP solutions use a softphone. The software may be provided by the manufacturer of your in-house VoIP switch or may be one of the publicly available options discussed below. In addition to the computer software, you also need either a microphone, speakers, and a sound card or a computer headset with microphone or a handset specifically designed to work with the softphone software. (You also can use the microphone and speakers, if any, built into your computer.)
Skype (www.skype.com) and Gizmo5 (www.gizmoproject.com; recently purchased by Google and not currently taking new customers) are examples of companies that offer not only the softphone but also VoIP service. There are several handsets that work specifically with Skype or that can work with Skype and your regular telephone.
You also can find softphone software that will work with any VoIP service provider that complies with the SIP protocol (session initiation protocol for VoIP). Examples are Express Talk (Windows and Mac compatible; www.nch.com.au/talk/index.html), 3CXPhone (www.3cx.com/VOIP/softphone.html), and X-Lite (www.counterpath.com). Most softphones will mimic a telephone keypad.
Many of the softphone packages available provide for direct integration with Outlook and other contact-management systems to allow dialing directly from your computer to anyone in your contacts list and integration with billing and other software solutions.
A hybrid of a softphone and an ATA is the MagicJack product (www.magicjack.com). Unlike other ATA-based devices, which can work without a computer (discussed below), the MagicJack needs to be plugged into a running computer and then software downloaded from the Internet. MagicJack installs a softphone interface, which works like any of the other softphone products mentioned. Or, you can plug a regular telephone into the MagicJack device and make calls using the telephone’s keypad.
UMA service allows you to place VoIP calls from your cell phone. According to Lincoln Mead, information technology director for the Utah State Bar Association, UMA takes advantage of an available wireless (Wi-Fi) network to transform a cell phone into a VoIP phone and, depending on the cellular service provider, can greatly reduce cellular fees. “If the cell phone is UMA capable it will attempt to attach to a Wi-Fi provider when one comes in range. If the Wi-Fi service permits UMA, then a connection is established with the cell phone. When you make a call the voice traffic is routed through the Wi-Fi connection rather than the local cell service.” Mead uses this service on his T-Mobile account. He says that “other companies are looking to provide their own variation. As a T-Mobile user, my phone is set to grab public Wi-Fi, and calls made through the UMA service are not deducted from my monthly allotment and I do not pay for the minutes used.” This service does not affect the user’s ability to surf the Internet while making a call, which greatly improves the convenience of UMA service. Mead points out that although this service sounds too good to be true for users, UMA is also a win for the cell phone providers, because it allows them to reduce infrastructure costs, reduce load on cell networks in densely populated areas, and reduce the need for additional towers.
Examples of UMA-enabled phones are the Blackberry Curve, Bold, and Flip; the LG GT505; the Sony Ericcson G705; the HTC Touch; and the Nokia 7510. With the exception of Apple, most data phone manufacturers make at least one UMA-capable phone. The iPhone has softphone apps such as Skype and TruePhone that allow an iPhone to take advantage of the VoIP service without having to be a true UMA phone.
To learn more:
ATA and SOHO Services (convenience of a PSTN but benefits of VoIP)
Although softphone-type VoIP is acceptable in many circumstances and for stand-alone computers, service providers such as Skype and others do not necessarily offer the features, benefits, and reliability required for everyday telephone service for law firms. For this level of VoIP service, the necessary equipment consists of ATAs, which connect a regular telephone to your Internet broadband connection either directly or through the network. Once a standard phone connects to the ATA, it is used as normal; if the phone has advanced capabilities such as caller ID screens, you can use these features without a computer. Using this level of VoIP and your phones, it will be the same as if you are using a traditional PSTN service.
These type of VoIP services work with single and multiple lines and with existing phones and phone systems. You also can purchase VoIP phone systems designed specifically to work with these services while providing you many of the functions of traditional PBX phone systems. These types of services are provided by companies such as Vonage (www.vonage.com), 8x8 (www.8x8.com), and One Communications (www.onecommunications.com).
Because these services are being provided through the Internet, firms can have a VoIP provider host their telecommunication systems rather than having to purchase and maintain the hardware themselves. If a firm has an older phone system that it wants to update, outsourced hosting may make more sense. For smaller firms, hosted VoIP services are available through the same companies that provide VoIP services, such as Vonage (www.vonage.com), 8x8 (www.8x8.com), Onebox (www.onebox.com), Fonality (www.fonality.com), and MailStreet (www.mailstreet.com). If a small firm wants its own hardware in-house, Fonality (www.fonality.com), TalkSwitch (www.talkswitch.com), and Bizfon (www.bizfon.com) offer the necessary hardware, which includes scalability and features equivalent to those available for larger firms.
Firms that need features and functionality beyond those of the SOHO market can move to business-class service. These are generally full-service VoIP phone systems that provide the same or greater levels of functionality and dependability for the same or a reduced cost as traditional PBX systems. Companies such as Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com), Avaya (www.avaya.com), and Mitel (www.mitel.com) provide VoIP technology, including hardware and software, which can then be tied into PSTN and VoIP services. These types of systems allow firms not yet ready to make the switch to dedicated VoIP services for external communication to obtain the benefits of VoIP systems internally. This is most often seen in the form of unified communications (discussed below) combining voicemail access, call forwarding, messaging, and more. Firms can take advantage of enterprise-class services (services generally found in very large companies that have high levels of data and voice communications) through both virtual and on-site systems.
Firms that do not want to be tied to proprietary systems can use an open-source VoIP system. One example is the Asterisk open-source telephony project (www.asterisk.org), which claims to be “… the world’s most popular open source telephony project.” Asterisk is free, open-source software that turns a computer into a full-feature voice communications server that eliminates proprietary hardware from traditional phone systems.
Asterisk-based systems have been developed by Fonality (www.Fonality.com), Xorcom (www.xorcom.com), and Digium (www.digium.com/en/), among others.
If you decide to get VoIP service, you will need to consider several facets of your office wiring and phones. First, make sure that existing network wiring can support VoIP traffic. At a minimum, existing network wiring should be installed and certified as category 5. VoIP uses existing networks to deliver its service, but voice traffic and call quality depend on the ability to deliver steady streams of information from phone to phone. Traditional network traffic is chopped into packets of information and there is not as pressing a need for those packets to arrive in a sequential manner and, with the speed at which dropped packets are retransmitted, most people will barely register lag issues with data. A good rule of thumb is that, if the wiring in the building is more than 10 years old, then consider getting it certified.
Second, ask whether a traditional phone is needed at a particular location. One benefit of VoIP office phone systems is that softphones can replace traditional desk phones in many instances, thus freeing valuable desk space. Add to this the fact that the cost of the softphone often is substantially less than the cost of a physical telephone.
Computer Telephony Integration (CTI)
CTI allows you to integrate your computer and telephone systems. Several practice management programs allow you to use the information contained in their databases to make and receive phone calls and faxes and to provide caller information that can be captured by the program. Several time and billing programs are capable of capturing communications such as telephone calls for billing purposes through use of additional modules or third party products. The TimeSolv WorkTRAKR feature (http://timesolv.com/worktrakr.html) analyzes calls from Windows- and Blackberry-based smart phones and several office telephone systems. Time and billing products including Tabs3, Juris, and Omega integrate with Equitrac’s Professional Suite (http://www.equitrac.com/solutions_legal.asp) to provide not only the capability to capture print and fax costs but telephone-call information as well.
Communication has never been more important or more challenging to a lawyer than it is today. Office phone, cell phone, email, fax, text messaging, social media services: almost every lawyer uses two or more of these on a daily basis to communicate with staff, clients, or courts. Until recently, all these disparate forms of communication required the use of different hardware and software to place voice calls or send messages or faxes. However, users are increasingly demanding the ability to manage as many communications as possible from one application. This is where the concept of unified communications (UC) comes into play. But what does unified communications really mean, and how can it help lawyers?
According to Bern Elliot of Network World in his article “The Value of Unified Communications,” “UC is designed to eliminate the barriers that have traditionally separated voice calls, e-mail, instant messaging and conferencing in all forms.”
The concept itself is simple: move all communications, whether voice or data, internal or external, onto the Internet protocol network that everyone uses to communicate both internally on their own computer networks and externally with the Internet for both voice (telephone and fax) and data.
In a VoIP environment where UC is in place, email becomes the primary communications tool. Voice mails are transformed by the VoIP system into audio files, which are then delivered to the recipient as email messages with an attachment and blended into the queue along with traditional emails, instant messages, and faxes.
According to TechTarget in its explanation of UC:
- Unified messaging focuses on allowing users to access voice, email, faxes and other mixed media from a single mailbox independent of the access device.
- Multimedia services include messages of mixed-media types such as video, sound clips, and pictures and include communication via short message services.
- Collaboration and interaction systems focus on applications such as calendaring, scheduling, workflow, integrated voice response, and other enterprise applications that help individuals and work groups communicate efficiently.
- Real-time and near real-time communications systems focus on fundamental communication between individuals using applications or systems such as conferencing, instant messaging, traditional and next-generation PBX, and paging.
- Transactional and informational systems focus on providing access to m-commerce, e-commerce, voice Web-browsing, weather, stock-information, and other enterprise applications.
But voice calls are just one part of UC, which also encompasses convergence of voice mail delivered to your email inbox. With UC, users can elect to receive an email notice when they receive a voice mail or elect to have the actual voice mail (usually in the form of a .wav file) sent as an attachment to allow for immediate playback. Incoming faxes are forwarded to the email inbox in either a tagged image format (.TIF) or a portable document format (PDF). As a result, voice mail and faxes are now available from any location that provides you with access to your email. For faxes, it has the added benefit of converting the paper document into an electronic file that can be easily saved with other documents on your network.
UC provides the ability in many instances to integrate both calendaring and contact-management software, such as Outlook, for use with the phone and data services.
UC also provides for increased productivity and reduced latency in responding to communications.
Additional benefits of UC include the following: easily forwarding calls to both internal and external numbers including cell phones, usually using a Web interface; having calls automatically ring simultaneously at different phones, such as the office phone and the cell phone or the office phone and the home phone; creating virtual conference rooms to connect multiple parties using an Internet connection; and using video conferencing as a real-time communication method.
Depending on the choices a firm makes whether to use hosted VoIP and UC services or to bring the hardware and software in house, you can implement the various aspects of UC in stages. This can prevent your staff or infrastructure from becoming overwhelmed. A small office can take advantage of a majority of UC services using providers such as Vonage, Fonality, or OneBox for a reasonable cost per month.
VoIP offers flexibility and robust service, making it appealing as a communications tool for law firms and other organizations. VoIP’s ability to leverage open Internet technologies and to run on any Internet-capable platform have made it the technology of choice for existing telephone equipment providers. If you are not currently using a VoIP technology, you should consider it when you next upgrade your service. Now is the time to review how voice communications are handled in your office. Review your current phone, Internet, and other services such as voice mail bills so you can better understand where you are spending your money. Use this information to consider whether any of the technologies discussed in this article may help to reduce or eliminate unnecessary costs or duplications of service.