Monday, June 26, 2006

VoIP makes phone system hurricane-resistant

When Hurricane Wilma struck South Florida last October, most business owners had to struggle to survive without telephone service. Not Stephen McWilliam.

McWilliam, the president of Florida State Realty Group Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, fled South Florida for Orlando right after the storm. He realized he wouldn't be able to access his downtown office building for about a week. But that didn't slow his business any. He simply plugged his Polycom Internet phone, removed from his office before the storm, into a broadband connection at his Orlando hotel; he was back in business, connecting with clients and trying to keep his pending real estate deals together.

McWilliam is a customer of Cooper City-based STS Telecom, a technology-based telephone company that provides businesses with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service. Even though his office phone service was down in Fort Lauderdale, McWilliam's customers were able to reach him at his regular number.

"It's plug and play," he said. "And the technology helped us maintain communication, which is vital to servicing our clients."

VoIP, also called IP telephony, allows users to make calls without the need for a traditional phone line. All you need is a broadband Internet connection and an IP phone. The technology converts voices into data that is transmitted over the lines like e-mail messages.

The use of VoIP by consumers has skyrocketed because of the introduction of low-cost service by companies such as Vonage. But small- and medium-sized businesses are also adopting online phone service in droves. According to research firm InfoTech, demand for IP telephony by small- and medium-sized businesses surged 36 percent between 2004 and 2005.

"Small businesses are flocking to VoIP in order to save from 40 to 60 percent on their phone bills, take advantage of new services and do things never before possible with traditional phones," said Jonathan Askin, a spokesman for, a Melville, N.Y.-based firm that tracks the VoIP industry. "To ensure business continuity during and after an emergency, many are now looking at VoIP as a safer alternative."

Proponents of VoIP tout lower costs and continuity of service as its biggest advantages. But there are others. Jon Krutchik, president of STS Telecom, said users can also redirect their calls using any Web browser. "If you have no phone service but you can find broadband access someplace, you can log onto your account and redirect your phone calls to your cell phone," he said.

Krutchik said that VoIP service with his firm starts at about $750 per month, which includes a dedicated T-1 broadband connection, phones and hardware. STS offers traditional telephone service as well.

Despite the advantages of VoIP, it may not be right for everyone. After Wilma hit last year, Michelle Soudry packed up her files, backup drive, laptop and cell phone and headed to Orlando.

"My business is very reliant on e-mail and phones," said Soudry, founder of The Gab Group, a public relations firm. "I have national clients and can't afford not to work for two weeks."

Soudry was able to retrieve incoming phone calls to her office from her BellSouth voice mail service, which works even when the power is out. And clients and reporters could reach her on her cell because she added that number to her outgoing message. She never missed a call.

"There was no effect on our business," she said. "Plus, I know two different people who have had bad experiences with dropped calls on VoIP. I can't take that chance because my business is very time-sensitive."

But others, like McWilliam, swear by VoIP service. He recently went on a cruise and was able to make and answer calls using his laptop and a wireless broadband connection, avoiding the pricey ship-to-shore phone service he'd otherwise be dependent on.

"I hate to use the cliché `the wave of the future,' but it's just a matter of time before this becomes the standard for phone service," he said. "There's just no other way."


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