Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- It is 8:30 a.m. The phone in my hotel room is ringing. Not the one connecting to room service or the bell desk, but the other one. The one I brought from the U.S.; the one that follows me wherever I go, ringing anywhere in the world to my old faithful ten-digit California number. Yes, my normal office phone is now sitting on my desk in my hotel room, ringing for me to answer an incoming U.S. domestic call. Voice over Internet Protocol service (VoIP) simply and effectively allows me to bring my phone service with me everywhere I go at no extra charge.

VoIP is a technology that allows you to make voice calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular phone line. VoIP services allow you to call anyone who has a telephone number -- including local, long distance, mobile, and international numbers -- either over your computer, using a special VoIP phone, or using a traditional phone connected to a VoIP adapter. The newest generation of VoIP phones can even connect directly to any wireless access point (WiFi) router you may have access to, eliminating the need for external adapters and allowing for use through public wireless access points.

While things may be poised to change, the telephone is still the most relevant tool in business today, and our dependency on voice communications is clear. During the last couple of years VoIP has moved from being a complex, unreliable, low quality service to a mature, competitive, simple to manage and high quality offering. VoIP service affords a number of advantages over traditional telephony providers that make it an overall better choice for small businesses and particularly for the millions of people that travel or work away from their office for a substantial portion of their time:

  • Your phone number travels with you;
  • Anywhere you can connect to the Internet you can have your phone for incoming and outgoing calls;
  • If you obtain a U.S. phone number and travel abroad you can bring the phone or IP adapter with you and make/receive calls at U.S. domestic rates;
  • Overall rates are quite lower that traditional telephony services;
  • And high-end services such as voice mail to e-mail and multi-party conferencing are often bundled in at no extra cost.

The competition is heating up and a roster of VoIP service providers is blooming. Some of the ones with small-business friendly offerings are Lingo, Vonage, Vonics, Skype and Packet 8. While each service provides different options and plans, the basic features are all the same, and all offer the lower cost and higher flexibility advantages of VoIP.

If your company's telephony needs are more complex than what can be provided by single-line services and require multiple lines, extensions and attendant features, you should consider hosting your own company VoIP telephony server. Either via a custom-built solution, or a pre-configured appliance, your small business can host its multi-line, telephony server for a very limited budget. Features like multiple extensions, call transfers, conferencing, auto-attendant (IVR), voice mail to e-mail, operator panel, music-on-hold, call forwarding and name directory are all included in preconfigured systems that sell between $1,000 and $3,000. IP phones that cost from $30 to $150 each. Quality, affordable VoIP servers are made by various companies, including Fonality and Zultys. At the higher end, top products are available from Cisco and Avaya.

In-house, server-based solutions take as input regular phone lines and distribute the service to extensions via Internet protocol (IP) and data wires instead of phone wires. This allows for incredible flexibility of internal communications, allowing for extraordinary things such as having your phone attendant seamlessly work at home, or speaking with your manufacturing office in Vietnam at no cost at all and by just dialing its extension number. These solutions also allow for PCs, such as your salesperson's laptop, to act as virtual handsets by using software that mimics the behavior of a regular phone. A number of "soft phones" are available on the market from vendors such as Cisco, Avaya, and Nortel, or you can download a very popular and effective free one at SJ Labs.

The benefits of VoIP are incredible for small business. Switching to VoIP, in most cases, provides a quick return on investment. Old fashion telephony is on its way out and business voice communications are quickly shifting towards the VoIP paradigm worldwide. Empower your small business to take advantage of this first mature wave of benefits and write "Switch to VoIP" on top of your to-do list.

Andrea Peiro is president and CEO of the Small Business Technology Institute, a non-profit organization created to foster the adoption of information technologies among small businesses.