More home network users than ever are using business-grade VoIP during the coronavirus. But all those new users and their often chaotic home networks can impact call quality, so follow these steps to keep your conversations crystal clear.
Business-grade voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone services offer all kinds of features today. Device independence, mobile clients, and smart phone apps are just a few of the goodies you might find in your VoIP subscription, and many of these features will become even more important as U.S. companies and their employees adjust to new, more distributed work cultures put in place for the pandemic.
But the core metric by which you’ll continue to measure VoIP success is, well, voice. Is the call quality still as good as it was before you digitized your phone? And, these days, is it still as good now that your help desk staff is talking to customers via PCs plugged in at home rather than at a more IT-controlled central office?
If conversations are garbled or drop sporadically, all the other benefits of VoIP really don’t mean much. Fortunately, solutions such as Editors’ Choice tools Intermedia Unite and RingCentral generally offer excellent voice quality. Even mid-tier solutions tend to show a marked improvement over local telco systems and smartphones. But a lot of that quality depends on more than how the VoIP vendor engineered their solution. Much of it rests on the underlying network, and that’s a combination of your IT staff and your Internet provider. To help you identify potential problems, we’ve put together this list of common issues that can help keep your business calls clear and garble-free.
However, before you continue investing time and effort making adjustments to your hardware and network, it might be prudent for you to contact your VoIP service provider. Their customer service engineers might be able to pinpoint your specific problem and offer you a fix much faster than a general IT staffer who doesn’t deal with VoIP issues every day. You should also contact your internet service provider (ISP) to ensure they’re not suffering a major broadband meltdown. If both of those calls prove fruitless, or if you’ve already spent too many hours listening to the sweet sounds of hold music, try the following seven recommendations.
1. Jitter Jujitsu
Cisco has a wonderful explanation of what jitter is and how it can impact your VoIP call quality. Essentially, voice data is sent through your network in packets organized in chronological order. According to Cisco, “network congestion, improper queuing, or configuration errors” can cause delays in how these packets are organized and received.
In order to fix the issue, upgrade your Ethernet cord to a Category 6 (CAT6) cable. Your VoIP provider may have given you a previous-generation Category 5 (CAT5) cable, which only supports about 125 MHz, while CAT6 cables can transmit data at around 250 MHz. This is the easiest fix. For minor VoIP issues, this trick should solve your problem.
If the new cable doesn’t unjitter your jitters, then try implementing a jitter buffer. Your VoIP vendor will happily help you configure a buffer, which will temporarily store your data packets in the sequence in which they are received, and then transmit those packets into your network in evenly spaced intervals. This will help to deliver voice data in a manner that is more accurate to how it was spoken.
2. Buy a New Headset
VoIP headsets range in price from really cheap $1 earpieces to $400 luxury headsets. You wouldn’t expect your favorite recording artist to mix an album using a cheap set of headphones, though, so why would you manage your business with a cruddy VoIP headset? When choosing a headset, there are a bunch of factors to consider. For one, if call quality is your main concern, choose noise-cancelling headphones that deliver sound in both ears. Corded and USB headsets typically deliver more stable sound quality than wireless or Bluetooth headsets.
3. Make Sure Your Router Knows VoIP
Don’t let your standard home or small business router transmit your business VoIP calls. Whether you’re a solo operator working from home or an IT professional who is now effectively managing a large number of home-based network infrastructure, make sure as many of your wireless routers have the ability to expressly prioritize VoIP traffic over other types of data traffic. These routers can be as inexpensive as $200 for small businesses or as expensive as $3,000 for more heavy-duty use.
This might be a little tricky for home network users, a scenario that’s becoming a common problem for IT people looking to extend VoIP phone service from the office to employee homes. Home networks tend to use simpler router management apps than business-class routers, which often means advanced features, including those needed to protect specific app traffic like VoIP, can either be hidden or missing entirely. New routers, like wireless mesh systems, are excellent home solutions, for example, but their management apps are specifically designed to let customers set them up quickly with no network knowledge required whatever. That means default setup apps will likely gloss over a lot of potentially useful options. You can get around this limitation, but it requires a conversation with a sales person to make sure the solution has a meatier management interface available for those with the know-how to use it and that this interface has the traffic protection features you need.
A key feature to look for, and to make sure your users can adjust for themselves, is quality of service (QoS). This feature basically allows you to pick a type of traffic and ensure that it gets priority from the router, effectively assuring its quality of service. It’s also important that your router supports the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which helps to deliver data reliably between the client and the server. You’ll also want virtual LAN (VLAN) support, which helps to group and disperse data based on where latency is lowest.
4. Reduce Your Bandwidth
This is mostly for all those new home network users that have flooded VoIP service providers over the last few months. Whether you’re using a residential VoIP account or simply extending your business provider’s service to employees’ homes, these networks can still pose a special problem. That’s because home networks are generally centered around a single router that process all traffic running across the network, which means bandwidth use becomes a much more important consideration than on larger business networks. Lots of traffic running over the same network at the same time as a VoIP call doesn’t just eat up space in the pipe, it can also cause packet collisions, jitter (see above), and other network hiccups that can impact your call quality.
In a small network situation, an easy way to combat those issues is to reduce the amount of bandwidth being used by other apps during your VoIP sessions. That’s an easy fix for people who live alone, however those living with other people, especially families with kids doing school work, playing games, or streaming movies might need more coordination. If you can order others off the network while your VoIPing or holding a video conference, you should be fine. But if that’s a problem, refer to your router (above) and think about setting up a dedicated VLAN solely to run VoIP traffic.
Your IT person should be able to help with that, even over the phone, as long as your router supports it. With a VLAN, you’re essentially setting up a separate network inside your physical network and dedicating it to only VoIP use. Sure, this means you’re carving off a piece of your overall bandwidth for VoIP calls, but that bandwidth will always be available for your phone making bandwidth congestion a non-issue.
5. Monitor Your Network Traffic
As previously mentioned, the amount of bandwidth being used on your network will have an impact on your call audio. If jitter buffers don’t solve your problem, try protecting your VoIP traffic stream with the aforementioned QoS feature that’s hopefully resident on your router. While QoS is a network standard that tends to work the same way across any network hardware that supports it, there are several ways of achieving a similar effect.
IT professionals can use most any network monitoring tool to identify which packet streams on their networks are carrying VoIP data. That allows them to tag that traffic and protect it in a number of ways, including QoS. Again, as stated above, QoS basically lets an IT pro dedicate a portion of your overall bandwidth (let’s say 10 percent) to carrying VoIP. Once QoS is established, that 10 percent will always be there for your voice traffic no matter what anyone else is doing on the network.
6. Interference Clearance
Phones with higher GHz frequencies tend to produce interference. Your typical VoIP phone runs at 2.4 GHz. However, there are also 5.8-GHz phones on the market as well as a variety of 5-GHz devices, including VoIP equipment. In general, the 2.4-GHz band gives you a longer range but its data throughput is slower. The 5-GHz band provides less coverage, but where it does cover, data will flow faster.
If you’re experiencing interference, then check to see on which frequency your phone runs. If you’ve got a 5.8-GHz phone, then switch to a 2.4-GHz phone (some phones even let you choose). Also, most home and small business routers, as well as most Wi-Fi range extenders, offer the ability to either choose whether to run in the 2.4-GHz versus 5-GHz spectrums or run both simultaneously, allowing you to choose which traffic will run in which spectrum. Check with your VoIP provider’s service technicians and ask about optimal performance for their particular platform.
7. Standardize Your Mobile VoIP
Communicating on the go is something most businesses, even smaller ones, need to address. Some folks need to make sure their smartphone rings when someone dials their desk extension if they’re at home or on the road; others simply need to make sure they can wander around the office or campus with a fully functioning headset in their ear. To keep call quality good, you’ll want to look at all of the ways your employees are conducting their mobile conversations, and then look to standardize.
For those looking to wander the office, consider a Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) phone. Because these phones essentially utilize their own spectrum, using one to access your VoIP system means less chance of interference from other wireless sources. And depending on which VoIP vendor you’ve chosen, you may be able to opt for a DECT phone that’s available through that vendor, which means fewer installation hassles. For some in-system configurations, it’s just a matter of plugging the phone into an open USB port on the host system.
If you’re one of those who needs their smartphone to ring when their desk phone is dialed, contact your VoIP provider and see what they’ve got in the way of a softphone or call forwarding options. The softphone is usually the more attractive option as these are software apps that turn whatever they’re running on into something that can take and make VoIP phone calls. This way, you can conduct conversations, shared meetings, and other collaborative tasks using your desktop, your notebook, or a wide variety of mobile devices, especially smartphones. Using the softphone built by your VoIP provider guarantees full compatibility with your phone service and also means their customer service technicians will have an easier time identifying and solving problems. These days, some vendors, such as Dialpad, have eliminated hardware phones entirely, opting to offer their entire service portfolio via software.
8. If All Else Fails, Hire an Expert
Sure, DIY is part of modern VoIP’s attraction. Even business-grade VoIP providers often tout how easy it is to “get up and running fast.” And as we saw when we tested these products, that’s mostly true. But when you’ve hit a performance snag where calls are garbled or even dropping sometimes, and you’ve exhausted both your in-house expertise and your customer service rep’s calling script, it’s time to think about hiring outside help.
Fortunately, today’s VoIP consultants can do a lot more than simply install and maintain a VoIP system. These companies typically also work on optimizing your Wi-Fi network coverage as that’s often part and parcel of a top performing VoIP system. And they can help with getting your communications to the next level by implementing advanced features, such as securing your call data and transmissions, automating shared meetings and scheduling, designing a full-functioning auto-attendant (aka an Interactive Voice Response or IVR system, something most business VoIP systems can do as long as you’re willing to put in the time to set it up), developing custom integrations with your other back-end software, and even setting up call analytics and dashboards, not just for billing, but for marketing and sales, too.
Sure, hiring help will cost money, but as long as you take the time to fully investigate what your chosen consultant can do, you’ll be getting a lot of bang for your buck.
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