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Small office phone systems - Part 1

In the summer of 2009, we had to replace our phone system, such as it was.

I find phone systems to be mysterious. For all the simplicity that we've grown up with in terms of picking up the handset and dialing, if you actually have to go out looking for a phone system, it's a murky part of technology.

Since moving our offices to Richmond in May 2003, we had been using a 4-line Panasonic model, which had a base unit which we had bought with one wireless handset. After six years, the handset was failing: the buttons were refusing to work; and the wireless aspect had never been that good. Used handsets were available on Ebay, but that didn't seem to be a solution.

Although in recent years, the phone manufacturers had created a ton of 2-line systems, readily obtainable from any electronics store, there is absolutely nothing out there for a small business. If your operations were larger than the 2-line, you had to make a jump to some kind of PBX (private branch exchange) installation.

Given the improvements that computers and networking had experienced over the last decade, it's surprising that phone systems are still opaque to a typical small business. We're not alone in that view. But not a lot of 4-line systems are out there. We looked at a review or two of the latest Panasonic offering, and were heartily disappointed. You'd think if the phone manufacturers could put together a 2-line home system, they could simply expand it to a 4-line system for a small business. But the world doesn't work that way in this little area of technology.

We had used a PBX system during our dozen or so years with an office in downtown Vancouver. That kind of installation requires a dedicated box in a utility room, and then you populate each desk with a handset. Our old PBX system, that did serve us well for many years, we had bought used, but it's not the sort of thing you can move easily if you change offices.

We had some kind of budget for new phones, but didn't want to spend the kind of money that a standard hardware-based PBX installation would need.

We looked at the software-based PBX solutions (sometimes called virtual PBX), such as RingCentral, but they didn't seem to apply to Canada or, if they did provide service to Canadian small businesses, didn't seem to be the kind of solution for us.

But the virtual PBX systems did lead to further research and ultimately our buy decision, which I'll cover in the next post.

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