Small Offices, Big Time Phones

Siemens' multiline, cordless system offers a lot of features for the buck

Personal computers, personal copiers, laser printers, and a host of other high-tech tools let even the tiniest businesses seem much bigger than they are. But phone systems remain a problem, with small offices, especially home offices, often having few options between residential gear and expensive systems designed for the big guys.

A new system from Siemens Wireless Terminals (972 997-7300 or www. can help bridge the gap. It can handle two outside lines and up to eight extensions. And because it is cordless, the Gigaset 2420 requires no new wiring and can be installed by anyone in minutes.

The secret behind the system is a chunk of radio spectrum in the 2.4-gigahertz band recently made available for consumer use. It allows several features, including multiple lines and handsets, beyond the capabilities of older cordless phones. (The 2.4 GHz systems are available only in North America, but Siemens sells a Gigaset with similar capabilities in Europe.)

The Gigaset 2420 consists of a sleek black base station that doubles as a speakerphone and answering machine, plus one wireless handset, for $395. Additional handsets are $125 each.

A call coming in on either line can be answered on any extension, and caller ID information, if available, shows up on LCD displays on both the base station and the cordless handsets. The handsets also have full access to answering-machine messages for each of the two outside lines. The base includes a port to plug in a modem or fax machine. If you subscribe to distinctive-ring service from the phone company, fax or modem calls will be directed to the appropriate device without ever ringing on the phone instruments.

And the system lets people on any two extensions talk to each other without using an outside line. It's also easy to set up a three-way conference with one or both external lines. Unlike more conventional systems, though, you can't join a call in progress just by picking up an extension--the person who originated or answered the call must conference you in. Some people will find this a nuisance, others will see it as a nifty privacy feature.

The Gigaset is not without flaws. Its industrial design is more pleasing to the eye than to the arm or the ear. Both I and my wife, who has much smaller hands, found the compact wireless handsets uncomfortable to hold for any length of time. And the sleek, curvy handset on the base station just slides away when you try to prop it between shoulder and ear. Fortunately, both base and remote stations come with jacks for easy attachment of a headset.

KEYPAD KINKS. The base station can hold a dialing directory of 100 names and the wireless handsets 120 names, but, like any phone, entering data using the keypad is painful. Strangely, the wireless units can send directories to each other but cannot exchange such information with the base station.

The data entry would be much easier if the Gigaset had a computer interface, but I think it's better off without one. Consider the Microsoft Cordless Phone System ($160). This 900-megahertz phone offers voice-activated dialing and caller ID announced in a synthesized voice, but it depends on a PC for all its advanced features. If the computer crashes while you're away, you don't even have an answering machine. Today's PCs simply can't ensure the reliability that we expect of phones.

Relatively minor flaws aside, the Gigaset is a potent and inexpensive system for a small office--or even for a home where you want to make two lines available without a lot of expense or wiring. Here's hoping it's the first of many products that take advantage of the 2.4-GHz band.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.