Working The Lines

Do-it-yourself phone systems are getting more sophisticated--and the prices are dropping all the time

In the spring of 1999, David Ullman invested $6,000 in a brand new phone system from Lucent Technologies. A few months later, he tossed it.

Not that there was anything wrong with the new system. But Ullman, a partner in Velocity Group, a Sherman Oaks (Calif.) advertising and public-relations agency, was moving one of the firm's small satellite offices. And rather than spend several thousand dollars to reinstall the Lucent system, he discovered a new Casio Computer Co. system that, for just $1,200, does almost everything the old one did.

Everyone knows that technology moves fast. But how much could a phone system improve in just a few months? Quite a bit, it turns out. Just like computers, phone systems offer more power for less money all the time. Now, small businesses don't have to choose between plugging a bunch of phones into the wall and adding an answering machine or installing a costly PBX (private branch exchange) that's best for larger companies. Instead, for a modest price, they can have it all: an auto-attendant (a recorded voice that answers, as well as a menu of options), voice mail, and a system with three or four phone lines and a dozen or more extensions (table). Most of these units can be bought at a local office-supply or electronics store. While you'll need a little help with set-up on some, most involve simply plugging in the new phones and assigning extension numbers.

Before you start shopping, a little nomenclature is in order. You many hear a phone salesperson use the term "KSU." A KSU (Key System Unit) is an electronic box that's often used in multi-line, multi-feature business telephones. While KSU-based systems such as Lucent's still offer the most power, they're expensive, and systems with built-in intelligence can perform many of the same functions. (Lucent's phone division, now a spin-off called Avaya Communications, declined to comment.) One phone we looked at, a Panasonic, does employ a KSU, but one that's both cheaper and simpler.

That's probably the only technical information you need. Otherwise, your choice will depend on two things. First is the size of your business. The units we looked at are meant for small companies: The biggest offers just six lines and 24 extensions. Second is whether to go corded or cordless. Corded is usually best because of call quality. Although cordless models have improved dramatically in recent years, electronic interference and physical obstacles still cause problems. On the other hand, cordless means no extra wiring.

Probably the best bang for the buck in corded phones is David Ullman's choice: the Casio Si460. The $249 unit can be plugged into as many as four lines--meaning the system can handle four calls at the same time--and 11 additional extensions can be added. As on PBX systems, calls can be transferred or answered by different units. The Casio has an auto-attendant that can handle up to six different greetings. The Si460 boasts a speakerphone that yields natural-sounding voice tones, a headset jack, and speed dialing. There is also a call timer that keeps track of billable phone time, a feature shared with the other units in our lineup.

What if you want to go cordless? Today's cordless phones use frequencies of 2.4GHz or 900MHz (older phones were around 93MHz) and employ digital, rather than analog, transmission. That means much better reception, higher security, and longer range. A good choice is Brother's $499 Quattro system, which combines a corded base station with cordless extensions. The cordless handsets have an intercom function--helpful if you're roaming around--plus speed dial and caller-ID capability. Unlike the Si460, the Quattro lacks voice messaging or an auto-attendant. Still, if mobility is important, the cordless option is appealing.

For very small businesses or home offices, there's Siemens' Gigaset 2420 ($349). It handles two lines and up to eight handsets. Erin Koffler, an editor with a company that sets up e-commerce Web sites, uses a Gigaset in her Lincoln (Neb.) home office. "I'm often having conference calls with my writers, and it works great for that," she says. Like the Brother, the Gigaset combines a corded base unit with cordless extension that uses a 2.4-GHz digital frequency (the Brother is 900MHz). It has a range that in some cases may extend hundreds of feet outside the office. The 2420 also comes with a digital answering machine, a high-quality speakerphone, and a fax/modem connection.

Some offices may need more than the "4 by 12" (four lines, 12 extensions) that most systems offer. To get power without complexity, consider the $700 Panasonic KX-TA624. Technically, it's not even a phone--it's simply an electronic switching box like a KSU that can manage as many as six outside lines and 24 extensions (which plug into the box). This is a system you can customize. There are modular add-ons available for voice mail, auto-attendant, and more. You can even get a music-on-hold feature.

If you don't see a system that works for you now, stay on the line. Things are changing fast. Most likely, some manufacturer will be with you shortly.

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