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Internet Business

I want to apologize to anyone who has been cut off in mid- conversation with me over the last few weeks. It has happened more times than I'd like to admit.

Like many small business owners, I was looking for ways to save money and one of the most obvious was on the phone bill. I switched to a Voice Over Internet Protocol system, commonly called VoIP.

It's been great - for the most part. The sound quality is as good as my land line, sometimes even better. There are a few very brief dead spots during some conversations, but it's better than my mobile phone.

The biggest problem, and it is a huge one in a communications business, is the dropped calls.

VoIP became available in the 1990s, but has only in recent years moved into the mainstream. Already 5 percent to 10 percent of small- to mid-size businesses use it, according to the Yankee Group.

It offers many advantages. For starters, it's cheaper. I save about $60 a month. Bigger companies that use more phone lines could save even more. Service packages generally include local and long- distance calls along with free extras such as call waiting and forwarding. One of my favorite features is that I get an e-mail when someone leaves me a message, and I can check it over the Internet. While online, I can activate call forwarding or schedule it to run in the future.

With all those advantages, it seems like a no-brainer to make the switch. But in some ways, the technology is still in its infancy. The networks used for the Internet were designed for data, not voice, and that creates several technological complications that are still being worked out.

"It's a decent experience, but it has little hiccups here and there," said Yankee Group senior analyst Gary Chen.

Companies with 10 or more employees will likely choose systems that have fewer glitches.

Companies with just a handful of workers and sole proprietors may be more likely to rely on their high-speed Internet lines. Making connections may be problematic.

Special equipment that prioritizes the voice communications over data can help, but problems may crop up as the call travels over a complex network of phone and Internet lines.

Most of my dropped calls were likely due to a wiring complication within my office. That's been fixed and things have improved. That's good because switching back can be difficult.

Before making a change, business owners should consider what they want out of a phone system, advises Duane Sword, vice president of Empirix, a company that tests VoIP systems.

"It may be that this technology enables you to do things in a better, more targeted way," he said.

Those looking for VoIP should ask providers about the quality of calls, what guarantees they offer and, perhaps most importantly, what penalties there will be if the service isn't up to par.

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