Tools Of The Trade: The Gradwell VoIP service

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The Independent Online

Making voice calls over the internet is one of the fastest-growing applications for broadband, but most of the take-up so far has been among consumers using services such as Skype or Vonage. Some large companies are using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) successfully, but this is mostly to connect their offices over private networks, rather than to make calls out to the public telephone network.

One reason is that relatively few VoIP services are actively going after the business market, but there are exceptions and Gradwell, a Bath-based company, is one. Its focus is squarely on business and this means there are some big differences between its approach to VoIP and that of its more consumer-oriented rivals.

First, Gradwell is not free. It charges £4 a month for a basic single-line account, or £7 a month for a "virtual PBX" or Centrex service, offering two external lines and 10 extensions.

Nor does the fee include any calls, save for those to other Gradwell customers or VoIP providers that Gradwell connects to. Subscribers pay 1.25p a minute when they ring UK numbers, and from 1.5p per minute for international calls. Users also have to pay for Gradwell-compatible hardware: either a VoIP router, an analogue phone adaptor, or an ethernet-based phone.

This might not seem attractive, set against either free services or those that charge a fixed monthly fee for unlimited calls. But with VoIP you do get what you pay for, and quality matters when you use it as an alternative to conventional lines for business calls.

The basic Centrex tested here worked well. The call quality was slightly lower than on an ISDN line, with Gradwell calls connected over a standard ADSL broadband link. There were no problems making outgoing calls, or receiving calls from the public network.

Gradwell supplied a Linksys SPA-1001 line adaptor with the account. This costs £55 (plus VAT) from the company's online store and is preconfigured for the service. Set-up is simply a case of connecting the device to power and an ethernet port, and a phone to the phone port. The SPA worked without problems with both a standard phone and an analogue office system.

Making full use of the Centrex service - where Gradwell, in effect, provides the office switchboard - means investing in enough ethernet phones and bandwidth to support multiple calls. But for single users, either the SPA 1001 or, for £10 extra, the more flexible two-line SPA-2002 is a good starting point.

Anyone who has tried VoIP and been disappointed should try this service.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5.

PROS: reliable, good call quality, fair call charges.

CONS: VoIP hardware not included in subscription.

COST: £4 per month for single line, £7 per month for Centrex, plus hardware costs.