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Types of Telephone Systems

Telephone systems vary enormously from quite basic systems to extremely complex solutions so it can be a real minefield trying to navigate all the acronyms and jargon to get to where you need to be and make correct decisions!

This is especially true now - with so many suppliers, options and offers hitting the media, where do you start!?

The purpose of this web page is to very briefly explain the different types of telephone systems available to UK organisations.


If you require more detail, please get in touch and we would be happy to help you decide which type of system is best for you by asking you questions about your business and what is important to you.

Different brandsWhich brand or make of system?

There are many more manufacturers of systems these days than in previous years – there are the so-called big players such as AVAYA, Cisco and Mitel as well as lots of other well-known brands such as Panasonic, Samsung and Toshiba. However, there are hundreds of smaller players such as Splicecom, Shoretel, NEC, LG Nortel and many more. There are also lots of completely unknown packages which are branded versions of something else!

Most of the systems we supply are hybrid solutions meaning they use a selection or combination of analogue, digital and IP and VoIP. However, we do offer options for most of the types of system listed here (not just hybrids).

ScalabilityPhone System Scalability

To make it really easy, we have pages dedicated to the size of your organisation here:

0-10 users
10-50 users
Large and multi-site

Deciding on the wrong size of system can be very costly. For a small business or organisation, starting small is one thing that may be important, particularly in the early days (to keep costs down!). But when you need to expand, if your system cannot expand with you, this can be both costly and disruptive.

Some systems allow you to start very small (with just 1 user - a cloud-based system is a good example of this) and expand as you wish. Some systems allow you to expand to a certain number of lines and extensions but may then for you to upgrade to a larger control unit (possibly retaining some of your investment in hardware, phone handsets and licences.

Others may have a limiting ceiling, beyond which you cannot expand!

So getting it right is crucial - make sure you ask your supplier or expert to consider your expansion plans over the next 3-5 years and whether the solution they are recommending can accomodate your growth without substantial cost or disruption.

The Different Types of system explainedWhat are the different types available?

Here is a brief description of some of the more popular types of systems. Note that most of the different types of systems have similar features and functionality – they just deliver them using different technology.

Very confusing isn't it?

Single linesSingle line phone socket

It is possible to install a single phone line and use enhanced features such as caller display, call divert, call waiting, answering services and so on. As soon as you need to deal with more than one call or have multiple handsets, using a single telephone line becomes cumbersome and inadequate.

A single line works on a single pair of copper wires - this makes it very prone to faults, environmental issues, BT Openreach engineers tampering (or inadvertently knocking wires when working), rodents, trees, water ingress, power/electro-magnetic interference etc etc!

You can also employ the services of an answering bureau to take calls when you aren't available. We recommend our friends at Officefront for this:

You could also install mutliple lines on a single number - you would then need an analogue phone system to connect this to - these are so outdated now. We have not suplied one for many years. See Analogue phone systems below.

Some home users are now cancelling their traditional analogue phone line and using either mobile internet or cable to make and receive voice calls.

Network level (Cloud) and inbound systemsCloud telephones and inbound services

These are very common these days. You can be allocated a phone number that you can manage from a portal so you can take calls wherever you are (home, mobile or divert to an answering service). You will not require any hardware and you will pay a monthly subscription. We have an excellent product that offers this facility called My Inbound. This can even queue calls, take messages, re-distribute calls to multiple locations, provide stats and record calls - you can even dynamically control your calls from a smartphone app!

Such solutions are fantastic for business start-ups needing a low-cost telephony solution. Take care to use a known supplier who is stable and unlikely to disappear (taking your phone number and customers with them!).

Also, pick a phone number that suits your organisation - you can use any number these days (eg Local, National, International or non-geographic). If you are looking for a local presence, then use a local number, not a national one (and vice versa).

For guidance on picking phone numbers, or for more detail, please call us on 01892 676000 and ask for Paul, Michael or Nick.

Feature lineBT Featureline

This is a BT product which allows you to have some very basic phone system features across several lines and handsets without needing a phone system. Years ago this used to be useful for very small start-up businesses but gets expensive and inadequate once you have more than 2 or 3 lines. In our experience, it is far better and cheaper  to consider a hosted or hybrid system.

In fact, this product is so old now we would be surprised if BT still sell it - it does still appear on their web site which is surprising!

Analogue systemsAnalogue phone for analogue phone system

Analogue phone systems are really a thing of the past these days. An analogue system connects to one or more analogue (PSTN) lines and provides only very basic functionality – in fact, it might even be very difficult to source one these days!

Common examples include many of the Panasonic systems (A-Series, KXT) and the BT Inspiration.

Digital systemsDigital PBX phone system

A digital (only) system is also very out-dated now as most systems that connect to digital lines are hybrids – see below. A digital system will connect to a digital line (network connection) such as ISDN2e or ISDN30 and it will have it's own range of digital proprietary handsets.

Digital systems are often large 'boxes' full on cards or cassettes and printed circuit boards.

For many, many years, digital systems "ruled the world" in terms of business telephone systems but are rare now due to VoIP and IP technology being a more attractive and flexible option.

Common examples where the Panasonic KXTD, the SDX/Lucent (AVAYA) INDeX and the Samsung DCS.

We have not supplied a purely digital system (ie without having IP capabilities) since around 2005!

VoIP, IP and SIP based systemsIP VoIP and SIP systems

VoIP stands for Voice over IP. IP is 'internet protocol' and is the 'language' that most computer devices use to communicate.

So VoIP is basically the use of voice on a data connection. SIP is an 'open' language which is an industry-agreed standard and a form of VoIP.

A VoIP system is a system which exclusively uses VoIP to communicate. Therefore, this would use your internal computer network and/or your internet connection as opposed to a digital system which would use ISDN lines and it's own digital handsets.

An example of a VoIP system would be an Asterisk system, a 3CX or a cloud-based hosted system.

VoIP is becoming VERY popular - in fact, most systems we supply are now shipped with VoIP.

Hybrid systemsHybrid PBX telephone System

A hybrid system is, arguably, the most common type of system for a business (as of writing this - January 2016)– and the most flexible. However, sales of cloud based telephony solutions are now outstripping hybrid systems.

A hybrid offers maximum choice and flexibility as you can use a selection or combination of analogue/digital/IP/SIP lines, and extensions or migrate from older technology to newer technology at your own pace.

Examples are AVAYA's IP Office, Mitel's MiVoice and Samsung's OfficeSERV.

Hosted systemsHosted phone system

A hosted system means you do not have any phone system control unit in your premises as it is cloud-based. It uses an internet connection and IP phones on desks.

Hosted is great for small start-up businesses or businesses with lots of small sites (eg retail). Our hosted system is called Horizon.

You must take great care when deciding on a hosted system - the internet connection you use is CRITICAL. Please speak to one of our team for advice.

Software based systemsSoftware based telephony - Soft PBX

A software based phone system is just that – the controlling software resides on a server in your office on in a data centre. This server can be a traditional physical server or a virtualised server.

Everything is IP based – examples are 3CX – however, Mitel and AVAYA systems can be virtualised so these could be software deployments.

Getting good advice - wthout an agenda

This is critical - we suggest you speak to an expert consultant who can advise you based on your requirements, rather than sell from the brochure of what they have to offer - guess what? That's our approach...

Please get in touch.Call us for help with telephony

What our customers say...

"What can I say....not only great with systems support but also supporting me and my team to help us improve our business and service to our customers."
Jeremy Mather - Hoopers Limited

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