For years, big businesses have used Voice over IP systems - phone services that use the Internet - to save on telephone costs. But it's only recently that small businesses, which typically aren't ready (or willing) to make a wholesale switch away from traditional local phone service, have been checking out the cost savings and voice quality by using VOIP on a line or two.

Skype, which started as a personal voice chat and video phone service, now claims to have more than 100 million users. The company recently introduced a business service aimed at small businesses.

To use the business service, you set up one or more groups and invite existing Skype users to join them. Once they're under the umbrella of your group, you can conveniently centralise account payments.

You may purchase up to €250 of prepaid Skype services for the group. Then you can set up individual users for automatic top-up, meaning that Skype will replenish their account balance by automatically charging the group account. Top-ups are processed overnight, whenever the individual account balance drops below half the top-up amount you establish. The service features a control panel that lets you easily manage the group account.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much it for Skype's little leap forward to serve the business market.

It does offer a Skype for Business control panel, to allocate SkypeIn numbers to users on your business account, and manage top-ups. Skype also suggests that its conference calling and chat features will help businesses.

There are, however, no real added telecommunications services. At the very least, I expected better account administration tools aimed at businesses, such as postpaid group billing (with approved credit) and centralised service usage analysis.

Skype costs
Skype charges by the minute for its SkypeOut service, which offers calls to conventional land-line telephones. Per-minute charges start at €0.02, and there's no monthly minimum. Until the end of this year, users in the US and Canada can make free SkypeOut calls to both landline and mobile phones in those countries.

Skype requires you pay in advance for its services, a minimum of €10 at a time. Your credit balance is good for 180 days since your last call or purchase.

You don't have to buy a router to use Skype's service, though you might want to. You do need to download the free Skype application and install it on your PC (read our review of Skype 2.0 beta, and the ActionTec Phone Wizard, one of the tools to use Skype on regular phones).

Depending on your calling patterns and service requirements, moving to Skype could save you money.

Skype's downsides
There are some potential downsides. Skype has been accused of security issues, for instance hackers may use its traffic as a cloaking device. As a result, security products have been given anti-Skype features, and some ISPs prohibit its use. Skype's answer is to make its call set-up more stealthy (a move that security vendors have cracked), and to put on more customers as a way to persuade ISPs to think again about blocking it.

As well as this, Skype uses resources on your systems. For instance, Skype could designate your business's server as a supernode - a peer-to-peer server for Skype traffic. Some users have reported that their networks were overwhelmed by sharing requests from the Skype network until they put their connection behind a firewall.

How does the audio quality compare to that of a conventional landline? That depends on your Internet connection and audio device. I've had the best sound quality from a USB headset, because its digital connection is superior to the analog technology of older headsets. You can also plug in an analog headset to your PC's sound card or purchase a USB interface box to plug in your existing telephone.

At first, I noticed a bit of digital stutter on the calls, but I was able to eliminate this problem by installing an expansion card with a better USB controller. On some SkypeOut calls, people at the other end told me my voice sounded faint. The sound quality when using Skype to call another Skype user was usually excellent - better, in fact, than usual telephone service. A bonus: Skype-to-Skype calls are always free.

In general, business users will likely want better services than those Skype currently offers - for example, consolidated reporting of calls within the group. However, Skype can save you money if you're willing to put up with the odd glitch and a lack of business-level call reporting.

OUR VERDICT

If your telecom needs are modest, you could pay for Skype credits for your business users at one go. Advanced business features might be nice, but this is a start.