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Get Your Phone Service in Line With Your Business


Even though local telephone companies are getting orders for second phone lines almost quicker than they can fill them, a majority of home-based firms still rely on a single line to do business.

About 70% of those who work from home use one phone line for voice calls, faxes and Internet access, according to a 1996 survey by New York market research firm IDC/Link.

But single phone lines can be a recipe for disaster, causing a business owner not only to miss calls because of busy signals, but also to project an unprofessional image to callers, experts say.

"People say they can't handle more than one line because they are concerned about how they are going to handle two calls at once," said Steven Bergman, owner of Teleconvergence, a Beaverton, Ore.-based telecommunications consultant. "Instead they choose to use call waiting, which is eminently unprofessional."

Home office owners also tend to pile all of the services they can onto a single line in an effort to keep their communications costs down.

To make sure their phone system is meeting their businesses' needs, they should add only up to five peripherals--including modems, fax machines, answering devices, etc.--on a single line, said June Langhoff, author of "Telecom Made Easy" (Aegis Publishing Group).

"What I recommend is if they are serious about being in business, they should invest in a separate line and consider clever ways to maximize it," Langhoff said.

Home office owners should also consider their personality type--i.e., whether they will pick up additional calls--and the industry they compete in before deciding on a phone setup.

Analysts expect home-based businesses to increasingly follow Langhoff's advice. They project that by 2000, as many as half the nation's 97 million households will have more than one phone line.

Local phone companies in California are starting to see evidence of this boom. In 1996, GTE saw a 29% jump in the number of second lines in residences--435,651 versus 338,352 in 1995, said Larry Cox, a GTE spokesman.

About 73% of the 346,000 residential access lines Pacific Bell installed in 1996 were second lines, said Rebecca Perata, a PacBell spokeswoman. About 17% of the phone company's customers have more than one line, she added.

Alhough some of this growth is driven by consumers requesting second lines to access the Internet, a large portion is due to the 34% or so of Californians who work out of their homes at least part of the time.

There are several ways SOHO--small office/home office--owners can maximize their phone systems, even if they choose to remain with one line. These include:

* Distinctive ringing. This service, which goes by different names at different companies, assigns multiple phone numbers to the same line. Each number rings with a different cadence, so the call recipient can tell which number is being dialed.

Companies charge an average of $5 per month per number. Depending on how many numbers a business needs, this could be less than the $18-a-month charge for an additional line. To use the service, customers must buy a distinctive-ringing device, available at many office supply stores for about $50. They then need to contact their local phone service provider to sign up.

* Voicemail screening devices. Los Gatos, Calif.-based SoloPoint Inc. recently announced an agreement with Pacific Bell to offer its SmartScreen product to the 790,000 residential customers who use PacBell's voicemail service.

SmartScreen allows a user's voicemail system to act like an answering machine. A small device attached to a user's phone allows the user to screen voicemail calls and notifies the user when he or she has a message. PacBell is offering the device for $69.95 through a toll-free number, (888) 755-BELL.

* Call forwarding. Avirnex Communications Group in Novato, Calif., charges $19.95 a month for the Avox service, which assigns a single number to a user's office, fax, pager, cellular phone and voicemail.

The service allows users to screen calls in their cars and to send, receive and print faxes on the road. For more information, check the Web site at

SoloPoint markets another desktop device known as SoloCall SmartMonitor, which can be programmed to ring a cellular phone at the same time an office or home phone rings. The device also allows users to screen calls from a cell phone, which they can use to pick up the call by punching in a code.

SoloPoint plugs into a user's phone and requires two telephone lines and an answering machine. It sells for about $229 at outlets where cell phones are sold.

MCI's MCI One allows users to forward their calls to up to three numbers. The service also enables customers to integrate their long-distance, cellular, paging, Internet, voicemail and fax usage into a single number.

Users must have MCI's long-distance service to subscribe to MCI One. The service, which operates through the user's toll-free number, costs 25 cents for each minute of use.

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