Complex setup hurts Linksys VOIP PBX

Linksys' SPA9000 is smaller than your average sandwich but packs plenty of features

Linksys' first low-end entry into the IP-PBX world is a capable system whose diminutive size hides a high level of complexity. Called the Linksys SPA9000, it's smaller than your average sandwich but packs plenty of features. Getting some of them to work will require a great deal of patience, reading the manual and trial-and-error experimenting in the brave new world of business IP telephony.

In the past, small offices of fewer than 10 people tended to spend several thousand dollars on their phone switches, buying systems that couldn't be easily upgraded. Moving or reassigning extensions was a tedious process, and there were often lots of hidden costs for extra features. And if you moved to a new office, you had to start from scratch with a new system, new phones and new phone numbers.

That's the market that Linksys is squarely aiming at with the 9000. It almost succeeded, for the reasons we'll get into shortly.

A business voice-over-IP (VOIP) solution has lots of advantages. First is cost -- you can purchase an unlimited calling plan and eliminate the suspenseful surprise when you get your monthly bill, because most plans include the cost of calls to all North American phone numbers.

Portable phone number

You also can carry your phone number with you wherever you are, just as long as you have an Internet connection. You can make changes to your configuration without having to talk to your local phone company. You can have a phone number in another area code outside of your physical location to make it a local call for your customers in that area. You can have more control and more features all at an affordable price.

The 9000 unit is part of a larger collection of products based on technology that Linksys' parent company, Cisco Systems, acquired from Sipura Technology. Taken together, the Linksys Voice System components can be used as a small-business phone system supporting up to 16 different extensions, with VOIP protocols.

You will need to separately purchase service (usually bundled with a T1 Internet access line) from a VOIP hosting provider, such as CBeyond or The provider assigns your phone numbers and routes calls to your equipment.

Linksys also sells a line of VOIP phone handsets; I tested the model 962 (which sells for about $US300 retail) that has color screens and plenty of buttons to control their functions. The final piece of the puzzle is the SPA400, which is used to set up voice mail and also to provide a connection to the public switched analog phone network. (I didn't test this module, and it's sold as a separate $US250 product.)

Any VOIP rollout will need to carefully examine the network infrastructure and ensure that it's up to snuff to support voice applications. I would also recommend putting in power-over-Ethernet switches if you don't have them already. Each phone could be powered from the AC wall jack, but you can minimize wiring problems if they receive power directly from the network jack.

Some of the Linksys phones don't work with older gigabit switches; I received two supposedly identical models and one didn't like my older Netgear GS116. Linksys says it's working to address this with a firmware upgrade.

The 9000 unit has ports for two analog phone lines, which can be used to connect a fax machine or ordinary answering machine, for example.

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