Buying a Phone System

How to Pick the Right Phone System


Endless options, choices, alternatives, possibilities. We'll tell you how to filter-out the wrong ones, fine-tune your crystal ball, and avoid some unpleasant surprises.

There are hundreds of different phone systems available today, and new ones are announced each month. Even if you eliminate some because they obviously don't meet your needs, you can still be left with a bewildering choice.

In fact, for any particular business or home, there are probably a dozen or more phone systems that can meet your needs reasonably well. Getting from "reasonably well" to "WOW" can take some effort, but with telephones being such a vital part of modern life, it's well worth the effort.

In addition to the obvious considerations of price, brand reputation, product availability, warranty, esthetics, etc.—that apply to almost anything you buy—there are two telecom-specific and vitally important areas to evaluate:

SIZE is critical.

If the system can't handle enough lines and telephones, nothing else matters. Whether you are buying, leasing or renting, you want a system that will suit your needs today and, you hope, five years from today. Forget about ten years.


FEATURES are critical. 
If your business or home depends on the ability to integrate single line phones into a multi-line system, or you must have Caller ID or door intercom or PC programming, you should ignore systems without them!

Buying too small is the biggest and most expensive mistake most buyers make. 

If your business is a start-up with limited capital, you probably want to spend as little as possible, but if your business is successful, you don't want to have to buy a new system six months or a year later.

Some solutions: 

  1. Rent a phone system, with a short minimum rental period.

  2. Lease a phone system, with a provision to trade-up to a bigger one with little or no penalty.

  3. Share a phone system already in use by another company in the same building, that has excess capacity (maybe the landlord will let you share his system).

  4. Buy a phone system that can start small, and EXPAND as your needs grow.

The first three choices may not be available to you; #4 is usually the best choice.

What size is the right size?

Sizing telephone systems is not an exact science. There's more guesswork than precision. Salespeople can advise and recommend, but ultimately, it's up to you. You have to determine what you need now, and play 'fortune-teller,' predicting your future needs. No matter how hard you try and how smart you are and how much help you get, you will probably guess wrong.

Few business plans turn out to be accurate scripts. If your crystal ball is foggy, don't spill buckets of blood, sweat and tears to ascertain your growth pattern.

Our best advice:
>> for business systems, assume that in two years you will need twice the size you need now. 
>> Residential systems won't grow very much.

Before electronic phone systems became available, it was no great mistake to buy "short". If you miscalculated your needs, it was a simple matter to add more phones and lines. The old electromechanical phone systems were very almost infinitely expandable.

It's not that way with electronic and digital phone systems. The consequences of buying too small can be expensive, because all electronic phone systems have finite growth capability. Once they reach their design limits, there's nothing you can do to make them larger.

Often the only thing you can do at this point is to junk the system and start all over again. You can sell or trade-in your system, but don't expect very much unless you can sell direct to another end-user, bypassing a multitude of middlemen. Discontinued phone systems don't hold their value very well because of fast-paced technological advances, and a good portion of the cost of your system is the installation time and material, which are not transferable to the next owner.

There are different kinds of size.
Just because a system is touted as having a capacity of 50 lines and 150 phones, doesn't mean it will have that capacity when it's activated in your office. In the phone business, there are different kinds of size.

  1. The first kind of size is the capacity your control unit is initially equipped for: the number of lines and phones that can be connected to the control unit, when it is first hung on your wall.

  2. Next is the maximum number of lines and phones that can be connected, by installing additional circuit boards, cards or modules in the control unit. Sometimes there are "card slots" that can accept circuits for either additional lines or additional phones, and by increasing the number of lines, you would limit the number of phones you could add, and vice-versa. Some phone systems have specific spots to add line modules and phone modules, so the number of one type does not affect the number of the other type. With some systems, accessories like door intercom speakers take away some of the line or phone capacity. Panasonic systems have dedicated ports for door speakers, so you won't sacrifice line and phone capacity.

  3. And finally, there is the maximum capacity that can be reached by adding additional equipment cabinets. These may be complete control units that work in tandem with the original, or "slave" units that could not work by themselves. If you anticipate getting a phone system that grows by adding cabinets, find out if there are any sacrifices or compromises. You might find, for example, that there are a limited number of simultaneous intercom conversations possible between phones connected to one cabinet, and those in another cabinet. This may not be a big deal. Negative effects may be minimized or eliminated by careful planning. People who are most likely to call each other should be in the same "box." 


Even if your first control unit has a limited capacity, say three lines and eight phones, you may be able to get phones with that can handle more lines, say 12 or 24. When you outgrow the first control unit, you will still be able to use your original phones, and they will do more than before. This is quite common with most major phone makers, including Panasonic. 

If you buy a phone system that has more capacity than you will be using immediately—for example a system that can handle 16 phones but you are now using just 11—make sure all the phone circuits and line circuits are tested, and that they work properly at the time the system is first installed. 


If you don't need the extra capacity for a couple of years, you might find that the circuitry that is needed for a new phone is defective, and you are beyond the warranty period.

Sizing strategy

In buying a phone system, the ideal strategy would be to get a system that (1) fits a bit snugly when installed, and (2) can grow easily and inexpensively, paralleling your company's growth. This strategy will keep your initial investment low and avoid paying for capacity you're not using.

The problem is that some systems are more modular than others. And some systems grow more easily and more economically than others. The salesperson wants to sell you the phone system now. He won't be too concerned with the consequences of your decision several years down the road. It will be cheaper (and therefore easier) to sell you a phone system with little growth capability (i.e. cheap now) than to sell you one with plenty of growth capability (i.e. cheap in the long-term).

Many users encourage being "taken" by stressing low price too much. This encourages the salesman to propose a system that's too small for your growth, though fine for today. There are many examples of companies who grew out of their phone system in less than a year, and some who outgrew their system in less than 30 days.

Manufacturer literature is often imprecise on the subject of sizing, and less than helpful. You can read and ask questions, but you're ultimately on your own.

Remember also that there are variations on the theme of growth. Some systems allow you to add plenty of telephones, but few additional lines without a significant investment. Some systems allow you to add plenty of lines, but not many phones.

Lines-to-phones ratio

An accountant working alone would probably not need more than two telephone lines. An automobile dealer might have 40 employees but only ten lines and eight phones. A supermarket with 60 employees might have three lines and four phones. A busy travel agency with six employees would need six phones, but perhaps as many as a dozen lines, for people, faxes, and data.

Obviously, the lines/phones/people ratio varies widely from business to business, and can change as a business changes. There are no "correct" ratios nicely laid out. There are no textbooks which reveal the magic numbers. There are no precise formulas.

The most fundamental concepts are:

  1. Some people use the phone more than others.

  2. The more your people are on the phone, the more lines they'll need.


For a new business, you'll have to make a guess, perhaps based on your experience in a similar business, or recommendations from someone in a similar business. Without experience or recommendations, try this to start with: Get at least two lines, and the total number of lines should be a bit more than half your number of people.

For an existing business, the correct ratio for your company is based on past experience. What you need now, and will need tomorrow is based on how many times people get busy signals when they call your company, and how many complaints you get from employees about not being able to make a call.

You can get most of this information by asking your staff. Do we need more telephones? Why? Do we need more outside lines? Why? Do our customers and clients complain about getting busy signals? Have we asked them?

Even without asking the phone company or callers or employees for input, you may already know if you need more lines. If every time you look at the phone on your own desk, all the line buttons are lit up, it's a sign that you are doing a lot of business -- and possibly losing business from callers who can't get through. It may also be a sign that your employees are goofing off, making lots of personal calls, so pay attention to what's going on.

There is also a possibility of having too many lines for your staff to handle. If your people are constantly putting callers on hold to answer other callers, and switching back and forth, you need more people, or at least  a voice processing system. Voice processing includes such features as voice mail and an automated attendant (which lets callers reach the right person or department in your organization without human help) and can also dispense important information, such as your business hours, travel directions, or fax number, without taking valuable time away from your staff.

Questions to consider

  • Do all your people need phones on their desks?

  • Do they all need access to both incoming and outgoing lines? Would some work OK with just incoming lines? Would some work OK with just outgoing lines? Would some work OK with intercom only?

  • How many hours, in different job functions, do people legitimately spend on the phone every day, i.e. how long should they be on the phone as opposed to how long they actually are on the phone?

  • Do some people receive so many calls that they would be better off with their own private lines that don't go first get answered by other people?

  • These people might prefer the privacy and speed of answering their own phones. They might prefer to give their personal clients better service. Brokers, agents and financial managers often fall into this category. Maybe these people should have more than one private line so their private clients don't get busy signals.

  • Are there some parts of the office which we should place a phone in—not because someone works there permanently, but because having a phone there would be useful—such as a desk for visitors, or clients, the reception area, the executive bathroom, the copying room, the file room, the kitchen, the library, the boardroom, the front entrance to the building (for after hours entry), next to the fax machine?


Two phones on one desk?

Two phones can be very useful for busy people.

At least one phone should be a speakerphone -- maybe both. When you're waiting for someone to take you off hold, you can monitor with the speaker while you speak on the other phone. The echo effect of speakerphones often makes them unpleasant for people to listen to your voice, but they're great for hands-fee dialing and monitoring while you're on-hold for people, for taxis, for delivery information, for airlines and government agencies.

Some people have both corded and cordless phones on their desks -- and cellphones in their pockets or pocketbooks.

What's a KSU &
Do You Need One?




A multi-line telephone system usually includes phones, wire, jacks and other hardware, and a central control unit, which is a specialized computer often called  a "KSU" (Key Service Unit). A KSU is usually about the size of a medicine cabinet, and mounts on a wall, and needs a nearby electrical outlet. We offer a variety of digital and analog control units, with different capacities, features and prices.

The control unit distributes power to the phones, sends dial tone to them from the phone company's incoming lines, makes the phones ring, generates touch-tones, connects phones together for intercom and paging, provides connections for accessories such as music-on-hold players, paging amplifiers, PCs and door intercoms, and contains circuitry for basic phone functions, plus memory for functions and features.

Phone systems using KSUs generally require "home-run" wiring, with a direct path from the KSU to each phone jack. There is a simpler kind of wiring often found in homes, called "loop-through" or "daisy chain" wiring where the circuit starts at the source of dial tone, and then goes to the first jack, and then the next and the next.









A growing number of KSU-less phone systems use "cordless" or "wireless" phones. The phones are not completely cordless: they need a power cord for their chargers, but no phone cord, so they can go almost anywhere. The AT&T SynJ can have up to ten cordless 4-line phones, with individual voicemail boxes. You can even have a door intercom speaker, and talk to visitors from a cordless phone in your backyard.


KSU-less phones are easy to install, but be aware of their limitations:

  1. Fewer choices of phone type
  2. Phones may be more expensive than phones used with KSUs
  3. Fewer features
  4. Can't use a separate voicemail system (except from phone company).
  5. (Maybe) Additional cord or cords for each phone -- a particular problem for wall phones, but if you are creative, you can put the transformer in the basement and extend the power cord.
  6. Less capacity for lines and phones in one system
  7. Usually poor integration of non-standard phones, and devices like modems and faxes
  8. Very little trade-in value
  9. Very difficult or impossible to find discontinued models
  10. Can usually be repaired only by the manufacturer, not by independent repair facilities
  11. Programming for features common to all phones (such as time-setting) may have to be done separately for each phone.


  1. Thou shalt use stong surge protection on the AC power and on every phone line!

  2. Thou shalt put passwords on every voice mailbox.

  3. Thine passwords must be controlled by the company owner or manager, not by unfaithful and potentially rebellious mailbox users.

  4. Thou shalt put a list of passwords in at least 17 places, including the inside of a kitchen cabinet door. If your tent does not have a kitchen cabinet with a door, you can chisel the passwords into a rock which is too heavy to be moved by a human being.

  5. Thou shalt read the list again, and obey these commandments until the end of time, and teach these commandments to every inhabitant of the Earth.

Photo shows Charlton Heston as Moses

in "The Ten Commandments" (1956)

What's the difference
between intercom and paging?

An intercom call is two-way (a conversation), from one phone to one phone.

Paging is one-way (an announcement), from one phone to many phones, or speakers.

  • Stupidly, some AT&T phones have a "paging" button that makes a one-way announcement to one phone.

  • Also stupidly, the "paging" feature on Panasonic's KX-TG2000 and 4000 systems just makes all the phones ring at once—pretty darn useless.

What's digital?

What's analog?
Does it matter?

When the Panasonic KX-TD1232 digital phone system came out in 1993, it got a "D" in its model number to distinguish it from earlier analog 1232 phone systems. "Digital" was an important buzzword in the mid-1990s, just as "solid state" was in the 1960s, and "radio" was in the 1930s.

When Panasonic debuted the KX-TA624 in the late 1990s, the company said that the "A" stood for "advanced," but most dealers regarded the letter as an indicator that the system used ANALOG technology.


Later on, the KX-TA1232 was thought of as another analog system, even though it is based on the KX-TD1232. It has digital guts, but it can use only analog phones.

The KX-TAW848 presents a similar problem. It's nearly identical to the digital KX-TDA50, but it can't use digital phones... except for digital wireless phones.

  • Since digital is newer than analog, techno-snobs tend to think of digital as better than analog. But Panasonic's "analog" KX-TA624 and KX-TA1232 have more advanced Caller ID features than the digital 308, 816 and 1232; and the TA1232 could handle four door intercom speakers when the KX-TD1232 could handle just two.

  • On the other hand, if you want T1 service or Direct Inward Dialing, digital is the way to go. 


Back in 1995, AbleComm's business was 5% analog, and we assumed that soon it would be 0%. We were wrong—in 2004 our business was about 25% analog.

For most people, digital vs. analog simply should not matter. It's a distinction without a difference. In a business or home phone system, one technology does not sound better or provide more reliable

telecommunications than the other.


Digital phone systems have some analog components. Analog phone systems have lots of digital circuitry. AbleComm is going to gradually stop describing phone systems as analog or digital, and we recommend that you make your decision based on features, esthetics and price, not buzzwords or snobbery.

  • Remember, a dead digital watch never shows the correct time, but a dead analog watch shows the correct time twice a day.

Hunting: the most
misunderstood thing in the phone business

Let's say you have three phone lines, 555-8500, 555-8501 and 555-8793. 

If someone tries to call you on 555-8500, while you're talking on that line, she should get a busy signal, because the call encounters a "road block" at your local phone company's central office.


However, if your phone company provides "hunting," the call will "hunt" for another "road"—your next available line—and reach you on 555-8501 or 555-8793.

  • Some phone companies have other names for this service, such as ISG (Incoming Service Group), Roll-Over, Rotary, and Call Forward on Busy. They can do the same thing, but may have different prices, and might even be free.

  • Many people think that their own multi-line phones or phone systems can provide hunting from one phone line to another; but it doesn't matter if you paid $50 or $5,000,000 for your phone gear: ONLY the phone company can do it.

  • If you don't have hunting, a second caller can reach phone company voicemail, but not your own voicemail system.

Photo at top shows Groucho Marx as hunter Jeffrey Spaulding in Animal Crackers, an absolutely hilarious movie (Paramount, 1930).

"One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know. Then we tried to remove the tusks, but they were imbedded so firmly that we couldn't budge them. Of course, in Alabama, the Tuscaloosa, but that's entirely irr-elephant to what I was talking about."