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LAS VEGAS—While his small business customers may not have been clamoring to try IP telephony—if they even know what it is—Stuart Raburn, president of VAR Teklinks, said that he has been at a loss for what phone system to suggest if their current system needs replacing.

The Cisco VAR, based in Homewood, Ala., has wanted to offer customers a VOIP (voice over IP) system, but the pricing levels were “embarrassing” for small businesses, and the proposals he put together were “laughable,” Raburn said. The problem was in the pricing.

While Cisco began building and offering products for the small and mid size business space three years ago, the products had not come down in price enough to be approachable for small businesses.

For example, Raburn said, the previous offering from Cisco— Call Manager Express—would come in at around $50,000 for 50 users. That was just way out of the ballpark for his customers.

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But the new system Cisco announced here at the Cisco Partner Summit on April 3, the Unified Communications 500 and some companion expansion products, are generating some excitement with Raburn and other partners. He estimates it will cost about $400 or so a seat compared to the $800 to $1,000 a seat he was seeing with Cisco’s previous systems.

This fills a void for Raburn’s business of 85 employees, which serves small businesses in Mississippi and Alabama. Telephony was a hole in his company’s coverage.

The new product and price strategy was by design at Cisco, according to Andrew Sage, senior director of worldwide channels marketing.

“We priced it for the SMB market,” Sage said, estimating that the suite of products around the UC500 would cost small businesses about $600 to $700 per seat.

That’s in contrast to the predecessor product, Call Manager Express, which Sage says was aimed more at the mid-market.

In building the new product set for the small business market, Cisco also focused on making it easier to install, manage and use, executives said. And while partners did not believe claims of having the system running 15 minutes after it came out of the box, they were excited about the prospect of an easy-to-install VOIP system.

Pat Scheckel, senior director of products and solutions at Berbee, a recent CDW acquisition, said that much of the work of installing a new IP telephony system came at the planning stage before installation would ever begin.

Teklink’s Raburn noted that the level of difficulty in installing and managing such systems had grown exponentially in recent years, creating another barrier of entry for VARs serving small businesses. So the new system offered some promise for resolving those issues too, he said.

It’s something that partners want to find out about.

“We may have underestimated the demand for demo units,” said Wendy Bahr, senior director of commercial channels at Cisco, talking about partner interest in the line of products around and including the UC 500. The products will begin to ship on June 1 and VARs can place orders on May 15.