Changing to VoIP

What is VoIP?

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a means of transmitting sound over the internet and, because it offers numerous advantages to more traditional analogue telephone technologies (such as regular phone lines) is fast replacing such systems as the communications technology of choice for an increasing number of businesses. VoIP is also becoming more popular for home use, although it has yet to gain as much traction there.

What follows is brief guide aimed at introducing you to VoIP, what it is about, how it can benefit you, and how to try it out for yourself.

What do I need?

VoIP is a digital technology that converts your voice into binary data and transmits it over the internet to its destination, where it is converted back to an analogue signal so that your recipient can hear your voice through a speaker. The practical effect is very similar to using a conventional phone. What you will need therefor is:

  • A broadband connection – a decent connection is needed, as voice signals uses up a lot of bandwidth
  • An internet connected device  – a computer, smartphone or special VoIP phone
  • A service provider – needed to transmit and direct your calls
  • A speaker and microphone – these can be separate devices plugged into a desktop computer, or integrated into a laptop, smartphone, VoIP phone etc. Residential users are often supplied with a plug-in adapter which allows them to use their existing phone handset with the VoIP service.

Generally speaking, VoIP can do everything that a conventional landline phone can do, including voicemail, call forwarding, call blocking, Caller ID, emergency service calls (911), fax, directory inquiries etc. Some of these services may cost extra above the basic package, but are almost always cheaper than paying for the equivalent landline functionality.

How VoIP is used

VoIP has been gaining in popularity for a number of years and is now commonly used for the following purposes:

Business – thanks to the low set-up charges, low running costs, global reach, sophisticated office functionality (e.g. auto-office and call scheduling options), easy scalability, and  the range of remote working possibilities offered by VoIP, businesses of all sizes have been fast adopters of this new technology.

  • Businesses often use dedicated VoIP handsets that either just plug into a router’s Ethernet socket, or can connect to internet via the office WiFi

Home – although VoIP has made slower inroads into the residential telecommunications department, it is rapidly gaining in popularity as domestic users’ cotton on the low price (often free!) calls available.

  • Residential VoIP users typically use their home computer (with attached microphone and headset if required) to make unlimited free calls to other computers using the same VoIP service. It is also usually possible to call land-line numbers (and receive calls from them), which generally costs a little money but always less than conventional telephone charges.
  • Many VoIP providers supply an adapter (often included in the package price) that allows users to plug in their existing telephone handset so that it can be used to make VoIP calls.

Mobile – smartphones are basically highly capable pocket-sized computers that are always connected to the internet. As such, most VoIP services provide software that enable people to use VoIP from their phone and in all other ways works similarly to running VoIP software on a home computer.

  • VoIP using a smartphone is usually a flawless experience when the phone is connected to the internet via a WiFi connection, but can suffer quality issues thanks to the more limited bandwidth, and sometimes patchy signal reception, that is available when connecting on the move. Another issue to be careful about when connecting away from a WiFi connection is phone company data charges, which are separate from any agreement you have with your VoIP provider. As noted earlier, VoIP is quite data intensive and will quickly eat up the allowance on many limited data plans.

So why use VoIP?

The main reason to use VoIP is that it costs less!

  • When used to between computers (including smartphones) running the same VoIP software, VoIP is usually free! Live video chat is also usually available so you can see who you are talking to
  • If used as a replacement for a traditional home or office telephone system then there is usually a flat monthly fee with no per-minute charges, or charges for long distance and international calls. VoIP users can typically save up to 40% on local calls and up to 90% on international calls compared to traditional phone lines
  • Home users will love the fact that VoIP is good for much more than talking, as video, photo and text files can be easily shared over VoIP
  • Business users will love the range of advanced features such as call queuing, assignable extension numbers, message on hold, and much more that were once the preserve of large corporations but are now inexpensive, easily configured and within reach of even small businesses
  • Both home and business users will love the ability to make conference calls (with or without live video) simultaneously with as many family members or business associates as desired.

Considerations

Despite its newness, VoIP is a surprisingly mature technology that in most cases works extremely well. There remain however, some technical issues that could be improved upon:

  • Bandwidth – you need a decent amount of bandwidth to get high voice quality. Any broadband connection should be fine for domestic use, but large companies might need to expand their broadband capacity if using a lot of VoIP. Also, if the internet or electricity ever goes down, so will the VoIP, so some kind of back-up system may be required for mission-critical services
  • Security – VoIP data is transported in what are known as “packets” over the internet and, like all internet traffic, is susceptible to being interfered with. VoIP service providers are however working hard to solve this problem and have a number of systems in place to minimise any risk
  • Call quality – this is usually just as good as when using traditional landlines, but users do occasionally complain about echoes, delays and interference. While this is sometimes simply an artefact of the technology, using high quality equipment and choosing the right VoIP provider can often solve the problem.

VoIP service providers

Choosing a VoIP provider that is right for you is not such a daunting task as it may at first seem, as it is a highly competitive market and the services on offer are broadly similar. There are two general types of VoIP provider:

  • Software based providers that allow you to VoIP between two computers (and software compatible smartphones). Usually free for the basic service, they typically make money through advertising, offering premium services, and charging for calls to and from traditional landlines and mobile phones. Examples include Skype, iChat, iCall, Gizmo, and Talkster.
  • Providers that aim to replace your home or office telephone system. These generally charge a monthly or annual flat subscription rate, and there are many such providers.

When choosing a provider, carefully consider your needs when comparing features between them and then scrutinize the small print to be sure that you understand any hidden activation, termination etc. charges.

Conclusion

VoIP is a fantastic new technology that allows cheap voice calls, costs almost nothing to set up, and offers enhanced functionality over traditional phone line solutions. It is also extremely portable and can be used from your mobile phone, or anywhere an internet connection is available. This accounts for its steady increase in popularity (Skype alone had 521 million user accounts in 2009) as it represents the future in communications technology.