A Comprehensive Guide to VoIP
Voice over Internet Protocol. When it’s all spelled out like that, few people would be able to recognize what it is, but use its more well-known abbreviation of VoIP and they’ll tell you that it definitely rings a bell. Even if you’re unaware of what this technology is, chances are you’ve already experienced it for yourself or have already heard about how useful it is.
So what exactly is VoIP and why would you possibly be interested in it? Well, although VoIP has been around for quite a while now, software engineers and developers are still coming up with more and more ways to integrate it into today’s technologies. And really, in this day and age where people are looking for more alternatives to communicate with each other over large distances, you can’t really go wrong with VoIP.
VoiP: Voice over Internet Protocol
Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP, which is also known as IP Telephony, is defined as “a group of technologies, methodologies, communication protocols, and transmission techniques that enable the delivery of voice communications and multimedia sessions via Internet Protocol (IP) networks.” One such IP network is the Internet, which I’m sure you’re already familiar with. This might seem like a pretty complicated and technical definition, so to put it more simply: VoIP transmits voice signals from your telephone and converts them into a digital one, which is then sent through the Internet. In short, it allows you to make calls similar to the ones that you make using your telephone without actually having to use a phone. As mentioned earlier, VoIP makes use of IP networks, which was originally made for data networking but was eventually adapted for voice networks when it achieved a world standard for the former.
VoIP has been dubbed as a “revolutionary technology” that has changed the world’s phone systems ever since it was developed, commercialized, and released for public usage. In fact, many industry experts have predicted that it might even replace the traditional telephone systems currently in place one day.
A Quick History of VoIP
Before looking into how VoIP works, let’s take a quick look at how it all began. In the year 1995, a small company called Vocaltec developed and released what is believed to be the first ever Internet phone program. The software ran on PCs and was called Internet Phone. Vocaltec’s software made use of sound cards, a microphone, and speakers to work. While Internet Phone enjoyed initial success, it could be said that it was ahead of its time because most people still had dial-up connections, which took a longer time compared to broadband to transmit data. As a result, VoIP calls had a lower voice quality compared to regular phone calls.
Its potential, however, was great, and companies like Intel, Microsoft and Radvision took notice and began to take steps to standardize communications systems for VoIP. The next milestone came in 1996, when the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) began developing standards for voice communications over IP networks with the H.323 standard. By 1998, VoIP traffic had grown to represent 1% of all voice traffic in the United States, increasing to 3% by the year 2000. Manufacturers began recognizing and capitalizing on the convenience and cost-effectiveness of PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone communication, with companies like Cisco and Lucent introducing equipment to route and switch VoIP traffic.
Commercial VoIP service providers gradually increased and continued to grow and proliferate in 2004. By the end of the last decade (2000 – 2009), a market research by IBISWorld, which is one of the most trusted independent source of industry and market research in the US, had named the VoIP industry as the “best-performing industry of the decade.”
How does VoIP work?
As mentioned earlier, VoIP is the transmission of voice signals over IP networks. With the use of VoIP software, your voice is converted into digital signals that are then transmitted over the Internet to the other party or parties, in case you’re conducting a conference call. If you’re using a computer and you want to place a call to someone with a regular telephone, then the signals have to be converted into regular telephone signals as well.
Regular telephone lines are based on Public Switched Telephone Networks (PSTN), an international system that relies on copper wire networks to carry analog voice data. Basically, this system uses a circuit-switched telephony and works by putting up a dedicated circuit between the two parties for the entire duration of the call. On the other hand, VoIP is a digital technology that makes use of packet-switched telephony. Instead of going through physical networks, the voice signals travel through various network packets over the Internet to reach the intended receiver.
Advantages of VoIP
Now that we’ve covered the background and basics of VoIP, it’s time to discover why it’s something that’s worth looking into. As with every technology, there are advantages and disadvantages to VoIP. Let’s consider the pros of VoIP first.
Low cost. This is probably what draws in most users at the outset. If you’ve recently moved to another city, state, or country, then you might already be looking into alternative means of communicating with your friends and family because the cost of long-distance telephone calls is just too plain high. Most networks charge long-distance calls by the minute, so you can’t really plan on having a long and meaningful conversation with the other party when you’re always conscious of the time while you’re on the phone. Some VoIP providers offer a free basic service that you can use without having to pay a cent. However, for added features, these providers might charge a fee that will, in the end, still be much cheaper than having to pay for long-distance telephone calls in the long run.
Feature-filled. Most providers offer features with their VoIP services that are still not available or are not applicable to regular telephone services. These include:
- being able to get a virtual phone number
- anonymous call blocking
- phone number changes
- telemarketer blocking
- contact lists
- enhanced voicemail services
- toll-free numbers
- call transfers
- called ID blocking
- multi-ring options
- getting extra virtual numbers
- online account management services
- speed dialing
- SMS services
- international blocking
Mobility. This is actually related to the first advantage listed. Since you will essentially be having a virtual phone in your hands with VoIP, you can expect it to work anywhere where there’s a reliable Internet connection. If you’re making PC-to-PC calls, then the only thing that you’ll effectively have to pay for is for your Internet access, and if the place where you’re at offers free WiFi, then you don’t have to pay for anything. This makes VoIP a great option when you’re traveling, when you’ve just moved, or if you plan on communicating with someone from another area or country regularly.
No Taxes. Since VoIP calls are conducted over the Internet, governments cannot tax the service as they do with your regular telephone subscription. This translates to additional savings for you and your family, because although the actual charges won’t seem like much at the outset, they will eventually add up over the months.
Disadvantages of VoIP
While there are many advantages to using VoIP, there are also some disadvantages to the technology. Developers and engineers are constantly working to eliminate or minimize these, although it will take a while to find a fix for everything.
No service during power outage. You are able to use your regular telephone even during blackouts because the current is supplied through the phone line. However, VoIP services go out during blackouts because IP phones are powered directly by an electricity source. Likewise, if you connect to the Internet using a router, then you will not be able to access it during outages as well. Because of these reasons, it is recommended that users install a backup power supply or power generator in order to provide a constant stream of electricity to power the service.
Emergency calls. With your regular phone line, you can simply hit 9-1-1 when you need to make emergency calls or call for assistance. Regular phone lines can be traced easily, but calls placed over the Internet might prove to be a bit more challenging. Emergency calls are connected to the nearest call center where the call is being made. The operator on the other end can easily trace your location in case you cannot speak. However, since VoIP calls is basically a call placed between two IP address and not between two physical addresses, it would be difficult to trace the origin of these calls.
Call Quality. VoIP calls rely heavily on your Internet connection. It is recommended that you use these services with a broadband connection to ensure good voice quality. If your Internet connection is unreliable, then you will find that the calls that you’re making sound choppy and are frequently disconnected. The call quality is also affected by your PC and by the equipment that you’re using to make your calls. In short, better quality headphones and microphones will ensure better sound quality as opposed to using substandard equipment.
Getting Started with VoIP
Here is a quick list of things to do before you can start making and receiving VoIP calls:
- Ensure you have a good Internet connection
- Choose the type of VoIP service you want
- Sign up with a VoIP service provider
- Set up your VoIP equipment
- Get a phone number
- Set up your VoIP account
Getting a good Internet connection. You might probably already have a good enough Internet connection, but this is a point worth stressing because it’s one of the major factors that affect overall voice quality when making and receiving VoIP calls.
Choosing the type of VoIP service. There are various VoIP services that are currently being offered, such as: subscription/hardware-based VoIP services, software-based VoIP services, mobile VoIP services, device-based VoIP services, and business or corporate VoIP services. It is important that you go over each to see which type of service would best suit you or your company’s needs.
- Hardware-based VoIP services are best for household use. After signing up for this service, you will be sent a phone adapter that is to be plugged in to your ADSL line and to your telephone set.
- Software-based VoIP services are perhaps the most commonly used nowadays. Some of these include Skype, Gizmo, VoIPStunt, Yeigo, and PeerMe. Most instant messaging platforms have also adapted VoIP technology in their software, such as AOL Instant Messenger, Google Talk, and Yahoo! Messenger. Software-based services are the most popular because the programs are usually free to download and are readily available to users in all countries.
- Mobile VoIP services work through GSM networks. When signing on to this service, users are tasked to download and install a softphone on their mobiles that will be used to make and receive calls from other users who have signed up for the same service.
- Device-based VoIP services are availed of simply by purchasing a piece of hardware that has been built and pre-installed with software to allow you to make VoIP calls right off the bat. This includes Ooma, MagicJack, and PhoneGnome.
- Business or Corporate VoIP services are communications solutions that are geared towards larger establishments. These include Fonality PBXtra, Cisco’s Smart Business Communications System (SBCS), and Nortel’s Business Communications Manager (BCM).
Signing up with a VoIP service provider. After deciding what type of VoIP you’d like, it’s time to look for a VoIP service provider. You can do a quick search online in order to find some providers that might work for you. It pays to read and pay attention to reviews that other users have posted about certain providers so that you will know what to expect when you do decide to sign on with them. It’s important that you consider the following aspects when deciding which VoIP provider to go with: service reliability, cost aspect, bundled and add-on features, and technical support.
Setting up your VoIP equipment. Most VoIP service providers offer bundled equipment with their subscription plans and packages. However, you can also opt to purchase your own hardware if you prefer. For PC-to-PC calls, the only things you will need, aside from your PC or laptop, are a speaking device and a hearing device, such as a headset, a microphone and earphones, a microphone and speakers, and so on. Some services might require you to actually get a telephone unit or a handset. This is highly dependent on the type of VoIP service you’ve chosen to go for. In this step, the VoIP provider will usually send over a representative if there is anything that needs to be set up.
Getting a phone number. If you plan on using VoIP services beyond just your PC, then you might want to considering getting a phone number. You can inquire about how to get one from your VoIP service provider.
Setting up your VoIP account. Most of the types of VoIP services, especially the software-based ones, are quick to set up and can be used immediately after installation. For hardware-based services, all you will need to do is plug the provided ATA adapter into your phone and handset, and you’re good to go. For software-based services, you will simply need to download and install the software before being able to make and receive calls. However, for business VoIP services, the provider will usually send over a representative or technician to install and set up the needed hardware and software for you.