Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is an attractive prospect to many. Who wouldn't want low-cost or even free telephone calls around the world? As with all exploding technologies, however, VoIP's biggest barrier to entry for most people is a simple lack of knowledge about how it works. So, this month, we're going to be doing a round of VoIP coverage. To kick it all off, we're going to answer many of your Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
What Is VoIP?
Very simply put, VoIP is a technology that allows telephone calls to be made over the Internet. These are far cheaper than normal telephone calls, though prices and services vary from company to company. Skype, for example, offers international phone calls from anywhere to anywhere for an average cots of just 2.1 cents per minute.
What's Free And What's Not Free?
Generally speaking, calls between VoIP users are free. For example, two Yahoo or Skype users can call one another directly online for nothing. Calls to traditional land lines are what you pay for.
What's The Difference Between Phone-based VoIP And Computer-based VoIP?
Phone based VoIP converts your home phone into a VoIP service using a special adaptor. Computer-based VoIP runs on your desktop or laptop computer; this makes it more flexible, because it moves around with the computer - this means you can take it anywhere in the world.
Can I Use The Hardware From One VoIP Service With A Different Provider?
In general, no. Most of the major VoIP providers, such as Vonage, AT&T CallVantage and Verizon Voicewing, "lock" their hardware so that it can only be used with their service. Some providers effectively lease the equipment to you and will refund part or all of a "setup fee" when you terminate service. If you buy the hardware outright via a retail package, however, you'll have a nice doorstop if you decide to terminate or change VoIP service.
VoIP services that run on your computer, such as Skype and Yahoo Messenger, do not require any special hardware, One can run any number of these VoIP services from the same machine (though not at the same time, obviously.)
What Are The Requirements For VoIP?
All VoIP services require an Internet connection, and the faster the better. A pretty standard 512 kbps downstream, 128 kbps upstream connection would be adequate, though if you have more than one person using VoIP at the same time on the same connection, the requirements increase.
Hardware requirements are not all that stringent; any machine purchased in the last 18 months (or even a bit earlier) should be able to handle VoIP. Exact requirements may vary from provider to provider, however. An audio-in device (microphone) and audio-out device (headset or speakers) are also required.
Exact Figures Please?
For the tech savvy in the audience, or those who just like numbers, David Allen Stratton, CTO of VoIP service provider BroadVoice has the answers. The figures depend on the "last mile" technology (how the home connects to the Internet service provider) and the voice codec used. Many VoIP providers use the G.711 codec with a 20 ms sample rate, which requires 64 kbps. When you add in IP overhead, this increases to 71.6 kbps. If a Frame-Relay-based DSL loop (also similar to cable modem) is used for Internet connectivity, bandwidth further increases to about 81.6 kbps. And if you are on an ATM-based DSL loop (the most common case), bandwidth used jumps to 106 kbps. Note that this bandwidth use is for each direction of a call, both talking and listening (upstream and downstream, as far as your Internet connection is concerned).
What Kind Of VoIP Peripherals Can You Get?
As well as headsets and microphones, there is an increasing market for VoIP peripherals. These include wireless and USB handsets, which are used in conjunction with computer-based VoIP services.
Can VoIP Tie In With My Instant Messaging Service?
Some services can, while others cannot. Skype, for example, has its own instant messenger service, which allows one to participate in IM chats and transfer files while conducting phone calls and video calls with other users (free, when client-to-client, as mentioned above). Other VoIP services, such as the one offered by Yahoo, tie into an existing VoIP client, which many may find more convenient.
Can I Keep My Old Telephone Number?
You usually can; alternatively, you could get a new telephone number, even in a place far from where you live. For example, you could obtain a New York number, even if you're living in New Delhi; this would allow people in New York to call you while paying only for the cost of a local call. Similarly, your number remains the same wherever you go, so you could head overseas with a "local" number back home, and family and friends could continue to call you at local telephone rates.
Can I Get Extra Services, Like Fax And Voicemail, With VoIP?
This depends on the service provider, but the short answer is yes. Everything from call forwarding to voicemail can be supported. Check what's included in the package you're buying, however, because fax service and "softphone" (using your computer as the phone) support are frequently extra-cost features.
Can I Use VoIP With My Mobile?
At the moment, combining VoIP and mobile telephones is an exploratory area. One can certainly call mobiles using VoIP services, but using VoIP through a mobile phone is another matter. Using services such as EQO, for example, one can send messages and initiate calls through Skype using a mobile phone. The service is patchy however, and still in beta. We would expect VoIP to make the jump to mobiles in the next couple of years - particularly as wireless Internet access infrastructures become more prevalent - but don't expect miracles at the moment.
What Is Call Quality Like?
Call quality depends on two main things: the VoIP service provider you use, and the quality (and bandwidth) of your Internet connection. This can vary depending on the service level chosen, where you're calling to and from, available bandwidth and so on. Generally speaking, computer-to-computer calls are of excellent quality as long as there is reasonable bandwidth available. VoIP to landline calls can be more tricky, however.
Most VoIP providers will offer a free trial, and there are an increasing number of service reviews - including plenty in our VoIP section - that you would be well advised to read before spending your money. In the majority of cases, we have found call quality with reputable companies to be, at the very least, as good as that of regular telephones in 90 percent of cases.
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Why Is VoIP Not A total Replacement For Normal Phones?
The reason why many people, including big VoIP firms, will tell you that it is not a complete telephony replacement comes down to emergency situations. VoIP is not as easily traceable as normal telephony services, and so will not always work well with emergency numbers such as 911. Steps are being taken to rectify this, but don't bet your life on it (literally).
Also, VoIP is dependent on power and Internet access to work, while normal telephony services are not. In many emergency situations, your Internet connection and electrical service may not be available, or you may not have the time to wait for a computer to boot up to make an emergency call. Therefore, it is always advisable to have a traditional phone around as a backup.
Other reasons why VoIP hasn't replaced traditional telephony are the hassle of dealing with multiple providers when something goes wrong. This often results in a finger-pointing exercise between hardware and software companies, which can be very frustrating, especially for non-technical users.
Another issue is that, unbelievably, U.S. satellite TV providers DirecTV and Dish networks still require their boxes to "phone home" via dial-up modem. As you might imagine, running a dial-up modem connection over a VoIP circuit often doesn't work very well. (It's also a very roundabout way of using a broadband connection!)
VoIP is the way forward, but the biggest barrier to its goal of world domination is a lack of knowledge on the part of consumers. We hope that this brief FAQ will answer your fundamental questions, and enable you to go forward armed with the knowledge needed to get on the VoIP bandwagon.
If you have any more questions, just click on the Discuss link below and feel free to ask away. We don't doubt that this is a topic we'll be coming back to regularly in the future; in fact, we intend to publish an overview on VoIP for business users later this month. Stay tuned!