What's all the fuss about?
Although VoIP has been creating quite a stir in the press recently, it's actually not a new idea at all. VoIP has been around in one form or another since 1973 when it began as an experiment by the US Department of Defense.
The reason why we haven't all been using VoIP to make calls until now is that it requires a broadband Internet connection, and broadband has only been widely available to home and business users for a relatively short time. But now, with broadband becoming increasingly common, VoIP has started to take off in a big way.
Why should I use VoIP?
The big selling point of VoIP is the cost of calls. If you use VoIP to call someone else who also has VoIP, your calls (even international calls) will be absolutely free!
All you pay for is your normal Internet connection. And what's more, you may not need any extra equipment. If your computer has speakers and a microphone, you're almost ready to go.
Who supplies VoIP?
If you're interested in VoIP for your home or business, then you'll be wanting to find a supplier. The following suppliers all offer a range of call plans to suit your needs:
Sound quality - Is VoIP any good?
If you have a broadband Internet connection, even a relatively slow one (less than 1Mb) you should find that the sound quality is at least as good as a mobile phone, and may be even better than a landline.
Even with ISDN or a dialup modem, you may find that the sound quality is perfectly adequate, although you are unlikely to experience quite the same quality as a broadband user.
How does VoIP work?
If you've already used the Internet, you'll know that you can use your Internet connection to send and receive many different kinds of information - video, music, email and personal messages are just a few examples. VoIP is just another use for the Internet - this time for making phone calls.
From a user's point of view VoIP is very similar to a conventional landline telephone system. You talk into a handset or microphone (or a headset if you prefer it) and so does the person at the other end. The only difference is in what happens in-between.
In a normal phone call over a landline, voice signals travel along a telephone wire, and through a system of telephone exchanges. With a VoIP phone call on the other hand, your voice is sent as digital information over the Internet. It doesn't matter how you connect to the Internet - through your phone line (using ADSL), or via cable or a wireless network or satellite link - VoIP works in just the same way.
The promise of free international calls whenever you want them probably sounds a little too good to be true - there must be a catch, right? Well, yes and no. Provided you only wish to use VoIP to communicate with other VoIP users, everything is very straightforward. If however you want to be able to use VoIP to make and receive calls to and from people who don't have VoIP, you'll need to subscribe to a gateway service that provides a bridge between VoIP and the conventional phone networks.
Gateway services - Bridging the gap with 'real' phones
In its basic form, VoIP can only be used to communicate with other VoIP users. For many of us, that's perfectly adequate; if we want to call anyone who doesn't have VoIP, we can use our landline or mobile phone instead. However, there are services available (called 'PSTN gateway services'), which provide the ability to make and receive calls to and from conventional phone numbers.
PSTN gateway service providers (often just called VoIP providers) provide you with this ability to call 'real' telephones. Your chosen VoIP provider will provide you with a telephone number that will allow other people to call you on your VoIP phone, as well as allowing you to dial out to conventional phone numbers.
Of course these services are not free - charges may be provided on a per-minute basis or at a flat monthly rate. Payment may be made via credit or debit card, or using a prepaid charge card system.
In general, calls made to conventional numbers through a VoIP provider will be significantly cheaper than calls made using an ordinary landline or mobile phone. In particular, many providers offer excellent rates for international calls. Skype, one of the largest VOIP service providers, even allows you to have several numbers in different countries. So a friend in the United States could call you on your US number (even though you are in the UK) and avoid paying for an international call.
It's tempting to think that, once you have an account with a VoIP provider, you'll be able to switch completely to using VoIP. However, it is important to note that most VoIP providers do impose some restrictions; for instance, you may not be able to call the emergency services or certain international locations, and operator services are unlikely to be available. Another issue is that your VoIP system will probably not work in the event of power failure. For reasons such as these, many people choose to use VoIP in addition to (not instead of) conventional phone services. And of course if you're an ADSL broadband user, you?ll still need to keep your landline, because it is used for your Internet connection.
Getting started with VoIP
Getting started with VoIP could hardly be simpler. Assuming you already have the two most important ingredients (a Windows or Mac computer and a broadband Internet connection), all you need to get started is the following:
- Some free phone or messaging software
- A microphone
- Headphones or speakers (headphones are best because they won't cause as much feedback).
An alternative to a microphone and headphones is an integrated headset, as this will leave your hands free.
When it comes to choosing which software to use, it's worth considering whom you plan to call, since most VoIP software is proprietary. Check with any friends or relatives who already use VoIP and see what they're using. If you plan to use VoIP to call people who use different software, you may need to install more than one program!
Examples of VoIP software you might choose to use are MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, SkyPe and ICQ, all of which are available as free downloads. All of these are designed to be beginner-friendly, so follow the installation instructions and you'll be ready to go in a matter of minutes.
Beyond the basics - Other VOIP equipment
Manufacturers have been quick to latch on to the potential of VoIP to sell new products, and have produced a range of devices to make VoIP a richer experience.
Firstly, there are VoIP handsets and handset adapters. VoIP handsets replace the microphone/headphones set-up with a more familiar telephone handset; an alternative is to use an adapter to convert a conventional phone handset for use as a VoIP handset. Cordless handsets are also available.
A slightly different concept is the IP phone. This is a telephone handset that can be attached directly to your ADSL modem or router - allowing you to make calls without the need for your computer to be switched on. There are also adapters that allow you to use a conventional phone as an IP phone.
Many manufacturers also produce dual-purpose phones that can be used for VoIP calls as well as conventional calls via a landline, thus avoiding the need for two phones.
VoIP for business
VoIP can also provide a significant saving on calls for business users.
In particular, if a business operates on more than one site (or in the case of larger businesses, many sites nationally or internationally), using VoIP can make good financial sense. Most office premises come equipped with a broadband connection these days, so there's really no excuse to be paying for calls from one office to another. And just like a conventional phone system, VoIP can also be used for conference calls.
Even if your business operates from a single site, you may find that being able to call some of your customers and suppliers for free or at reduced cost makes VoIP a sound business choice.
Weighing the pros and cons - Is VoIP for me?
Whether or not VoIP is going to be useful to you is likely to be based on two factors: cost and convenience. Consider the kind of calls you regularly make, or would like to make, from your landline. Here are two scenarios that might help you to decide:
Do you regularly call anyone who also has a broadband Internet connection? If so, being able to phone them for free whenever you want, with little or no initial set-up cost, might be a perfect reason to start using VoIP. In particular, if you have family or friends overseas, VoIP can offer you the ability to keep in touch more regularly without running up the usual bills.
Are your monthly phone bills particularly high, or do you make a lot of international, mobile or long-distance calls? If so, a subscription to a VoIP provider who charges a fixed monthly rate or offers discounted call rates could save you a substantial amount, particularly on overseas calls.
To summarise then, it's unlikely that VoIP will completely replace landline telephones in the near future. Instead, many of us will choose to use the two systems side-by-side as a way to save money on our calls. Whether or not you decide that VoIP is useful to you right now, expect to hear a lot more about it in the future!