Internet Telephone Service
I remember my first long-distance relationship. Beside the difference in
time zones, the biggest adjustment I faced was the size of my phone bill. I
almost immediately began looking for a better solution. I started shopping
around for better long-distance plans, cell phones with unlimited long-distance
calling – I even tried calling using my computer, which resulted in delays
between verbal exchanges often associated with your average space shuttle mission.
The price was great (free), but the quality left a lot to be desired.
Well, a lot has changed in just a few years, and now Voice over Internet
Protocol (VoIP) is a bona fide alternative to your regular telephone service.
VoIP companies are advertising right alongside your other communications commercials,
complete with jingles and catchy theme songs.
Just What is VoIP?
VoIP is a method for taking analog audio signals, like the kind you hear
when you talk on the phone, and turning them into digital data that can be
transmitted over the Internet.
You can use VoIP to turn a standard Internet connection into a way to place
free phone calls. By using some of the free VoIP software that is available
to make Internet phone calls, you bypass the phone company (and its charges)
entirely. However, using the free software does not always compare to the features
available to you from your typical phone service provider or some of the other
VoIP providers like Vonage (www.vonage.com)
are growing steadily, and major carriers like AT&T are already setting up VoIP
calling plans in several markets around the United States. Moreover, cable
companies providing high-speed Internet connections – like Comcast (www.comcast.com) – are
also beginning to offer the service.
There are actually three different variations of VoIP service in use today:
n ATA. The simplest and most common way is through the use of a device
called an analog telephone adaptor (ATA). The ATA allows you to connect a standard
phone to your computer or your Internet connection for use with VoIP. The ATA
takes the analog signal from your phone and converts it into digital data for
Internet transmission. Providers usually bundle ATAs free with their service.
You simply plug in the ATA, plug the cable from your phone that would normally
go in the wall socket into the ATA, and you're ready to make calls.
n IP Phones. These specialized phones look just like normal phones
with a handset, cradle and buttons. But instead of having the standard phone
connectors, IP phones have an Ethernet connector. IP phones connect directly
to your router and have all the necessary hardware and software right onboard
to handle the call.
n Computer-to-Computer. This is certainly the easiest way to use VoIP.
You don't even have to pay for long-distance calls. There are several companies
offering free or very low-cost software that you can use for this type of VoIP.
All you need is the software, a microphone, speakers, a sound card and a high-speed
Internet connection. Except for your normal monthly ISP fee, there is usually
no charge for computer-to-computer calls, no matter the distance.
You can also use your service wherever you have broadband connection. If
you are traveling on business, you can either take your ATAs with you, or use
a softphone. A softphone is software that loads the VoIP service onto your
desktop or laptop. As long as you have a headset/microphone, you can place
calls from your laptop anywhere in the broadband-connected world.
Most VoIP companies are offering minute-rate plans structured like cell phone
bills for as little as $25 per month. Companies like Vonage also offer plans
for businesses as well as residential packages.
And you don't have to give up the features that normal phone companies provide.
As a matter of fact, you can usually get for free what the other companies
charge you extra for when they are added to your service plan. VoIP includes:
- Caller ID
- Call waiting
- Call transfer
- Repeat dial
- Return call
- Three-way calling
With many VoIP services, you can also check voicemail via the Web and get
e-mail notification of new voicemail messages. When you also consider that
you can also use VoIP for fax lines and add additional lines for only a few
dollars more a month, the savings really become apparent. One of the biggest
surprises was when I found that you can get a phone number in a different area
code. For instance, if you have relatives in California, you can give them
a local number that will ring your phone number here in Maryland.
Computers and Internet modems all require the electricity to be on for them
to work. If the power goes out, so will your phone. The systems they are delivered
on are also a little more prone to glitches than our tried-and-true phone system.
Because of this, VoIP's reliability should be considered when making your decision
Emergency 911 calls also become a challenge with VoIP. There is no way to
associate a geographic location with an IP address. So if the caller can't
tell the 911 operator where he or she is located, then there is no way to know
which call center to route the emergency call to and which EMS should respond.
Providers such as Vonage require that you list a street address where your
phone number is registered and will process 911 calls. They also warn that
if you decide to travel with your service and connect it in a location other
than the one registered, you should immediately update the 911 information
as soon as you set up the ATA unit at its new location.
VoIP is also susceptible to all the problems normally associated with broadband
services. Phone conversations can become distorted, garbled or lost because
of transmission errors.