Which VoIP Service Is Best for You?

Since the last time I reviewed Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services for HelloDirect.com, a lot has happened. The internet economy all but crashed, many companies went bankrupt, and faith in all-things-web was virtually lost. Nonetheless, because VoIP is such a viable and easily marketed idea, it has survived the shakeout. In fact, all of the net-based calling services that I reviewed before are still around today.

Even if you haven’t tried internet calling, you’ve probably heard it talked about. The services are especially abundant in foreign countries, catering to travelers and families with relatives in the U.S. Overall, most people have been dissatisfied with the service, and rightfully so. Callers experienced breaks in conversations, incoming audio was often nonexistent, and tone quality was garbled.

About a month ago I tested these same services again and was surprised to discover that VoIP has improved. Last year, I was able to get a landline-comparable connection for 1 out of 7 calls; the other 6 had occasional breakups and transmission delays. Last month, I made numerous calls during peak hours and rarely found transmission delays. The breakups are still there but the overall quality seemed to be better.

And now for the downside…

These formerly free providers now charge per-minute rates for some of their services. But if price is the most important factor for you, you can still save a lot of money. As you’ll see below, VoIP can easily cut your phone bills by more than a third. And if you take advantage of one less-publicized secret, you can still get free PC-to-phone calls.

Before you begin
In order to talk over your PC, you need a microphone and speakers. You can use your computer’s built-in components, but you probably won’t get very good performance. Ambient noises will get picked up, your conversations will not be private, and your microphone will recycle speaker output, causing echoes.

To circumvent these problems I recommend that you buy a headset. HelloDirect.com offers a number of high-quality PC headsets that connect directly to your computer. Some connect through your headphone/microphone jacks, and some go through your USB port. All of them are super-easy to set up.

If you already have a headset you’re happy with (or if on the other hand, you don’t like headsets), there is another option. The Hello Direct Virtuosoâ„¢ Multimedia Headset System connects either a headset or your regular telephone to your computer, thereby letting you answer telephone calls, control volume levels, and use other applications such as speech recognition—through the Virtuoso amplifier. Meanwhile, this headset/amp combo also improves the clarity of incoming and outgoing transmissions.

Whether you use the Virtuoso headset/amp system or a PC headset, both will vastly improve the quality of internet calls.

Making calls
There are 2 different types of VoIP service. One allows you to make calls from your computer to another landline or mobile phone; the other lets you make calls from your computer to another computer.

PC-to-phone calling
For purposes of this article, I tested 4 PC-to-phone services: Dialpad, Go2Call, Net2Phone, and iConnectHere. Because these companies use the same transmission technology, the quality of internet calls is, for the most part, identical. The main differences are user-friendliness and price.

User-friendliness
Overall I found Dialpad to be the easiest VoIP service to use. You don’t have to download software because all activity is performed through the well-designed applet (see picture). Dialpad also stores your user information on their servers, so you can access your contact list (and dial out) from any computer in the world.

One other factor to consider when choosing a service: some providers offer special deals. Currently, the best deal is from Dialpad. For just $9.99 per month, you can have 400 anytime minutes for calls from and to the U.S.

Now pay attention, here is the “little secret” I mentioned earlier. Dialpad offers “trial calls” for up to 5 minutes in length, but there is no limit to the number of trial calls you can make. So if you just want to say hello to a friend or colleague, or relay some quick information, calls from anywhere in the world to the U.S. are still free.

PC-to-PC calling
The main advantage of PC-to-PC calls is the price—they are 100% free. All you have to do is download some software and be annoyed by the occasional ad. For this category I reviewed 3 services: NetMeeting, Net2Phone, and PhoneFree. (Dialpad, iConnectHere, and Go2Call do not offer PC-to-PC calls.)

PhoneFree is the best option. With their service you can search for other online users by name, you can store contacts in an address book, and you can send voice mail to other users. PhoneFree also has a great feature called ExpertZone. This is a searchable database that can immediately connect you to users with extensive knowledge in subjects such as Health, Finance, Computing, Automobiles, and Parenting.

Final comments
My overall recommendation for VoIP service is Dialpad. It provides the most versatility, it’s the easiest to use, it doesn’t ask you to download software, it offers free 5-minute calls, and it has a good sign-up plan. But Dialpad is only for PC-to-phone services. If you want free PC-to-PC, PhoneFree has the best features. But if you want both PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone services all in one package, the next best option would be Net2Phone. Because it’s currently bundled with Netscape, you might already have it on your hard drive.

Internet Calling: What Is It?

WHAT IS IT?

An Internet phone service uses the Internet, instead of old-fashioned phone lines, to send voice. In most cases, you just plug your current telephone into a small box that your Internet phone company provides to you. The box, in turn, plugs into your broadband connection. Just as with regular telephone service, you pick up the phone to get a dial tone and press numbers on the keypad to call the person you want to talk with. And as with a regular telephone, you can call anybody in the world who has a phone. Alternatively, some services have softphones: your computer becomes your telephone, and you talk via a handset or a headset plugged into USB ports.

It saves money
Since the old-fashioned phone system works fine for most people, why bother? There are two main reasons: cost and features. The most popular advantage of Internet telephones is that calls can be extremely cheap or even free to anywhere in the world. However, just as with ordinary phone services, it can be hard to figure out which companies offer the best savings for your particular calling habits. But if you regularly call a particular area (for example, a relative overseas), you can almost certainly find an Internet phone plan with rates that are incredibly low. And calling other users of your Internet phone system will likely be free.

Cost may or may not get you in the door to Internet calling, since for many people, regular calling plans could save a lot, too. Regardless, it’s the features that really hook most Internet phone users. You can do things with an Internet phone service that no traditional phone can offer.

Pick your area code
Internet phones work independent of any local exchange, so you’re not tied to any one area code. This means that you can take your phone number with you when you move; it’s as easy as packing the adapter you get from your service provider. You don’t have to end your old phone service in one city and go through the hassle of setting up service in another. And get this: with many systems, you also get a choice of area codes. You can be running a small business in rural Montana and have a high-rent, New York 212 area code, if you want.

You can also get great integration with your computers. Some systems send all your voicemail to your e-mail in-box and let you dial phone numbers directly from Outlook. And even the smallest company can set up a virtual phone system that spans offices (or home offices) yet functions very much like a phone system used by a corporation with dozens of worldwide offices. For example, a small business can get features such as simultaneous ringing, in which a call to your main number rings on all three of your employees’ phones, even if some of them are not Internet phones.

Not as easy as a regular phone
At this point, though, Internet phone service isn’t for everyone. While VoIP hardware and software isn’t as complex and hard to set up as other standard office technologies–such as wireless networking–it’s still not as hands-off as plain-old telephone service. And finally, the quality of VoIP is variable. In the best cases, it can be far superior to that of a regular phone, especially for international calls. However, if your call ends up routed over a congested portion of the Internet, quality can degrade, which manifests itself as an uncomfortable lag between two parties in a conversation.

HOW IT WORKS
Many different forms of Internet telephony exist. Some systems, such as Skype, are primarily designed to be used between two computers using proprietary software. Others, such as Vonage’s service, allow anyone with a broadband connection to use their existing telephone hardware or their computer, if they want, to call any other phone in the world, whether that phone is on the same service or not. Finally, businesses can install local VoIP, in which their internal phone system uses their local network. Once these calls go outside the company, they may run over either the Internet or regular phone lines, depending on what the company prefers and pays for.  

The one thing all VoIP solutions have in common is that they take your voice and convert it into data packets that are then routed over the Net just like e-mail. For calls to a standard telephone, the data call obviously has to connect to the public phone network at some point; Internet phone services provide this connection seamlessly.

Internet phone service
In the most flexible form of VoIP, Internet technology replaces the connection between the telephone and the phone company. You plug an ordinary telephone into an adapter that connects to your broadband setup. Your call is routed over the Web to a VoIP service provider. This provider connects your calls to the telephone system. If the person you are calling is also a user of the same Internet calling system, the call will never touch the phone system at all.

VoIP Diagram
PC-to-PC Internet phone
Free Internet phone systems such as Skype and FreeWorld Dialup can bypass the telephone system completely, allowing you to make free calls to other users within their respective networks. Some free networks have added services, such as Skype’s Skypeout service, that let you call mobile and standard telephones for a metered fee.

 

Internal VoIP
In a medium or large office, the internal phone system can be Internet based. In this case, calls between extensions, and possibly between office buildings, run over a private data network. To reach the outside world, the company’s Internet phone system can connect to the Internet, the regular phone system, or both.
 

WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR
Despite many advantages, Internet-based calling faces technical and political roadblocks that may affect you if you opt to go with it.
Technical
First of all, plugging in to Internet phones requires gear that not every household has. You must have an always-on broadband connection, either DSL or cable, and you need a spare Ethernet port on your hub or router to plug the Internet phone gateway into.
If your network connection goes out or the power to your network equipment fails, your Internet phone dies too. You can insure against power outages with an uninterruptible power supply, but if your ISP is less reliable than your phone service, keep that in mind if you’ll be relying on your VoIP phone. New products, such as Actiontec’s Phone Wizard, can help you bridge the gap between VoIP and traditional telephone services. Actiontec’s device lets you manually switch back and forth between VoIP calls and standard telephone calls from a standard phone.

Since VoIP phone numbers move with your phone, not with the jack the phone is plugged into, calls to emergency services (911) won’t automatically go to a local emergency call center. Until recently, in fact, 911 calls were not available on many hosted VoIP services. Today, 911 handling can be turned on, although you need to register your phone so that the call is routed to the right location. Also, when you make an emergency call, you will still have to say where you are, since that won’t pop up on the operator’s screen. All this may change soon–a number of Bells and Baby Bells are looking into opening their 911 calling infrastructures to VoIP providers. In particular, Verizon announced plans to test this setup in New York City this summer, the outcome of which will determine whether Verizon opens up the rest of its network.

If you have DSL and want to keep your phone number, you might have a challenge because DSL usually has a phone number attached to it. You can’t typically turn off the number without interrupting your DSL service. You can, of course, get a new number from your VoIP provider, and this may be what you want to do anyway if you’re looking for a VoIP line to expand your phone system. Today, Qwest and Covad offer DSL without a phone number attached (this is called naked DSL). If you’re a cable-modem customer, this isn’t an issue.

Political
The FCC greased the way for Internet phone service by exempting VoIP from the regulations and the taxes applied to regular telephone service. That’s why Internet phone calls are cheaper than regular calls: Internet phone carriers don’t have to pay the same taxes for 911-center or federal wiretap-access maintenance.

The reasoning behind the FCC’s platform is sound: innovation grows more quickly when regulations and taxes are kept at bay. And there is a lot of innovation ahead in Voice over IP.

But vast and powerful forces are arrayed around telephony, and the current state of affairs is being maintained, in part thanks to ongoing hearings in Washington, D.C., as well as pressure from technology lobbies. Facing off against them are players in the telephone industry that claim that VoIP has an unfair advantage because of its regulatory exemptions. And taxation isn’t the only roadblock Internet telephony companies will have to navigate: as of this writing, the FBI has proposed that Internet providers, including VoIP companies, provide wiretap access, which could require rearchitecting how these services work.

The future
Though Internet phone service gives you features and performance that traditional phone systems can’t offer now, this disparity won’t last forever. Already, IP is used by the major telephone companies to carry an increasing amount of voice traffic on their own networks, and a number of them have already rolled out Internet phone service directly to their customers, including AT&T, Qwest, and Verizon.

Moving voice to a fully digital platform means that innovation will continue to accelerate, and small, nimble companies will continue to come out offering new communications services. Teleconferencing, videoconferencing, and collaboration applications may soon be available as part of your integrated IP-based voice communications package.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)

Internet Voice, also known as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), is a technology that allows you to make telephone calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular (or analog) phone line. Some services using VoIP may only allow you to call other people using the same service, but others may allow you to call anyone who has a telephone number – including local, long distance, mobile, and international numbers. Also, while some services only work over your computer or a special VoIP phone, other services allow you to use a traditional phone through an adaptor.

How VoIP Works

What is VoIP/Internet Voice?
VoIP allows you to make telephone calls using a computer network, over a data network like the Internet. VoIP converts the voice signal from your telephone into a digital signal that travels over the internet then converts it back at the other end so you can speak to anyone with a regular phone number. When placing a VoIP call using a phone with an adapter, you’ll hear a dial tone and dial just as you always have. VoIP may also allow you to make a call directly from a computer using a conventional telephone or a microphone.

How Can I Place a VoIP Call?
Depending on the service, one way to place a VoIP call is to pick up your phone and dial the number, using an adaptor that connects to your existing high-speed Internet connection. The call goes through your local telephone company to a VoIP provider. The phone call goes over the Internet to the called party’s local telephone company for the completion of the call. Another way is to utilize a microphone headset plugged into your computer. The number is placed using the keyboard and is routed through your cable modem.

What Kind of Equipment Do I Need?
A broadband (high speed Internet) connection is required. This can be through a cable modem, or high speed services such as DSL or a local area network. You can hook up an inexpensive microphone to your computer and send your voice through a cable modem or connect a phone directly to a telephone adaptor.

Is there a difference between making a Local Call and a Long Distance Call?

Some VoIP providers offer their services for free, normally only for calls to other subscribers to the service. Your VoIP provider may permit you to select an area code different from the area in which you live. This means you may not incur long distance charges if you call a number in your area code regardless of geography. It also means that people who call you may incur long distance charges depending on their area code and service.

Some VoIP providers charge for a long distance call to a number outside your calling area, similar to existing, traditional wireline telephone service. Other VoIP providers permit you to call anywhere at a flat rate for a fixed number of minutes.

If I have VoIP service, who can I call?
Depending upon your service, you might be limited only to other subscribers to the service, or you may be able to call any phone number, anywhere in the world. The call can be made to a local number, a mobile phone, to a long distance number, or an international number. You may even utilize the service to speak with more than one person at a time. The person you are calling does not need any special equipment, just a phone.

What Are Some Advantages of Internet Voice?
Because VoIP is digital, it may offer features and services that are not available with a traditional phone. If you have a broadband internet connection, you need not maintain and pay the additional cost for a line just to make telephone calls.

With many VoIP plans you can talk for as long as you want with any person in the world (the requirement is that the other person has an Internet connection). You can also talk with many people at the same time without any additional cost.

What Are Some disadvantages of Internet Voice?
If you’re considering replacing your traditional telephone service with VoIP, there are some possible differences:

  • Some VoIP services don’t work during power outages and the service provider may not offer backup power.

  • Not all VoIP services connect directly to emergency services through 9-1-1.

  • VoIP providers may or may not offer directory assistance/white page listings.

Can I use my Computer While I talk on the Phone?
Yes

Can I Take My Phone Adapter with me When I Travel?
You may be able to use your VoIP service wherever you travel as long as you have a high speed Internet connection available. In that case it would work the same as from your home or business.

Does my Computer Have to be Turned on?
Not if you are making calls with a phone and adaptor or special VoIP phone, but your broadband Internet connection needs to be active. You can also use your computer while talking on the phone.

How Do I Know If I have a VoIP phone Call?
It will ring like any other call.

Does the FCC Regulate VoIP?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has worked to create an environment promoting competition and innovation to benefit consumers. Historically, the FCC has not regulated the Internet or the services provided over it. On February 12, 2004, the FCC found that an entirely Internet-based VoIP service was an unregulated information service. On the same day, the FCC began a broader proceeding to examine what its’ role should be in this new environment of increased consumer choice and what it can best do to meet its role of safeguarding the public interest.

Aspects of these considerations may change with new developments in internet technology.  You should always check with the VoIP service provider you choose to confirm any advantages and limitations to their service.

VoIP For Business

Voice Over Internet Protocol, much better known as VoIP, has become something of an IT fashion item over the last year or so. Indeed, during this time VoIP has moved not just into mainstream business use but has become so popular in the world at large that even those who can barely turn on a PC, i.e. analysts, rarely experience a day without using the technology. What has turned this promising technology into something that is so widely used?

The organisers of the VoIP For Business conference to be held in London later this month has published some interesting survey results on its site pointing out that whilst saving money was one driver behind the take up of VoIP, it is by no means the only significant factor. When it comes to factors considered to be very important in the decision to invest in VoIP, the reduction of communications costs was equalled by a desire to simplify internal communications and the desire the enhance flexible working.

These three issues were identified by 55 percent of those surveyed but were closely followed with 50 percent returns by a wish to increase productivity and by a belief that VoIP could help improve the quality of service to customers. The numbers taking part in the online survey were not large, but the results are consistent with much that is currently taking place in this space.

VoIP 101: Voice over IP Explained

For those who have never heard about the potential of VoIP, be prepared to radically change the way you think about your current long-distance calling plan. VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is very simply, a method for taking ordinary analog audio signals and turning them into digital signals that can be sent over the Internet.

So what? Well, for those of you who are already paying a monthly fee for an Internet connection, this means that you can use that same connection to place free long distance phone calls. This process works by using already available VoIP software to make phone calls over the Internet, essentially circumventing phone companies and their service charges.

Interestingly, VoIP is not an entirely new thing. In fact, a number of providing companies have been around for some time. But it has only been with the more recent explosion of high-speed internet access usage, that VoIP has gotten any attention. Now the major telephone carriers are setting up their own VoIP calling plans throughout the US, another testament to the potential of the technology.

How VoIP Is Used

While there are a number of ways that VoIP is currently being used, most individual callers fall into one of three categories: ATA, IP Phones, and Computer-to-Computer.

ATA or Analog Telephone Adaptor, is the most common way of using VoIP. This adaptor actually allows you to hook up the phone that is already in your house, to your computer, and then your Internet connection. What the ATA does, is turn the analog signals your phone sends out into digital signals that can be sent over the Internet. Setting up this system is quite simple. It simply requires that you order an ATA (its an adaptor remember), plug the cable from your phone which would normally go into the wall socket into the ATA, and then the ATA gets plugged into your computer, which is connected to the internet. Some ATAs include software that has to be installed on your computer before its ready, but basically it’s quite a simple process. Then you are ready to make some calls.

The next type of VoIP usage utilizes IP Phones instead of your home phone. The IP Phone looks just like a normal phone, with all the same buttons and cradle, the only difference is that instead of having a normal wall jack connector, it has an Ethernet connector. This means, that instead of plugging in your IP phone to the wall jack like you would with a regular analog phone, it gets plugged directly into your router. This option allows you to circumvent your personal computer, and it also means that you will not have to install any software, because its all built in to the handset. In addition, the fact that Wi-Fi IP phones will soon be available, which will allow subscribing callers to make VoIP calls from any Wi-Fi hot spot, make this option an exciting possibility.

The simplest and cheapest way to use VoIP is through computer-to-computer calls. These calls are entirely free, meaning no calling plan whatsoever. The only thing you need, is the software which can be found for free on the internet, a good internet connection, a microphone, speakers, and a sound card. Except for your monthly internet service fee, there is literally no cost for making these calls, no matter how many you make.

For large companies, VoIP also offers some very unique possibilities. Some larger companies are already utilizing the technology by conducting all intra-office calls through a VoIP network. Because the quality of sound is comparable to and in some cases surpasses that of analog service, some international companies are using VoIP to route international calls through the branch of their company nearest the call’s destination and then completing it on an analog system. This allows them to pay local rates internationally and still utilize the same intra-office VoIP network that they would if they were calling someone in the next cubicle over.

Other Advantages of VoIP

While your current long-distance plan covers you for only one location, say calls made from your office, with VoIP, you can make a call anywhere that you can get a broadband connection. That is because all three methods above, unlike analog calls, send the call information via the Internet. This means you can make calls from home, on vacation, on business trips, and almost anywhere else. Anywhere you go, with VoIP you can bring your home phone along with you. In the same way, computer-to-computer connections mean that as long as you have your laptop and a connection, you’re ready to go.

There are also some nifty benefits to having your calls transmitted over the Internet. For example, some VoIP service providers allow you to check your voicemail via your e-mail, while others allow you to attach voice messages to your e-mails.

How VoIP Works

The current phone system relies on a reliable but largely inefficient method for connecting calls known as circuit switching. This technique, which has been used for over 100 years, means that when a call is made between two people a connection is maintained in both directions between callers for the duration of the call. This dual directional characteristic gives the system the name circuit.

If, for example, you made a 30-minute call the circuit would be continuously open, and thus used, between the two phones. Up until about 1960, this meant that every call had to have an actual dedicated wire connecting the two phones. Thus a long distance call cost so much, because you were paying for pieces of copper wire to be connected all the way from your phone to the destination phone, and for that connection to remain constant throughout the call. Today, however, your analog call is converted after leaving your house to a digital signal, where your call can be combined with many others on a single fiber optic cable. While this system is certainly an improvement over the past copper wire system, it is still quite inefficient. This inefficiency is due in part to the fact that the telephone line can’t distinguish between useful talking and unneeded silences. For example, in a typical conversation while one person is talking the other person is listening. Thus the current analog system uses roughly half its space sending useless messages like this silence. But there is also more information, even down to pauses in speech, which under a more efficient system can be effectively cut out rather than wasting the circuit space. This idea of only transmitting the noisy bits of a telephone call and saving a great deal on circuit space, is the basis of Packet-Switching, the alternative method to circuit switching that the VoIP phone system uses.

Packet-Switching is the same method that you use when you view a website. For example, as you read this website, your computer is not maintaining a constant connection to the site, but rather making connections to send and receive information only on an as needed basis (such as when you click on a link). Just as this system allows the transfer of information over the Internet to work so quickly, so also does it work in the VoIP system. While circuit switching maintains a constant and open connection, packet switching opens connections just long enough to send bits of data called packets from one computer to another. This allows the network to send your call (in packets) along the least congested and cheapest lines available, while also keeping your computer or IP phone, free to send and receive messages and calls with other computers. This way of sending information, not to mention data compression, makes the amount of information which must be transmitted for every call at least 3-4 times less for VoIP than the exact same call in a conventional telephone system. For this reason, VoIP is so much cheaper than conventional calling plans.

The Future of VoIP

While most analysts believe it will be at least a decade before companies and telephone providers make the full switch to VoIP, the potential for the technology’s use today is already quite astounding. A report by the Forrester Research Group predicts that by the end of 2006, nearly 5 million U.S. households will be using VoIP phone service. With the savings and flexibility that the technology already offers, and new advances just ahead on the horizon, we can expect those numbers will only increase in the future.

What is VoIP?

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is simply the transmission of voice traffic over IP-based networks.

The Internet Protocol (IP) was originally designed for data networking. The success of IP in becoming a world standard for data networking has led to its adaption to voice networking.

The Economics of VoIP
VoIP has become popular largely because of the cost advantages to consumers over traditional telepone networks. Most Americans pay a flat monthly fee for local telephone calls and a per-minute charge for long-distance calls.

VoIP calls can be placed across the Internet. Most Internet connections are charged using a flat monthly fee structure.

Using the Internet connection for both data traffic and voice calls can allow consumers to get rid of one monthly payment. In addition, VoIP plans do not charge a per-minute fee for long distance.

For International calling, the monetary savings to the consumer from switching to VoIP technology can be enormous.

VoIP Telephones
There are three methods of connecting to a VoIP network:

Using a VoIP telephone
Using a “normal” telephone with a VoIP adapter
Using a computer with speakers and a microphone
Types of VoIP Calls
VoIP telephone calls can be placed either to other VoIP devices, or to normal telephones on the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network).

Calls from a VoIP device to a PSTN device are commonly called “PC-to-Phone” calls, even though the VoIP device may not be a PC.

Calls from a VoIP device to another VoIP device are commonly called “PC-to-PC” calls, even though neither device may be a PC.