With the deregulation of the telecommunications industry, the price of phone calls has plummeted in recent years. But even at reduced rates, monthly charges can add up for people depending upon their activity and plans. But the relatively new technology of internet telephony, also known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), virtually eliminates long distances charges, allowing you to call almost anywhere in the world for very little cost. If you have broadband internet access, you can't beat the price — it's practically free.
With VoIP, you place a voice call either from your device (computer, telephone, whatnot) to another person's device. When calling from computer-to-computer, both parties must have compatible telephony software and be online at the same time. At the moment, there are no universal standards, so be sure to determine which software the person you want to call uses. Calling from computer-to-telephone is simpler, because only you need the software. You can download telephony software and it's free. In either case, you'll also need some hardware: a sound card (most computers already have one installed), a microphone and speakers (or a headset).
Nearly 79 percent of American businesses use VoIP phones at one location.
Computer-to-computer calls typically require advance planning, as both parties have to be online. Once your software is configured, you enter the number of the computer you want to call, click the Dial button and wait for someone to answer. Computer-to-phone calling works much the same way, except that you're calling a regular telephone number. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So what's the catch? To answer that question, you have to understand a bit about the technology.
Computer-to-computer calls typically require advance planning. But once your software is configured and you are online, you enter the number of the computer you want to call, click the dial button and wait for someone to answer. Computer-to-phone calling works much the same way, except that you're calling a regular telephone number. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So what's the catch? To answer that question, you have to understand a bit about the technology.
How It Works
Test your Internet connection to see if it can handle VOIP.
When you place a call over the Public Switched Telephone Network, a dedicated circuit opens between you and the person you call. The line remains open until you hang up. With VoIP, your voice is digitized, then broken into small data packets. The packets travel to their final destination over the internet, where they are reassembled into a “voice.” This is the same process used for sending email. With email, however, it doesn't really matter in what order or when the data packets arrive. Once they all arrive, you can read the message. Since voice communication happens in real time, if some of the data packets are delayed or lost en route, the voice quality degrades.
The quality of your call depends on the speed of your internet connection, that of the party you call, and the traffic on the net. If the data packets are delayed during transmission, it causes latency, a fancy word for the lag time between when you speak and when the other party hears your voice. Although it can be annoying, you can learn to compensate for latency. A greater problem is voice distortion. When packets are lost during transmission, telephony software automatically “fills in the blanks” by examining the adjacent packets. The more the software has to compensate for lost packets, the greater the distortion.
If you are willing to accept less than perfect voice quality, internet calls will save you a bundle of money, especially for international calls. While this may not be the optimum way to make important business calls, friends and family are usually more tolerant of odd noises on the other end of the line.
Give It a Try
Large traditional phone companies such as AT&T and internet-telephony-specific companies like Vonage now offer VoIP service. But before you commit, we suggest that you take a test drive. Our recommendations include:
- Skype has soared in popularity for its user-friendliness. The software works on PCs running Windows, Mac OS, Linux and even smartphones. Computer-to-computer calls are free, but it will cost you to use SkypeOut, a service that let's you call telephones.
- Vonage has taken internet phone calling mainstream and offers a variety of flat-rate service plans for unlimited domestic calling. International calls to many countries are included, and the prices for those that aren't are usually quite low.
- magicJack Plus
- Although magicJack has a number of limitations compared to other systems like Vonage, it is much cheaper — just a few dollars per month. It also allows international calls billed per minute, which are low, but generally higher than those offered by Vonage.
- Ooma offers a system where you pay for the hardware and then the service is free for domestic calls. You are still charged government taxes and fees. International calls cost extra.
In addition to these services, there are many other others. These include services geared toward the needs of business customers.
The VoIP Future
The newest extension of the VoIP technology is the use of smartphone apps to allow subscribers of Vonage, ooma, and other services to use their home phones when they are on the go. That certainly has disadvantages at the moment, because most cell phone plans are limited in terms of bandwidth. But it shows the direction that telephony is going. Most likely, in the future, there will be no distinction between our telephones and our handheld computers.