Hundreds of thousands of consumers collectively save millions of dollars each month by replacing (or supplementing) their traditional telephone service with personal voice over IP (VoIP) telephony. We tested three of the leading services to see if theyve exorcised the demons that plagued pioneering VoIP solutions.
Using IP to transmit voice is not new. Large corporations and long distance carriers have used IP to transmit voice on their private networks for years. Likewise, private citizens have used their computers and the Internet to talk with other PC users for a few years now, but in the past users of such solutions have had to contend with poor voice quality and the need for at least one computer to be connected to the Internet.
Widespread adoption of broadband Internet service (cable or DSL) in the last few years though has in turn fueled a surge in the growth of much-improved personal VoIP. To get started, you need an analog telephone adapter (ATA) to convert your voice into data packets. (Your VoIP service provider will either supply you with the ATA for a nominal amount, or it may be included in their service offering.) In most cases, all you have to do is connect the ATA to your broadband modem and a conventional phone, and youre ready to start making calls to any phone in the world.
Most VoIP service providers offer all-inclusive calling plans that provide you with unlimited local, regional and long distance (within the United States) at flat rates starting as low as $24.95 per month. Some offer usage-based plans at a lower monthly cost and most provide inexpensive per minute rates on international calls as well. In addition, VoIP service providers include a smorgasbord of advanced features such as name and number caller ID, call forwarding, call blocking and voice mail that traditional phone companies sell as premium services.
When you sign up for VoIP service, many service providers give you the option of choosing the area code, and possibly the exchange, for your service. You can select from any area where the VoIP provider has local service. For example, live in Texas and want a New York or San Francisco area code? No problem. Likewise, some providers will sell you a "virtual number" for a nominal additional monthly charge. When called, this virtual number automatically goes to your actual number and if, for instance, that virtual number is in a relatives area code, they can call you free.
So what are the drawbacks of a personal VoIP solution? The main drawback is the need for a reliable broadband connection; without one a VoIP solution is probably not for you. Power outages present another hurdle. Since VoIP requires a live Internet connection, losing electricity means losing your phone service. If you are concerned about losing power, you could install a UPS for your cable/DSL modem and your ATA. Even a small UPS would keep those devices powered for several hours. Alternatively, you could keep a single phone line with no premium services as a lifeline for those times that you might lose your power or Internet connection. Emergency 911 calls are another challenge for VoIP telephony, because its difficult to determine the exact location of an IP address with geographic certainty. Without knowing the exact location, its also difficult to determine which call center should receive a VoIP-originated 911 call (though most VoIP providers do have 911 call routing based on the address you used when you registered).
The voice quality of your VoIP call is also another consideration. Since the data travels across the Internet, theres the potential for dropouts or "burbles" similar to what you might experience on a cell phone. Managed IP networks, used by all the VoIP providers in the roundup, coupled with quality of service (QOS) mechanisms built into their ATAs, and a high-quality compression algorithm (G.711) yield call quality that greatly exceeds that of cell phones and approaches or matches that of traditional phones. Most people we called during our tests were surprised at the quality of the calls, and didnt realize they were on a VoIP connection until we told them. Keep in mind that the call quality for VoIP providers who dont manage their IP networks and depend on the Internet for routing will yield varying and sometimes disappointing voice quality and unreliable connections.