VoIP and Internet Phone Services Compared

What is VoIP

VoIP is one of those mysterious acronyms that almost everyone has seen by now. If you’ve read or watched TV ads for Vonage or any of the other mushrooming broadband telephone services, or read about eBay’s acquisition of Skype, you’re familiar with it. You might have experienced it without even knowing it.

VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol, a way of having a phone conversation over the Internet by sending packets of data rather than impulses, making it very different from the traditional telephone method. It became possible with the advent of high-speed broadband connections, and nowadays it’s pretty much a fact of life—one that can, and will, significantly lower your phone bills.

VoIP Services

I’d read about it, but first became aware of the possibilities about 18 months ago when I saw an ad for a new company, Lingo. They offered unlimited calls all over the U.S. and to Western Europe for $19.99 a month—a hell of a deal to someone who spent a lot on international calls, especially considering that the first month was free.

The service appeared to have plenty of advantages. I could keep my number, use my regular phone, and have call waiting, call forwarding and all the other services I liked. I called them (an irony, perhaps, calling a broadband phone company rather than ordering online), and received their router.

That was where things began to go wrong. Setup per their instructions, it wouldn’t work. A call to technical support wasn’t exactly fruitful (from the sound of it, tech support had been outsourced to India). The person on the other end of the line wasn’t familiar with my DSL modem, and every suggestion he offered didn’t work. I hung up after a frustrating hour and continued working alone, but to no avail.

The next day I called and cancelled, only to be informed that I should have talked to a higher level of tech support. Now, I wondered, when the first person I talked to couldn’t help me, shouldn’t I have been switched automatically to someone more knowledgeable? Another mark against the service, and I decided that letting them go was a good idea.

It may be they were too ambitious too early, and didn’t have a back line properly set up. They still offer the same service for the same price. But they appear to have scaled back their ads and possibly their ambitions.

Not so with Vonage, who started with a small campaign, then became much bigger. Interestingly, they tend to de-emphasize the VoIP aspect, coming across more like a phone company than an Internet company and stressing the reduction in long distance bills rather than the fact that they use VoIP; perhaps this makes people feel more comfortable. They offer unlimited calls in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico for $24.99 a month, with many extra features and some fairly competitive international rates (they also can give service to residents of Canada and the U.K., although their U.K. prices are actually higher than many other phone providers). They’ve managed to position themselves as the American leaders in VoIP quite early on. You can check out Digital Trends’ review of Vonage here. Make sure you read the user reviews though, as they have been less than stellar.   Vonage InboxHave your voicemail sent to your PC   Vonage Modem The Vonage VoIP modem Yet there’s plenty of competition—and even more options. The one that’s being pushed most, hooks up your regular home phone to your broadband connection. That’s quite understandable, as it keeps everything familiar; this is what VoicePulse does, offering virtually the same services at the same price. You can read Digital Trends’ review of VoicePulse here. Some are taking it into what might be considered the Space Age. Packet 8 offers a video phone under one of their plans (you have to buy the phone for $99, and of course it’ll only work if the person you call has one, too). And there are many more out there, eager for yourbusiness. Even the giants like AT&T are getting in on the act; AT&T has the CallVantage service, although their special $29.95 per month is higher than the young services’. Comcast expects tooffer its customers VoIP by the end of the year.   VoicePulse SoftPhone VoicePulse Softphone The VoicePulse SoftPhone lets you dial from your PC. Right: The VoicePulse VoIP modem   Packet9 Video Phone The Packet8 Video Phone

The services are all relatively cheap, thanks to the fact that they’re not loaded down with taxes. And they offer virtual phone numbers—you can have a number in another state (or even country) that people can call, and which rings directly through to your line. However, because of the nature of the beast, calling local 911 services isn’t possible (although that’s due to be fixed very soon). And, unlike a normal phone line, if your power’s off (or your broadband goes down), so does your phone service.

Beyond the bill, the biggest question for most people is about the sound quality. The answer is that it’s come a long way. VoIP used to be scratchy, fading in and out. These days, it’s as good as any regular phone line. It’s why it’s being touted for businesses eager to cut costs, as it can be used with a PBX. And the business market is potentially huge, as evidenced by the recent announcement by Qwest and Microsoft that they’ll be rolling out a suite of services combining VoIP, e-mail, Internet access, collaboration, instant messaging and desktop services—basically everything a business could want in a single package. It’s a sign of how far VoIP has come that it’s now taken seriously as a part of business.

Internet Voice Services

What might be deemed the phone market is where the big bucks lie, but several services see money to be made in using your computer as your phone, which was deemed the real idea of VoIP just a fewyears ago. The much-hyped Skype has been the leader there, but it’s hardly the only game in town. Calling from PC to PC has one huge advantage over phones: It’sutterly free, and with the growing ubiquity of computers, some envisage a future where phone calls are largely free. You just have to make sure the other party has the same software and a broadbandconnection and is online at the same time. You can even call from your PC to a regular phone for a small price. You can use a microphone and your computer speakers, but life is much easier if youhave a headset, whether analogue or digital (i.e., plug into the speaker and mic jacks or USB). If you have a wireless headset, even better; it’s like having a cordless phone.   Skype Contacts Skype Conference Call Screenshots of Skype in action. Left: Contact list Right: Conferencecall

Skype is easy to set up, a fast download, and quite intuitive for adding people and calling them. It’s also simple to add money to your accounts (which is done in Euros) to call people on their home or cell phones. Whether in the next state or another country, the call quality is generally high (although I’ve experienced some with some deep echo), and the cost per call, especially for international calls, is remarkably low—a better deal than any long distance service. You can even buy special handsets to plug into the computer to use with Skype.

I Connect is keeping its feet in both markets with broadband telephony and PC to phone calling (you can even get virtual numbers in different countries for people to call you). PeerMe is going after the purely PC market with a free download for PC to PC calling and (hence the name, one assumes) file sharing, while FWD also embraces PC to PC calling. But they make it possible for someone to call you on your computer from a regular phone (the whys and wherefores are a bit convoluted, but it’s not for nothing that their site slogan is “Communication for Geeks by Geeks!”) and bring in IM and webcam broadcasting (and receiving). In other words, it pulls together web communication facilities. You can also make unlimited calls to phones in some 30 countries for a flat rate of $24.99 a month. For someone who lives on their computer, and who has the patience to deal with their site, it’s a great idea. However, others might find the fact that it brings everything together a bit intrusive.

Those aren’t the sum total of services supplying broadband telephony or PC calling. The lists for both are increasing rapidly as people jump onto the (broad) bandwagon. But it’s also well worth mentioning the Instant Messenger services, which all have large audiences (the bringing together of Yahoo and MSN Messenger will have an audience of some 375 million, hardly a drop in the bucket).

Yahoo has been trumpeting its PC to PC Messenger calling (which seems to differ very little from the old voice on Messenger, simply repackaged for a new age). It works as well as Skype on that score, although the connections are sometimes a little tenuous, especially with dial-up. But that’s a big point in its favour, in that it does work with dial-up. However, downloading it isn’t always easy; the U.S. download goes smoothly enough, but the British (which adds British Telecom Connect) froze twice in succession before I gave up. MSN Messenger and AOL Messenger also allow voice chat (indeed, most of the Instant messenger services have provided it for a long time, albeit with varying degrees of fidelity).

The simple fact is that we live in an age when communication is a given. We like to be able to get hold of people anytime, anywhere. VoIP, Internet telephony, or whatever you choose to call it is simply an outgrowth of that. It’s the future. And while the prices being offered are reasonable, the odds are they’ll fall dramatically as more people move to using their computers as phones, and the technology to make the computer able to receive calls improves. The computer has revolutionised our lives in every way, and the possibilities are really just beginning.

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