VoIP is the new buzzword making the rounds in the telecom industry but a lot of people are still wondering – what is VoIP exactly?
VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol – hence the acronym – and is generally understood to be voice services delivered through the Internet.
But VoIP is more than just a one line definition, it is shaking up the phone services industry and changing the way people communicate with each other.
VoIP is a new technology that makes significant changes to the infrastructure powering phone calls. Still, the end-user experience remains largely unchanged.
Making a phone call remains the same as always – pick up the headset and dial a number. Except in the case of VoIP, users will probably dial a VoIP phone number instead of a regular one.
The biggest difference between VoIP and older phone technologies is that it is based on Internet protocols rather than telecom standards. Until now, phone calls are carried over copper wires through the PSTN network that utilized TDM switches.
VoIP calls travel through the public Internet which may reach users via optical fiber, cable etc. Thus it is more flexible and capable of benefiting from the furious pace of innovation that characterizes the Internet today.
It is in sharp contrast to phone technologies that have not changed much, except perhaps to become more efficient over the years.
VoIP essentially brings phone calls into the digital age. Analog audio signals i.e. human voices are converted to digital format and transmitted through the Internet. The packets are reconverted to analog at the other end, enabling others to hear what has been said.
What this means is that phone calls now utilize the same packet switching technology that powers the Internet. It is far more efficient than traditional circuit switching and thus more cost-effective to end-users, phone companies and all the other entities involved in building out and maintaining phone service infrastructure.
During the early adoption of VoIP technology, it was considered to be less reliable than analog phone calls. Users frequently experienced dropped calls, poor audio quality and even parts of the conversation going missing altogether.
However improvements in infrastructure, the establishment of standards, and widespread adoption has alleviated most of these problems. Users may still experience some of these issues but it is usually because of incorrect settings, insufficient bandwidth or other reasons and not inherent to the technology itself.
There are primarily three ways to make a VoIP call:
IP enabled phones allow users to place a phone call in the exact same way they usually do. They look and function like ordinary phones but are capable of converting audio signals to packets that can be sent over the Internet.
They are usually purchased by businesses and can cost up to hundreds of dollars for the higher-end models. Home users who sign up for VoIP service generally have two options – they have to buy the instrument and the service is free or the instrument is provided for no charge and they have to pay for making calls.
If a business or home user doesn’t want to replace their existing instruments, they can use Analog Telephone Adapters (ATAs) to connect the landline and the Internet connection.
It is essentially a small box that acts as a bridge between the analog and digital network. The ATA has a standard phone jack and an ethernet (or USB) port to connect to the Internet.
VoIP calls can be made directly between two computers that are using the same VoIP software and/or VoIP service. It was the most common method of making VoIP calls for early adopters and is widely used even today. Skype is one of the most widely known VoIP services that enables its users to talk to anyone across any distance and for any length of time, mostly for free.
VoIP offers many advantages and most of them are a direct consequence of what VoIP is – it is an IP based technology. Initially adoption was spurred by the fact that it is very cheap when compared to making regular calls, especially over long distances. VoIP calls are not transmitted over the phone carriers’ networks and thus do not incur any charges from the operator. There is usually no fee for the user other than what they are already paying for the Internet connection itself.
For the average home user, the phone bill could be reduced by as much as 50-75%. Business organizations that have a high volume of calls can save thousands of dollars every month by using VoIP.
Nevertheless low-cost was not the only reason for VoIP to become popular. Since VoIP is based on modern packet switching technology. It packs many features that was simply not possible using the older PSTN network.
Existing features like voicemail and faxing have gained additional functionality such as voicemail to email, voicemail transcription, digital transmission etc. Brand-new features like multi device ring, find me follow me, conditional call forwarding, call pickup and parking have made phone calls more flexible and versatile.
One of the biggest drawbacks of VoIP is that the phones will not work if the power goes out. While this may seem like a trivial issue normally, it assumes great significance during emergencies, natural disasters and other crises.
With analog phone service, power is supplied through the phone line itself but VoIP requires emergency power backup in order to function. If the power goes out, smart phones can serve as a temporary replacement but eventually their batteries will also drain.
Another issue is the inability to contact 911 services if needed. While some VoIP services now offer E911 – the digital alternative – it is still not an industry wide standard and some operators have faced fines for E911 outages. While the FCC is pushing for E911 services to be included by default for all users, it will be sometime before all operators offer it.
In spite of these disadvantages – which will be solved quickly enough – VoIP is quickly replacing the PSTN networks all over the world. The transition will take some time but eventually all phone calls will be VoIP calls.
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