Voice over IP or the ability to make phone calls using your existing Internet connection continues to improve while offering some interesting trade-offs. The question for many telephone or cable subscribers is whether recent offerings are good enough to be worth the hassle.
The big win with VoIP is lower cost. Sending voice as data over a packet switched network like the Internet is simply more efficient than traditional phone systems that setup a dedicated circuit to carry both sides of the conversation even when no-one is talking. In addition to efficiency and low cost, VoIP uses digital signaling from end-to-end which offers the potential for much better voice quality. Finally, VoIP services generally come bundled with advanced features including caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, conferencing, voicemail, and more.
The potential drawbacks to be overcome are complicated setup, universal connectivity, and reliability. Can you really count on your VoIP phone in normal use, and if not, what will it cost you?
Choosing the best VoIP Option for Your Situation
If you are calling friends or family overseas who have access to high speed internet and a computer similar to yours, Skype or iChat work well and cost next to nothing. If you have trouble getting iChat or FaceTime to connect through your Internet Access router or firewall, it’s worth noting that Apple’s own AirPort Base Station is designed to work well with Apple’s solutions and can automatically configure any necessary port mappings.
Where things get more complicated is when you want to replace a conventional landline and long distance calling package. There are many options but they basically fall into three useful categories.
The first option I would consider is Google Voice which provides free nationwide long distance for U.S. residential customers and offers unified voicemail and other benefits I’ve described previously (Unified Voice, Text, and Visual Voicemail). The service is free and generally easy to begin using. If you often make or receive calls while sitting in front of your Mac, a program like Phone Amego offers some nice integration including on screen caller ID and click-to-dial.
The next easiest option is a complete VoIP service package like Vonage. Vonage will optionally ship you a pre-configured and easy to use VoIP adaptor and walk you through activating your service. Vonage works well for many users and they have begun offering more attractive monthly pricing plans as well as low risk trial periods. The best offer I’ve seen is $10/month (since I already had a used VDV-21VD adaptor I bought for $20).
The most flexible option is to buy your own VoIP telephone adaptor (like the OBiHAI Technology OBi110 for around $50) and then chose a provider that offers the best combination of price and service. I’ve had good experience with CallCentric and sipgate.com . You can get a free Direct Inward Dial (DID) number from sipgate.com that works with standard SIP phones or VoIP telephone adaptors. By combining this with Google Voice for outbound dialing, you can effectively have nationwide phone service with no monthly charge. You must provide your own Internet connection and will need a cell phone to sign up. The sipgate service is offered AS IS for single line residential use only. Detailed instructions are available from the service providers website, but it can take a little time and attention to get everything working (usually under 30 minutes). To take full advantage of such a service, a tool like Phone Amego is helpful because it combines a click-to-dial Google Voice client with on-screen Caller ID for Cisco/Linksys/Sipura and OBiHAI telephone adaptors.
My Own Experience
My own experience with VoIP is mixed. I’ve had a VoIP office phone for about five years now and have gone through several providers. When the service works well, it’s a wonderful bargain and a pleasure to use, but things haven’t always gone smoothly. Early systems had problems with call quality and this may still be an issue with slower ISPs. Setup may require a hobbiest level of interest, similar to setting up TCP/IP networking on your Mac. Though not difficult, you will need to login to your VoIP telephone adaptor using your web browser, and plug various bits of information provided (like your login name, and proxy server) into the correct slots. Finally, the service may not be 100%. Sometimes calls get dropped or fail to go through.
In my own testing, Google Voice has been very reliable. The call quality using a Linksys/Sipura telephone adaptor and Cox high speed internet has been excellent, noticeably better than a traditional landline. Reliability varies depending on your VoIP service provider, but so far I’ve been pleased with my current providers including CallCentric and sipgate.com . Sipgate makes a point of emphasizing that their service itself runs in the cloud on distributed servers which may avoid some of the problems I’ve had in the past. Time will tell.
When I first got VoIP about 5 years ago, I tried to switch both my work phone and our home phone to the new service. After a few months, my wife complained about the frustration of calls not getting through consistently, and we switched our home phone back to a local provider (Cox Digital phone service). If you already have a cell phone and/or a home phone, VoIP is a nice way to add a second line at very low cost. If you’re thinking of switching completely over to VoIP, plan to try it for a while and keep your options open.