VoIP offers excellent call quality. The person you’re calling can’t tell whether you’re using VoIP or POTS—there’s little difference in quality. While it’s true that there might be occasional hiccups in transmission, the technology has evolved to the point where service interruptions or interference are no more frequent than a POTS connection, and call quality is considerably better than typical cell phone reception.
The biggest advantage VoIP has over POTS is cost. Domestic calls are free, or at the very least, less expensive than POTS; while international calls are also much less expensive and, in certain cases, free as well. A VoIP phone number, sometimes called a virtual number, is not directly associated with the physical network of a landline, but “appears” to be so. Thus, people from another country could make calls to you at the local rate instead of the higher international rate because your virtual phone number “seems” to be within their local exchange, even though it’s not.
Another advantage is convenience and versatility. Virtual phone numbers can be assigned to ring on multiple devices: a landline phone, a cell phone, or a work or home phone. You can also assign multiple phone numbers to ring on a single handset. At the most basic level, getting VoIP service is almost hassle-free. There are myriad providers available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. All you have to do is download the software, and in a few minutes you can start making calls.
VoIP is particularly attractive to businesses. The cost of voice calls is lower, a cost savings multiplied times the number of employees and the frequency of calling. Also, VoIP integrates data and voice communications (including cell phones) in a more cost-efficient manner. Instead of trying to make two types of communications systems work together, the two are already bundled together. According to Forbes magazine, since 2008, more than 80% of all PBX (private branch exchange) systems (the “switchboard” that serves office buildings) sold are VoIP. While the main point of VoIP may be to make inexpensive phone calls, it comes with added functionality including high-fidelity audio, video, and Web conferencing; as well as file transfers, shared presentations, and computer desktop control—all with tremendous capabilities for tracking, analyzing, and reporting data.
VoIP is a multifunction system. SIP (Session Initiated Protocol)–enabled VoIP handsets can handle any kind of communication, whether voice or data: regular phone calls, faxes, voicemail, email, Web conferences, etc. So you could, for example, listen to your email or record a voice message that you could send to a fax machine. The handsets are also scalable—you can add and subtract features as you need without switching out hardware. The plug-and-play capability means that you don’t need a support team to reconfigure the network every time new extensions are added. All you need to do is plug the handset in and it’s ready to go.
VoIP is efficient and secure. Allowing voice and data communications to run over a single network greatly reduces corporate infrastructure costs; the larger the company, the greater the savings. For companies concerned about security, VoIP already has the capability to use standardized encryption protocols, which is much more difficult to provide on a regular telephone connection.
VoIP hardware is inexpensive and versatile. In addition, VoIP handsets are less expensive than traditional telephones and are simpler to reconfigure. Dual-mode VoIP handsets are capable of switching from a cellular connection to a building Wi-Fi even during a conversation, eliminating the need to provide employees with both a cell phone and a “regular” office phone. This not only reduces overall expenses, but lowers maintenance by half, as there are fewer devices to track, control, and support.
VoIP comes with a virtual assistant. Some other handy business features include Auto Attendant—also called a virtual assistant—which not only plays prerecorded music or messages for callers on hold, but also routes calls to departments as well as individuals. This makes your company look bigger than it is, as the “accounting department” might just be your father-in-law, but this feature gives customers the impression that you have a larger organization.
VoIP as a tracking system. Another interesting feature is sometimes called Find Me, Follow Me, Call Hunting, or Advanced Forwarding. It allows a handset (or a number) to move wherever the person goes, whether it’s in the office, at a convention center, or using a home phone or cell phone. A variation of this is Presence, which allows you to track where employees are, and also defines rules as to locations where the handset should or should not ring.
Integrating VoIP with other systems. Many VoIP systems also integrate emails and calendar systems such as Microsoft Outlook. This lets you “click to dial” an Outlook contact and automatically record calls you make and receive.
To make VoIP calls, a person or business needs:
- A high-speed broadband Internet connection (at least 256 kilobytes a second: DSL, cable, newer satellite, or anything that isn’t dial-up).
- A modem.
- A computer equipped with a microphone (these days even the least expensive computer has one), or an adaptor to a regular phone (only necessary in lieu of a computer).
- Software from a VoIP provider.
In most cases, voice calls (whether made by regular telephone or another VoIP number) placed to a VoIP number can be received on the computer itself; or routed to a regular telephone, cell phone, or smartphone.
While there are dedicated VoIP phones for consumers, most of these systems are aimed at business use. A hybrid approach—intended mostly for consumers without computers—is to sell an adapter that can be plugged into a regular telephone handset.
The Downside of VoIP (because there’s always a catch)
So, if VoIP is such a great deal, why hasn’t it put the phone companies out of business? Well, because nothing is ever perfect. While it’s true that traditional phone companies are slowly going the way of the dinosaur—and VoIP is one of many factors leading to final extinction— there are still a number of things good old copper wire connections that date back to Alexander Graham Bell do very well. One is emergency calling. While you can get some kind of 911 service over VoIP, it is typically expensive, and not always as reliable.
This leads to a more important issue, which is: if your Internet goes down, there goes your phone system, not just emergency calling. The old dinosaur phone company has backup power for all its circuits, which is why even in a blackout, you can still call for help on your corded phone, or just talk to your neighbors if need be.
International calling can be a bit iffier on VoIP than a regular landline connection, particularly to countries where the phone network is more extensive than the Internet, and especially so when neither is of high quality. (Make sure to take note of the list of countries covered by the particular VoIP plan.)
Last, while VoIP quality for the most part is comparable to a landline (and sometimes spotty cell phone reception has reduced general perceptions of acceptable quality), a slow, spotty, or crowded network can affect audio quality, even to the point of dropping calls.