Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has gained a lot of traction in the last 10 years. Quite simply, VoIP is the use of the internet to make traditional voice telephone calls. Typically VoIP is done with the use of a small box running specialized software or with the software running on a computer or other device such as a smart phone. The device or software takes the vocal information, digitizes it and sends it over the internet as packets of data. On the receiving end, somewhere near the destination of the call, its counterpart receives this data stream and converts it back to analog audio. Depending on where this conversion takes place it may be outputted directly to the user's speaker or placed on the plain old telephone service, often abbreviated as “pots.”
The Rise of VoIP
Many internet providers (often cable companies) have jumped on the VoIP bandwagon by offering phone service for your home at cheaper rates than traditional telephone companies can offer. This service comes in the form of a box that connects to your existing phone lines to provide you with what sounds and works like traditional phone service. You can also purchase VoIP service on its own from various providers at reasonable costs, most of which have free calling in the USA and Canada. In addition to these pay services VoIP can also be found for free from a short list of providers. Many of the free services exist simply to upsell subscribers to a pay service but they do still work for making and receiving calls. The free services are dwindling and many have come and gone over the years. Free services do not come with any hardware, but specific hardware can be purchased to work with many of them. In addition to the specific hardware boxes for these VoIP services you can use software on a PC or smartphone. Many services offer a mix of free and paid depending on how you use them. Here the free part often works as peer to peer such that the digital packets are never converted to analog in the transfer but instead go directly from computer to computer. Often the portion of the service that is paid is when the signal has to transfer to the pots lines for someone who doesn’t use the same service.
VoIP - What it is Good For
For a landline replacement VoIP works quite well and many customers can’t tell the difference. As with all new technology, it can have some hiccups related to power and internet outages but these are minor. Traditional telephone lines aren’t foolproof either and can have storm and power related outages as well. One of the main barriers to VoIP taking over traditional landlines is the lack of high-speed internet in more remote areas. Having high-speed internet is essential for VoIP to work no matter how you get it.
VoIP - What it isn’t Good For
These VoIP services work well on an internet-connected smartphone but herein lies the catch for smartphones. They require the internet to work, and unless you are always in range of Wi-Fi, that internet comes from phone companies that have little incentive to erode the profits from their voice services. Various providers offer data-only service; however, with the amount of data required for a VoIP call, the price may not be worth it. For this reason VoIP use to replace a cellphone has not caught on in any big way, although VoIP on a smartphone can still be useful for a few things, for example, if you are at home and want to save minutes. Another is if you are out of the country and have Wi-Fi at your hotel, you can save on the cost of the call back home.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that VoIP could, and often does, replace traditional phone landlines in many homes as cable companies bundle the service. For cellphones other than for specific uses, at least at the moment, VoIP isn’t a viable option unless you are always in range of Wi-Fi.