Thursday, May 15, 2008

What is VOIP?

Perhaps this is not a popular question, but if you've heard the term and just don't know what it is then this post is for you! If this is not a question you have ever asked of yourself, you may quietly close this post now. VOIP, simply put, is a method of transporting voice information over the internet. The end result looks like a phone, smells like a phone, tastes like a phone doesn't work like a phone at all!

First off, VOIP is really an acronym. As such, it should be written V.O.I.P. but that's really a lot of periods so I shorten it to just VOIP. I think that's acceptable now. Here's what it stands for:

V - Voice
O - Over
I - Internet
P - Protocol

Let's unpack that for just a minute. "Voice" and "Over" are self-explanatory. "I.P." stands for "internet protocol" which is a method of forming bits of information that need to get from point A to point B so that it can go through the computers, switches, routers, etc. that form the internet.

For VOIP, the information that needs to be transmitted is your voice and the voice of the person on the other end of the line. A VOIP telephone system takes the audio from the conversation and turns it into packets of information. A VOIP telephone communicates (usually) with a central computer that knows the addresses of each telephone on the network. When the packets that make up your voice are sent to this central server they are then forwarded on to the address of the telephone they are destined for.

If this sounds confusing, think of this process like having a long-distance conversation through a series of written letters. To make this example more like VOIP, you would write and mail one letter for each word you want to say to your writing partner. You would write thousands of letters for each conversation and then mail each of them through the postal service. Every letter would need to arrive quickly and be coded in such a way that described the order in which each of the letters was supposed to be placed. The receiver would then receive the letters and put them in the proper order, decoding your message. That person would then repeat the process on his or her end. You would go back and forth with the person until your conversation was finished, upon which you would send a final letter saying you're done conversing.

VOIP is a lot like that - only the process happens with every nuance of your voice. Your voice is encoded many times per second, turned into little messages and sent to the destination intended for it. Incredibly, even though the destination may be on the other side of the country, the trip may take as little as 50 to 150 milliseconds to get there! That's 50 to 150 thousandths of a second. Wow - that's fast!

What are the benefits of VOIP for you?
VOIP offers lower cost phone calls because the phone calls use the infrastructure that is shared with the rest of internet communication - web pages, emails, etc. Instead of having equipment to simply transport phone calls like the standard telephone network does (PSTN), VOIP shares equipment for multiple forms of communication which lowers the cost of ownership of said equipment.

VOIP offers portability. Because the telephone number isn't tied to a particular location, but rather a particular handset, it's a lot like a cell phone. You can travel anywhere with your cell phone and it always rings when you're called - the system finds you. The same can be said of VOIP. The system will find you whenever you connect your VOIP phone to the internet.

Another key benefit for many people are the additional calling features that VOIP can provide. Because VOIP calls are processed in a computer while being transported it's possible to write very sophisticated functions that are costly or impossible to do with standard telephone equipment. These benefits include the ability to have multiple telephone numbers from different area codes, call recording, call transferring, group conference calling, and even placing calls right from a computer with no telephone needed.

For businesses, VOIP enables them to reduce the cost of installation. Traditional telephone systems require wiring to each location - and each wire designates a particular extension. That means that if someone moves offices, the wire either needs to be switched on the telephone system or the telephone system needs to be re-programmed to know what wire will carry the new extension. In a large business this can become quite cumbersome.

VOIP, on the other hand, enables a user with "extension 100" to simply disconnect his or her phone and re-connect it in a new location. It will communicate with the server for a few minutes and work just fine. That also means that the person could take their phone home, to the beach, or around the world - while enabling his co-workers to dial "extension 100" to contact him.

How do you get a VOIP phone system?
To begin you need a high-speed internet connection. DSL or cable is preferred. A dial-up connection just won't do. Provided you have a high-speed connection like DSL or cable, you can choose among a few providers.

For consumers, Vonage is a great option. They offer plans as low as $15 per month (+ tax) or $25 per month with unlimited local and long-distance calling. Call quality is great from most places and you can manage your account, including voice mails, online. They also have some advanced features such as voicemail transcription and emailing if you'd rather see your voicemail than listen to it. Adding a fax line or a second line is affordable and simple to do.

For businesses, Vonage for business, Packet8, or even finding a provider for Asterisk are all good options depending on the level of sophistication you need. Asterisk VOIP is a software system that can run on various types of hardware. It will require a level of support beyond Vonage or another hosted solution, but you can literally program it to do just about anything.

That's the basic scoop on VOIP. Perhaps it has immediate application for you, perhaps not. But it is in your future. Today, many long distance calls are converted to VOIP calls by the phone company while travelling through across the globe. Someday, you'll likely have a VOIP system in your own home.

Full disclosure: I use Vonage at home and I use Asterisk (with some cool custom stuff) at the office.

To learn more about VOIP, do a Google search for "VOIP telephone systems."

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