August 11, 2005 10:19 AM PDT

FAQ: Demystifying VoIP

As the popularity of voice over Internet Protocol surges, and lawmakers put more pressure on Net phone providers to fully support 911 services, many consumers are asking what exactly they need to know about the technology.

Since about 1995, when it was first offered to consumers, VoIP has become one of the world's most widely used telephony products. Current estimates put the number of VoIP users at about 5 million, although industry observers say that number will increase fivefold in the next two years.

VoIP--which enables phone calls to be carried over the Internet--also is one of the most economical phone technologies available. Many VoIP services are available for as little as $20 a month, though with some important constraints.

The key to making the most of VoIP is understanding its basic forms and what you might expect to pay for them. Here are the essentials.

What is VoIP?
VoIP refers to voice calls that are routed over online networks using the Internet Protocol--the IP that serves as the backbone of the Internet and is used to ferry e-mails, instant messages and Web pages to millions of PCs or cell phones.

VoIP tends to be relatively inexpensive. Why?
VoIP calls are just another application riding over the Internet. And these calls are unregulated. So at their core, they are no different from e-mails, instant messages or Web pages, which all can be distributed for free between Internet-connected machines. Those include computers and wireless devices, such as cell phones and handhelds, that are set up to receive online information.

Why do some VoIP services cost money, and why are some free?
A VoIP service can connect users not only with other VoIP customers but also with phone services that are offline, such as those that use traditional landline networks and wireless cell phone networks. For those calls, VoIP service providers must pay access fees to the landline and wireless operators. Those charges are passed along to VoIP customers. VoIP services that stay on the Internet--calls that are between personal computers with VoIP service--are free.

What do you need to use VoIP?
The first thing you need is an Internet connection. It can be as basic as dial-up service, but the faster your Net connection, the better the call quality is. With a high-speed broadband connection, for example, you can make calls and surf the Internet at the same time.

Related coverage
Net calling hung up on key issues
VoIP feels growing pains such as blocked calls and 911.

You'll also need VoIP software. Consumers can choose a version that loads onto a desktop or laptop computer, which allows the computer to make calls through its modem connection to the Internet. The customer uses the computer's built-in microphone and speakers, so there is no actual phone or extra adapter needed for this version of VoIP service.

But in cases where customers want to convert their home phone to a VoIP dialer, an adapter is necessary. In this scenario, the VoIP software is available preinstalled in a separate piece of hardware known as an analog telephone adapter, which is installed between your home phone and the broadband modem.

The cost of these adapters is dropping rapidly. Most are priced well below $100, and in many cases they are simply given to customers who buy VoIP service.

Who sells VoIP?
A surprisingly varied group of vendors sells VoIP. Cable operators, for example, typically sell VoIP services as part of a "triple play" of voice, video and high-speed Internet services that are all steeply discounted when packaged together. They say their VoIP services are the best because calls are carried over the cable company's privately owned network, allowing its operators to give priority to VoIP calls. That guarantee doesn't hold, however, for calls to someone who is not a cable broadband subscriber.

There also are companies, such as Vonage, that don't own their own networks. Calls placed through these providers are sent out on the general network serving the Internet, which means the calls are out of the providers' control and can be negatively affected by network congestion networks and security problems. These services require you to supply your own broadband service.

There's also a growing class of companies that give away VoIP software and then sell premium services, such as those that allow users to dial traditional phones using their PC-based VoIP. The most famous of these companies is Skype, a Luxembourg company that has

CONTINUED:
Page 1 | 2

5 comments

Join the conversation!
Add your comment
Cable VoIP
I noticed an inaccuracy in your article with respect to Cable provided VoIP service. I work for Charter Communications, in support of it's local telephone service, and have some knowlege here. Most of our areas are serviced using VoIP technology, however we DO offer primary line telephone service, as do most other Cable Telephony providers.

The inaccuracy I noticed in this story is that we DO guarantee the same level of service as POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) providers, on and off of our network. In fact, calls that leave our network travel to the rest of the telephone network using the same technologies, and interconnect relationships used in the rest of the POTS world. This means that those calls are treated with every bit as much urgency as any other POTS telephone call.

One other point I'd make is that while we do install equipment at the home in order to facilitate the connection, and this equipment does require a local power source, it is battery backed up so as to provide service even in the event of a power outage. As a vast majority of power outages are shorter in duration than the 8 to 24 hour capacity of these batteries, you are unlikely to see any disruption in service as a result of a power outage. In fact, if a power outage lasts longer than that, it's probable that the POTS lines have been affected as well.

We have more information available on our web site: www.charter.net., You can also find more information on much of the equipment in use by cable telephone providers at the Arris, and Nortel web sites, found using a web search.
Posted by jkelly4 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A Slight Quibble...
...I tried to investigate your QoS claim on the Charter site, but hit a wall when I was instructed to check out state Public Service Commission requirements...

Once your calls are inserted into the public switched telephone network, of course they have the same QoS as the telephone network; however, the only QoS comment on the Charter site is the following:

*** "we are required to maintain a reliability rate of 99.9 percent for local telephone service." ***
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://support2.charter.com/support/telephone/contentredirect.asp?sprt_cid=996f4ebc-288c-4984-b3c7-18620828abbc" target="_newWindow">http://support2.charter.com/support/telephone/contentredirect.asp?sprt_cid=996f4ebc-288c-4984-b3c7-18620828abbc</a>

This of course flies in the face of your post's QoS claims, as the PSTN has FIVE nines of reliability, which, for the layman, is 99.999%

I have cable-VoIP. I like my cable-VoIP. But it ain't POTS-QoS unless (and until) it's POTS.
Posted by (64 comments )
Link Flag
5 million users? WHAT!
5 million users? WHAT! where did you pick that number. Remember this is not the lottery Ben.

WOW this story about VoIP is the most misleading story I have read in a long time by a Staff Writer... ANY Staff Writer. 5 Million users? where did you get that number from Ben. It would be the same as if you claimed that the hula hoop was the most used fitness device being sold in the USA today, who would believe that unless you owned one and I sure don't. First let me correct you by saying that SKYPE has had more than 140 million downloads as of today with more than 20 million people using their service daily. Close or a little above this number are paying subscribers which you correctly mentioned pay only about 1.7 cents per minute. VONAGE and all the others charges an arm and a leg plus as you correctly stated must sign long term contracts. By the way I got to give you some credit, I think this is the first time anyone besides myself has ever told people in these articles that a contract must be signed prior to using their service. Let's take VONAGE for an example, they spend close to $200 in advertising to acquire one paying customer that will be paying $14.95 per month and as time goes by they will get up to the $24.95... what else is new?.
Well let me tell you what's new. The AdCallsCommunicator, that's right. The AdCallsCommunicator gives you FREE VoIP and I mean FREE VoIP service. Call any telephone in the USA and Canada, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska, you can even call GUAM absolutely FREE. All you need is a computer and you can call ANY telephone, Cell Phone, Home phone or business phone for FREE right there from your computer. You can even call from Mexico and several other countries without spending a dime by utilizing the AdCallsCommunicator which are FREELY available from companies such as <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.CallOnMyDime.com," target="_newWindow">http://www.CallOnMyDime.com,</a> <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.GratisCoupons.com," target="_newWindow">http://www.GratisCoupons.com,</a> <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.AdCallsCommunicator.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.AdCallsCommunicator.com</a> and from <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.NTRSource.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.NTRSource.com</a>. If you haven't already downloaded your VIRTUAL Cell Phone then do it NOW, do it today and please tell a friend. With close to 18,000 downloads per day these companies above sure are doing the right thing which are, let people make these calls for FREE and at least have just one thing to get excited about. Try to live by what I was once told. "If you are willing to do what others won't, you will have tomorrow what others don't".
Make it a great day...
Posted by ntrsource (43 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Infrastructure investment support
As I read about VOIP, I cannot help but wonder who is going to
make the infrastructure investments required to improve the
quality of service for ever increasing numbers of subscribers
that are using the common network infrastructure for free.

If there is no revenue model, I cannot begin to guess who is
going to buy the switches, routers, and fiber devices necessary
to keep the packets flowing.

Secondarily, as large numbers of people leave traditional phone
providers with their heavily taxed services, how will local and
state governments replace the lost revenue? Will they continue
to allow the Internet services to ride for free? What will happen
to some of the minimum service level phone services that are
provided as a lifeline to people and subsidized by all other
subscribers? Most of those people do not see "all you have to
have is a computer and a broadband connection" as a
reasonable hurdle for simply wanting a phone in case of
emergencies.
Posted by Rod Adams (74 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Oh noes!!!
You think maybe, just maybe, that state &#38; local gov't might think of a new tax? Naw, they'd never do that. MEGO
Posted by (64 comments )
Link Flag
 

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot

Discussions

Shared

RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.