The Quick Start Guide to VOIP for the Home, Home Office, and Small Business

Deciding to Use VOIP—Weighing the Pros and Cons

Expectations

VOIP has many advantages over regular phone service. For example, you can expect to save significantly on long distance charges. And, if you are happy to make and receive calls on your computer, you won't likely have to pay a cent beyond the cost of your regular Internet connection.

However, like any emerging technology, there are still a few kinks in the system. Your decision whether or not to use VOIP should be based on a complete understanding of both the advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

VOIP service providers like Vonage (a service provider is a company that sells monthly VOIP plans) generally cite the following outstanding advantages to be had through VOIP service:

Low cost. If you have a broadband Internet connection (DSL or cable), you can make PC-to-PC phone calls anywhere in the world for free. If you wish to make a PC-to-phone connection, there's usually a charge for this but probably much cheaper than your regular phone service.

You can also sign up with a VoIP service provider which charges a monthly fee in return for unlimited calls within a certain geographic area. For example, some VOIP services in the United States allow you to call anywhere in North America at no extra charge. Overseas calls are charged at a relatively small rate.

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Portability. You can make and receive phone calls wherever there is a broadband connection simply by signing in to your VOIP account. This makes VOIP as convenient as e-mail. If you are traveling, simply pack a headset and use your laptop plugged into the Internet, or plug a VOIP phone directly into the Internet connection and you can talk to your family or business associates for almost nothing. If you don't have a VOIP phone, use an analog terminal adaptor (ATA) to connect a regular phone to the Internet. Today you can find ATAs that small, portable and inexpensive. A great idea for frequent travelers.

Phone-to-phone VOIP is also portable. When you sign up with a VoIP service provider the Internet phone or adaptor that is used with that service is assigned a unique number. This 'phone number' remains valid even if your VoIP service is in Cleveland and you are connected to the Internet in Bangkok. An Internet phone is small and light enough to take with you anywhere. Simply plug it into a broadband connection anywhere in the world and you can make and receive calls just as though you were in your own home or office.

Features. Unlike regular phone service which usually charges more for extra features, VOIP comes with a host of advanced communication features. For example, call forwarding, call waiting, voicemail, caller ID and three-way calling are some of the many services included with VOIP telephone service at no extra charge. You can also send data such as pictures and documents at the same time you are talking on the phone.

Disadvantages

If VOIP is starting to sound really good to you, make sure you understand the following downsides as well.

No service during a power outage. During a blackout a regular phone is kept in service by the current supplied through the phone line. This is not possible with IP phones, so when the power goes out, there is no VOIP phone service. One solution to this problem is to use battery backups or power generators to provide electricity.

If you decide to continue subscribing to a regular phone line as an emergency backup, consider that monthly cost cuts into your overall VOIP savings. However, VOIP would still make sense in this case if your home or business made significant long distance calls.

Emergency 911 calls. Another major concern with VOIP involves emergency 911 calls. Traditional phone equipment can trace your location. Emergency calls are diverted to the nearest call center where the operator can see your location in case you can't talk. However, because a voice-over-IP call is essentially a transfer of data between two IP addresses, not physical addresses, with VOIP there is currently no way to determine where your VOIP phone call is originating from. To get around this, VOIP service providers allow you to register your physical address with them when you sign up.

Vonage the Broadband Phone Company, for example, has a phone number registry for 911 dialing. You provide Vonage with a physical address that is kept on file. When you phone 911, Vonage uses the address to determine the nearest emergency response center and then sends your call to a general number at that center.

There is also an emerging standard called E911 (Enhanced 911) which allows the VOIP service provider to deliver your location and callback number automatically to local 911 emergency services center. When deciding on a VOIP service provider, make sure you ask them how 911 emergency calls are handled, and if they support e911.

Reliability. Because VOIP relies on an Internet connection, your VOIP service will be affected by the quality and reliability of your broadband Internet service and sometimes by the limitations of your PC. Poor Internet connections and congestion can result in garbled or distorted voice quality. If you are using your computer at the same time as making a computer VOIP call, you may find that voice quality deteriorates dramatically.

Next: [  Choosing a VOIP Provider  ]

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