Skype vs. Every Other VoIP Provider
All VoIP services allow you to make and receive voice calls via your broadband Internet connection, but there are big differences between Skype and other VoIP services.
by Joseph Moran
Technology questions are inevitably lobbed my way when I attend family get-togethers, and the holiday that just passed was no exception. It seems that a couple of folks were seriously considering signing up for some kind of VoIP service (one pointedly remarked on the near-flood of promotional material he was receiving about the service from his cable company), when someone piped in, "What's this Skype thing I keep hearing about?"
All VoIP services allow you to make and receive voice calls via your broadband Internet connection, but there are important differences between Skype and other VoIP services. Here we'll compare them in some key areas so you'll have the information you need before deciding to try one or the other. The exact features and capabilities you get with VoIP service depend on the provider, but for purposes of this discussion we'll broadly divide VoIP services into Skype and non-Skype (the kind you obtain from cable and phone companies, plus third-party providers like Vonage).
Getting Started and Equipment
Getting up and running with Skype should take all of 15 minutes about as long as it takes to download and install the software (available for Windows, Mac and Linux) and set up a free account. Normally, you place and receive Skype calls using your computer's microphone and speakers; if you don't want to be bound by this limitation, there are a number of Skype-enabled phones you can buy that work independent of a PC, including Wi-Fi phones and dual-mode phones that work with both Skype and conventional landlines. There is a device available that will let you use conventional phones with Skype, but it connects to so your PC must be left on in order to use it.
Cost and Commitments
Skype uses a different pricing model that for most people will be extremely inexpensive. Skype lets you place unlimited voice calls (or video calls via a Webcam, for that matter) to other Skype users for free. If you want to use Skype to call actual phone numbers, you can buy blocks of Skype credit in $10 increments to cover per-minute charges, which start at 2.1 cents for the U.S. and Canada. Alternately, you can pay a flat $3 a month for a Skype Pro account that offers unlimited U.S. and Canada calls. To receive conventional phone calls on your Skype account, you can obtain a phone number for either $60 or $24 a year the latter only for Skype Pro users.
Unlike most other VoIP providers, Skype does not let you transfer your existing number, but you can cancel Skype Pro service whenever you want.
VoIP performance is impacted not just by the speed of the connection but how much congestion is on your network, as well as the network of your ISP. A potential benefit to getting VoIP from the same company that provides your broadband connection is that they may prioritize voice traffic on their own networks, which can improve call quality and reliability. With service from connection-independent providers (like Skype or Vonage) you can usually use router settings at least to prioritize voice traffic on your own network.
No matter who the provider is, VoIP is still a relatively new technology at least, relative to the century-old phone system. Therefore, while you can usually count on it, it won't be as reliable as an old-fashioned landline. Remember that if your Internet connection is down, so is your VoIP service.
One other thing to be aware off: VoIP service may or may not allow you to make 911 calls. For example, Skype doesn't support such calls, so you should never rely on Skype as your only phone. With VoIP from a cable or phone company, you usually do get this capability, but not always, so check to be sure.
The Bottom Line
Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
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