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A Guide to VoIP — Just the FAQs

There are two kinds of people: Those who have switched to voice over IP service and those who are thinking about it. If you fall into the latter category, these frequently asked questions will help you make your decision.

by Joseph Moran

Internet telephony, more commonly known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), was virtually nonexistent several years ago, but these days, it's a viable option for almost anyone with a broadband connection.

Considering all the attention VoIP is getting, you might be thinking about signing up for it, and may even have already received (multiple) solicitations from service providers. There are some things you'll want to know before taking the plunge, however, so we've prepared a list of the most frequently asked questions about VoIP.

What's the big deal about VoIP anyway, and why should I be considering it?
Currently, the biggest selling point for VoIP is price. VoIP phone service is almost always less expensive than traditional phone service, and sometimes it's considerably cheaper. Most VoIP plans offer unlimited local and long distance calls for a flat fee (at least within the U.S. and Canada), as well as international calls to much of the rest of the globe for low per-minute charges. Prices and features vary widely by provider, though, so you should compare costs and features across several before deciding on one. (Some providers offer discounts to customers who commit to lengthy service plans or prepay for annual service.)

Many VoIP plans also include calling features (such as Caller ID, three-way calling, and so forth) that are often a la carte options with conventional phone service. VoIP services also tend to offer features you can't get with a regular phone line, such as the ability to check your voice mail messages from anywhere using a Web browser.

Where can I get VoIP?
There are lots of places to get VoIP these days. Most telephone and cable companies offer the service (though availability isn't universal), as do several well-known independent companies like Skype and Vonage. VoIP service and products are also available from countless smaller firms. (Check out our sister site, VoIP Planet, for complete Internet Telephony coverage.)

How fast does my Internet connection have to be to support VoIP?
There's no hard and fast rule, but generally speaking you should have a broadband connection with a minimum of 128K upstream in order to get acceptable call quality with VoIP. Remember, this refers to upstream — not downstream — bandwidth.

If your prospective VoIP provider also happens to be your ISP, they should let you know if your connection is up to the task when you order. There are also a number of online speed tests available (www.testyourvoip.com is a one) that will test your Internet connection performance — not just for upload and download speed, but for packet loss, latency and other factors that can negatively impact call quality.

As always, the fastest upstream connection possible can't hurt. Even if you have a relatively speedy upstream connection, your call quality can often suffer during things like file uploading or sending big e-mail attachments, because the VoIP traffic has to compete with those other applications. One way to minimize this problem is to use a router or add-on device that can prioritize outgoing traffic so that your phone calls always have first dibs on the connection. (For more information on such devices and the importance of upstream connection speed in general, check Broadband connections: How Fast Does Your Data Swim Upstream?.)

Will I be able to keep my existing phone number?
Many VoIP service providers — though not all — are able to transfer your existing phone number to work with VoIP service. Although the provider almost always handles the process, it can still be complicated and slow. It can happen in days if you're lucky, but more likely it will take weeks, a month or sometimes even longer. Transferring numbers is usually quickest and easiest when ordering VoIP service through your existing landline carrier.

Due to vagaries in the system for assigning phone numbers, there can be cases when certain phone numbers may not be transferable. DSL customers may also experience problems if they want to use their existing number with VoIP from a provider other than their phone company, because most telcos tie DSL to their PSTN phone service (thus, transferring the number cancels the service). A small handful of telcos offer so-called "naked" DSL (DSL without conventional phone service), allowing customers to order VoIP service from the provider of their choice.

Can I use my existing phone with VoIP? What about other phone-based devices like fax machines, etc.
A few VoIP providers — notably Skype — require that you use specialized phones. But almost all other providers supply a device — often called a VoIP gateway — that has one or more analog phone jacks which will accommodate most conventional corded or cordless phones.

When it comes to other devices that use a phone line, things get trickier. Take fax machines, for example, which are essentially analog modems that using audio tones to transmit and receive data. VoIP systems heavily compress audio information for efficient transport over the Internet, and since this can distort fax tones, it usually results in transmission errors. A similar situation occurs with other devices that contain analog modems, such as satellite TV set-top boxes and some TiVo digital video recorders (though many of the latter now support Ethernet or WLAN connections).

Some VoIP providers are better at dealing with analog devices than others, so check with yours in advance if support for these devices is important to you. (Providers' online material on this topic is often vague, so you may have to call.)

Will a VoIP phone work during a power failure? That depends. Although traditional phone lines provide the electricity necessary to run a telephone, VoIP equipment— either digital phones or the adapters for analog ones — often rely on power from a wall outlet.

Some VoIP providers (typically major telephone or cable companies) offer equipment with a built-in battery backup that can keep your phones operating-at least for a few hours — in the event the power goes out. Even if your VoIP provider doesn't offer it, you can achieve the same result by connecting your VoIP equipment to your own UPS. Ideally, you'll want to keep any VoIP devices on a dedicated UPS so the battery will last as long as possible.

Can I make 911 emergency calls over VoIP?
Most VoIP services allow you to make 911 calls just as you would from a standard phone (Skype is an exception). But 911 calls made via VoIP are often treated differently than those placed from a conventional landline.

From a standard phone, 911 calls automatically go to a local (and typically municipal) emergency dispatch center where the operator will be able to see your phone number and physical location — both critical pieces of data in case you're disconnected or unable to provide it. This is called Enhanced 911, or E911.

What's That Term?
Not sure what a particular term means? Check out the searchable PracticallyNetworked Glossary.

However, there are technical and administrative challenges with connecting to local 911 networks through VoIP, and when you use VoIP to place an emergency 911 call, it may be routed to a call center in a different locale than where you live, that call center may be privately rather than government-run, and the operator may rely on you to provide your contact number and street address.

Some of the larger VoIP providers include the E911 service, so you should verify the level of 911 service they offer before signing up. Even if your provider supports E911, it's critical that you keep your address information up-to-date with them — (i.e. if you move) and be prepared to provide your current location if you're using your VoIP account away from home.

There are also other issues you many want to consider with VoIP and 911 calls, such as the aforementioned possibility of a power failure as well as the fact that Internet connections aren't nearly as reliable as the now century-old public phone system.

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.


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