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
The process for signing up for VoIP service varies by provider, but it usually takes at least a few days to get service activated. If you want to use an existing phone number with a new VoIP service, the process can be lengthier, often taking several weeks. When starting service, most providers will ship you a device that either connects to or takes the place of your broadband router. To this device, you can in turn connect any existing corded or cordless phones you have. (When getting service through a phone or cable company, you may also have the option of using your wall phone jacks.)
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
VoIP providers typically charge a flat rate for unlimited calls — at least within the U.S. and Canada — that’s considerably less expensive than what you would pay for conventional phone service. Usually, the monthly cost for VoIP service is between $25 and $40, and you will often — though not always — be required to commit to a full year of service, especially if you want to pay the lowest possible price.
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.
The quality of any VoIP service depends a great deal on your Internet connection. The faster your connection — both upstream and downstream, since voice calls make equal use of both sides of the connection — the better your call quality and reliability is likely to be.
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
While Skype uses similar technology to other VoIP services, as you can see it doesn’t provide all the same capabilities (e.g., you can’t use standard phones and you can’t transfer your existing number). But Skype provides an easy, inexpensive, and flexible way to get your feet wet with VoIP, and for some it may be all the VoIP you ever need.