With around three million PC to PC VoIP users predicted by the end of 2007, another million using the new technology to call traditional landlines, and businesses starting to get in on the action, we looked at why internet phone calls are proving so popular. More than 1.8 million people are currently taking advantage of the benefits of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in the UK (Ofcom, 2006).
1. What is it and how does it work?
In its simplest sense, VoIP means using the internet to make phone calls. By taking ordinary analogue signals and turning them into digital signals, it allows you to ring people using your broadband connection. VoIP manifests itself in a number of ways:
A headphone and microphone headset via an interface like MSN Messenger between two computers. Calls made in this way are completely free.
A headset plugged into a PC to connect to someone else who is using a normal landline or mobile.
A VoIP phone or adaptor that plugs into an old phone to make calls in the same way as a landline.
2. Will I get my own number?
Yes. You can get any phone number that you want – so you can get a traditional geographical number for the city that you live in. Then other people can ring you on your VoIP line.
3. What equipment will I need?
If you’re going for option one or two, all you need is a headset and microphone that you plug into the back of your computer (the pink and the green jacks either at the back or the front of your PC). This costs from around £5 upwards. Check out Amazon. You will also need to download an instant messenger. Try Skype, Google Talk, MSN Messenger or Yahoo. Then you (and your friends) need to sign up and get an account. Simply add each other to your contact lists, request a “voice conversation” and you’re ready to chat. But don’t forget to make sure you have plugged your headset in. If you’re more comfortable using a traditional handheld phone, you will need to buy a VoIP phone or adaptor. VoIP phones look and behave exactly like normal phones, and both the phone and the adaptor allow you to make calls as you always did. BT and Orange, now offer VoIP as part of their broadband packages, making the whole process much easier. If not, VoIP phones start from around £10, and adaptors from around £20 from Amazon.
4. What will VoIP cost me?
Once you have bought your headset or phone, you have to decide which pricing option is best for you. Vonage offer an anytime calls package with inclusive UK minutes and international calls starting from 0.02p a minute for £7.99 a month. There is an activation fee of £9.99 but they do give you a free adaptor for your home phone. BT offer an anytime plan from £4.99 a month for BT Broadband customers. Calls to international landlines are charged from 1.25p per minute (with a 3p set up charge). Mobile phone call charges vary from 5p a minute at weekends up to 13p a minute at peak times. Orange offer VoIP with their Broadband Unlimited package (£19.99 a month). To make calls you just plug your normal phone into your Orange Livebox modem, and it works even when your computer is off. Calls to 01 and 02 national numbers are free, calls to UK mobiles are 10p a minute and calls to 100 international destinations are free too. If you are also a pay monthly Orange customer, calls to other Orange mobile phones are free too. But VoIP can also be completely free. If you know what time your friends will be online you can make your calls PC to PC and you won’t have to pay a penny.
5. How does it compare to using a standard landline for cost?
The fact that 70 per cent of UK households rely on a landline that costs around £11 a month for their broadband (Ofcom, 2006), does cause some problems for specialist VoIP companies like Vonage as you don’t want to be paying two line rental costs. Also, the fixed line telecoms business has become very competitive, so a great as it sounds, it’s also a good idea to check the fixed line market before committing to a VoIP line. Click here to compare fixed line prices.
6. Reliability and quality issues
Despite Ofcom estimates of the number of active VoIP households, actual user volumes are difficult to track; early users suffered with poor quality connections, echoes and delays. The quality of your call can also be affected by your bandwidth, so if you have an ADSL line with a contention ratio of 50:1, your connection might not be as good during peak times. But while these issues have improved, your broadband still needs to be switched on to make calls, increasing both your electricity bill and the chance of your network being infiltrated. In addition, you will have difficulty making calls any time you’re experiencing broadband connection problems.
7. VoIP in an emergency
Because you need electricity to make VoIP calls, since your broadband connection must be on, and, because you cannot ring emergency services from all VoIP networks, the chances are that you will still need a normal phone in an emergency. Even if you are able to call emergency services, Ofcom still recommends that you check with your provider to see whether or not they will automatically know where you are calling from. Click here to see if you can ring 999 from your VoIP provider.
8. Call features
If the last two paragraphs have put you off, VoIP has some great call features that make up for its early teething problems. Apart from the obvious cash savings, you can also make easy three-way calls – great if you have friends in different parts of the world. A host of other features include online message centres for retrieving messages, a facility that allows you to send voicemails via email and the excellent benefit of being able to take your landline wherever you go. With VoIP you can make free and very cheap calls from any PC, any time you have access to a broadband connection – even from your mobile if you have a Smart Phone.
9. Should I bin my landline?
Unfortunately, most of you can’t since you still need your traditional line for your broadband. However, if you have cable, it’s worth comparing the cost of the calls you make against the costs of a VoIP provider. Even if you can’t get rid of your landline, using VoIP for PC to PC calls is also a great way of getting a second landline without paying for another line rental at £11 a month.
In the USA, where you can purchase a pure broadband connection without a phone line or having to pay line rental (known as a naked DSL), VoIP is a much better option. At the moment though, Ofcom has decided that it is up to service providers to decide if, and when, they will offer naked DSL in the UK without a cable connection.
10. The future
BT is now offering a VoIP cross-over phone. This “intelligent” mobile phone uses the mobile network when you’re outside, and then switches to your VoIP connection when inside your house, allowing you to make calls from 5.5p for an hour. Orange should also be offering something similar soon.