The number of companies providing broadband phone service—also called Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP, Digital Phone Service and Internet Phone Service—has been growing steadily over recent years. The number of subscribers is also on the rise. There were an estimated 5 million VoIP subscribers in 2004 and some studies predict that number will reach closer to 60 million by 2010. Given the prevalence of broadband service to homes across the world, it is not a far stretch to imagine a day when the standard phone line goes the way of the telegram.
How VoIP Works
VoIP calling uses a broadband connection to send voice data from caller to caller. When a caller speaks into the phone or computer, an analog audio signal is converted into digital data and sent across the Internet to a receiving person on other end. The technology essentially treats a spoken conversation like an email. With VoIP, anywhere one can access the internet, one can make a call. Placing a call over broadband is accomplished in a few ways:
- Computer Calling— The most popular computer-to-computer VoIP calling service is Skype, which allows users to download software and place free computer-to-computer calls to other Skype users. All that’s required is a broadband connection and a means to speak and hear using the computer (e.g., headset or built-in mic for speaking, headset or speakers for hearing). Calls to landlines or cell phones can be done on a pay-per-call or pay-per-minute basis, or the cost can be be rolled into a service plan.
- Traditional Phone Calling—To place a phone call using VoIP service and a home’s traditional phone, an adaptor is necessary. These are usually referred to as ATA’s, or analog telephone adapters, and they are small boxes that plug into the computer or router, and then into the regular phone or phone jack. It’s common for VoIP service providers to include an ATA as part of the service plan.
- Cordless Broadband Phones—Service providers are offering special cordless broadband phones in addition to their service plans. These units have a powered base station that plugs into the home’s router, and will include one or more cordless phones that can be placed anywhere in the home. These phones don’t require a special adaptor as they are designed for analog-to-digital conversion.
- Wi-Fi Phones—Not to be confused with cell phones, Wi-Fi phones enable VoIP subscribers to place calls wherever they can wirelessly access the internet. This can be done at home, or anywhere within range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. The price for a Wi-Fi phone through a provider will vary, and may include a rebate. Vonage’s Wi-Fi phone, for example, costs $90 after a $40 rebate. Wi-Fi phones can access unsecured hotspots, and will have limited access to secured hotspots, depending upon the provider.
VoIP Consumer Questions
What should you be looking for in a VoIP service? Start by assessing service plan costs, which will look like a traditional phone service or cell phone plan. Plans might offer so many minutes per month, unlimited local and long distance, international calling, etc. Additional costs, like activation fees, shipping fees for equipment, taxes and surcharges, and cancellation fees should be considered as well.
Promotions are popular and varied with VoIP companies. Look for one or more free months upon sign-up, free equipment (like an adapter kit, VoIP phone, or cordless phone), or waived set-up fees. Like cell phone service providers, some VoIP providers will insist on a one-year commitment to their service. Additional features like voice-mail, caller ID, and the usual complement of phone service options may or may not be included in service plans. Customers might also want to keep their existing phone number, and will want to assess this possibility.
Some VoIP service providers offer some pretty neat features, like one-click calling, call-logs, and phone and address books that can be accessed and managed through the computer.
“Vonage’s Voicemail Plus feature allows the customers to receive their voicemails via email ... and all account activity is available online,” says Meghan Shaw, public relations specialist with Vonage. It might also be possible to choose a new phone number with any area code—handy for callers who dial a certain area code frequently and only want a local calling plan. Bundled services from companies like Verizon (broadband Internet and VoIP phone) and Comcast (Internet, cable television, VoIP) might offer additional incentives and consolidated bill-paying.
VoIP Providers At a Glance
With more than 1,000 VoIP service providers, we’d be here all day if we listed them all. Instead, we selected a handful from some of the better-known companies—as well as a few lesser-known—to compare their unlimited local and long distance service plans, as well as some of their included features ... or included costs. Like any phone service plan, companies will adjust rates and alter plan options to keep up with the competition. When shopping for a service provider, take the time to compare features and costs.
- Vonage—Residential Premium Unlimited: $24.99/month. First month free. Included features: Caller ID, Call Waiting, Voicemail, 3-Way Calling. ATA included. Cordless Broadband Phone available for $60. Wi-Fi Phone: $90. Vonage is one of the most popular VoIP service providers, with more than 2 million subscribers. Activation fee and shipping/handling fee apply.
- AT&T CallVantage—CallVantage Service Plan: $24.99/month. One month free with online sign-up. Included features: Caller ID, Call Waiting, Voicemail, 3-Way Calling. ATA included. Activation fee and shipping/handling fee apply.
- Verizon VoiceWing—VoiceWing Unlimited: $24.95/month. Standard features (Caller ID, etc.) included. ATA included. Set-up fee waived with online order.
- Skype—Free computer-to-computer calling to other Skype users. Unlimited calling from computer to any phone in US: $29.99/year, 2.1 cents/minute calling plan, including international calls. Must subscribe to “SkypeIn” service to allow incoming calls to computer from outside phones. SkypeIn: $38/year. ATA’s and Plug-in, Cordless Broadband, and Wi-Fi Phones available at additional costs.
- ViaTalk—VT_Unlimited: $229/year (which includes a free year), or $24.95/month. Standard features included.
- VoIP Your Life –- Premier Unlimited: $23.97/month. Premier Global Unlimited (allows unlimited calling to 30 countries): $29.97. ATA included. Optional free router for prioritizing voice data over other data, ensuring quality calls. Standard features included.
- SunRocket—Unlimited Monthly: $24.95/month. Standard features included; 100 international minutes included. Equipment (ATA) fee applies. Annual rate plan ($199/year) comes with free cordless phone.
VoIP Caveat: 911 and Interrupted Service
Before signing up for VoIP service, consumers should be aware of the 911 limitations of these services. These limitations should be made very clear by the VoIP companies—the Federal Communications Commission has mandated that such information be provided.
Because VoIP service is dependent upon an active broadband connection and a power supply, loss of either of these can result in an inability to place a call. This becomes an issue in the case of an emergency. Consumers will therefore want an additional means of reaching 911 services (cell phone or landline) in the case of interrupted power or Internet connections. Furthermore, although some VoIP services allow costumers to select a phone number with an area code different from the one in which they live, providing an accurate home address is vital (and required) for emergency service purposes. Consumers will want to evaluate if and how a potential VoIP service provider will handle emergency 911 calls.
Some companies have found creative solutions to the interrupted service issue. Vonage, for example, will automatically forward incoming calls to a designated number if the broadband connection is down.
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Between watching re-runs of the The Jetsons and convincing his Insteon and Z-Wave controls to get along, Ben Hardy is immersed in the world of home automation, home control, and home networking.