What is VoIP and how does it work?


Voice over Internet Protocol may sound like a new innovation as it has only become popular in homes over the last five-ten years; however, it actually dates back to the 1970s when it was used as an experiment by the US department of defence.


Traditional phone networks use circuit switching – that is when a call is made, circuits are switched in the intervening exchange creating a connection between the caller and the person being called.


By contrast, VoIP employs packet switching – which has typically been used by data networks connecting computers. Within this network, data is divided into small packets which are given identifying information and are then transported across the network. At the end of the line, they are reassembled to provide the information to the receiver.


This process is now applied to voice calls through VoIP. In the past packet switching was rarely used for voice calls because the reassembling of information would seriously deteriorate the quality of the call. However, thanks to improved systems which now give priority to voice calls over data, the quality of VoIP is now arguably on the same level as a regular phone call.


With the emergence of the internet and its incredible boom in popularity, particularly in the late 1990s, more companies began to explore VoIP as a serious alternative to regular landline calls.


There are now a host of companies that offer VoIP services in the UK. These services take a variety of forms:


    PC to PC – This form of VoIP takes place with a headset and is usually used on an instant messenger service. A common example is Skype.

    PC to telephone network – This is when only the caller uses a headset. A common example is CallServe.

    Telephone network to telephone network – When the caller uses an adaptor on the telephone. A common example is BT Broadband Voice.

    IP phone to telephone network – This is when the phone itself is IP enabled and so there is no need for an adaptor.


It has been suggested that Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) could be the long term successor to regular phone calls. So is VoIP as good as it sounds? Just what are the benefits of this new service and are there any disadvantages?

What are the pros and cons of VoIP?


The biggest advantage of VoIP is that it offers significantly cheaper calls than traditional landline services.


If you plan to use VoIP to contact other VoIP customers, then call charges are very straightforward – with the provider I use all calls made "within the group" are completely free. For example Head office to sub offices and home workers are completely free.


Clearly therefore, the long term aim is that as VoIP becomes more popular you will be able to contact more and more people using this service, saving significant amounts of money.


Where VoIP is less straightforward is how it pertains to calls that are made or received by people who do not have VoIP. In this case, they are reliant on gateway services.


These gateway providers give you a telephone number which allows you to call people on regular landlines and mobiles, and to receive calls from those numbers too. Unlike VoIP-VoIP services, this type of calling is not free as there is a cost per call just like a normal phone bill. some packages can include a number of minutes free to standard numbers and some include mobile packages.


However, calls made in this manner are generally much cheaper than making landline-landline or mobile-mobile phone calls. This especially applies to the international rates offered by companies such as Skype and Vonage. As the calls are all made over the VoIP data network, it makes no difference whether you are talking to someone in the USA or the UK – the call costs are the same.


VoIP is also extremely beneficial for businesses. Not only does having one supplier for voice and data provide greater efficiency, but it also means computer applications and technologies can be linked which helps to streamline the working environment. If a business operates over several sites, VoIP can make good financial sense as it avoids expensive internal calls – and even if a business operates at just one site, using VoIP can be beneficial when contacting customers.


The major concern with VoIP remains the quality on the lines. However, this fear has greatly decreased in recent years and it is now difficult to tell the difference between a regular phone call and a VoIP to phone network call. Perhaps the biggest problem currently facing VoIP therefore is its lack of familiarity and education on the subject – not enough people know about it to take full advantage of its potential. However, its popularity is increasing and will no doubt continue to do so.

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