I sell and support Kerio Operator, which is a small business VOIP system. It's also good for a home office. However, in this article, I'll be talking about VoIP in general.
VoIP (pronounce "voyp") is simply "Voice over Internet Protocol'. The underlying concept is simple enough: instead of your conversation taking place over wires owned by telephone companies, some or all of that conversation flows through the Internet. Conceptually, that is all that you need to know, but of course there is much more to it than just that.
You might be able to save money with VoIP. You definitely can get VoIP features that do not exist in POTS (plain old telephone service).
However, there are advantages and disadvantages to VoIP; deciding whether it is the right choice for you isn't always easy.
Acronyms and Jargon
Aside from knowing that VoIP means sending your telephone call over the Internet, there are a few other terms you need to know.
One is "SIP", which stands for "Session Initiation Protocol", but you don't need to worry too much about what that means except to know that a SIP device is one that can connect to a VoIP system. There are, therefore, "SIP telephones" (also simply called 'IP Phones"). Here's a picture of a typical SIP phone;you can easily find such things being sold at Amazon and other places.
There is also "SIP Trunking", which means bringing VoIP service to you at your home or office. Technically, it's the connection of the VoIP network to the public switched telephone network. You won't usually see that used except when advertising to businesses, but you should understand that even if they don't use that scary term, that's what is happening.
The acronym you are more likely to see in the home market is "ATA", which stands for "Analog Telephone Adaptor" and is simply a device that has a plug for a plain old telephone and a plug that connects it to the Internet in your home or business. These can be stand-alone boxes that have one or more ports for telephones. An ATA might be "locked" to the VoIP service that you contracted with or it might be able to be used with any VoIP provider.
If you buy all SIP phones, you don't need any ATA's
ATA's can also take the form of cards that are installed into a computer. That is done when the computer runs PBX software, which is yet another acronym. This one is short for Private Branch Exchange, but it's just software that gives more control over how the phone system works. It would let you configure extensions, custom answering messages, menus ("Press 1 for Sally") and other features.
Kerio Operator is PBX software. It is available both as software to install on a computer and as a stand-alone piece of hardware.
Advantages of VoIP
Let's start with the advantages. Whether you run PBX software or not, there will be features that you get with VoIP. What you get will vary, but some of the most common features include:
Managing phones and features from a computer
Whether through PBX software you run or some web page run by your VoIP provider, you'll be able to manage available features from your computer and quite likely from your cell phone or tablet device. No clumsy searching for the right button to push; all features will be managed by point and click.
If your SIP phone has extra "feature" buttons, you may be able to program those for your own convenience without digging into whatever configuration software came with the phone.
Voice mail to text transcription
This translates voice mail to text and either emails it to you or provides a computer interface where you can read it or play the actual recording.
The transcription is seldom perfect, but it's usually good enough for you to understand what the person wanted and whether or not it is important or urgent enough that you need to listen to the message or call them back.
For example, here is a recent transcription I received:
Hi, Good Morning Tony Steve, Just wanna phone with you regarding
the email to Looks like Robert anyway. Gimme a call.
What he actually said was:
Hi, Good Morning Tony, <it's> Steve, Just want to follow up with
you regarding the email to <pause> looks like Robert - anyway.
Give me a call.
The transcription was close enough that I understood it without listening to it.
Computer access to voice mail
Even if you don't have transcription to text, you will almost certainly have computer access to the voice mail recordings. That can be easier than remembering which button to hit to skip versus which one deletes the message and has the additional advantage of showing you the phone number the message came from. If you recognize the numbers, that can help you quickly select the messages you are most interested in.
Of course you'll have basic call waiting. VoIP systems may offer additional options, however. In addition to switching to the call, you might be able to quickly send them to voice mail or (even better) send them to a menu which offers them the choice of going to voice mail or waiting for you. The VoIP system may also be able to stack up multiple callers in that way, and keep them informed as to how many calls are ahead of theirs.
Forwarding and multiple ring
You may be able to forward calls to other phones (your cell phone, your neighbor's phone) or cause all those phones to ring at once and of course stop when one of the phones is answered. If you have a feature like that, you may also be able to easily cause all the phones to ring again. Why would you want that?
Imagine that you have the VoIP set to ring your home phone and your cell phone. A call comes in and you take it at home but, part way through the conversation, you need to walk out to your back yard. You switch it to your cell phone (typically without the other party even noticing) and continue your conversation outside.
"Presence" and Find Me/Follow Me
You may have experienced "Find me" services if you've ever called someone and heard something like "Please hold while I try to find.."
In this case, that person has configured a list of phones to try in sequence. The VoIP system might first try their office phone. If that isn't answered after a configurable number of rings, it will try their cell phone. Finally, it might try their home phone and, if that fails, go to voice mail.
"Presence" is the same idea but the VoIP system notices where you are. If you are using your home computer, it will not bother to try the work phone number or the cell phone - it will go directly to where it knows you are.
Line Unavailable Forward
This is used when the Internet is dead. If your VoIP connection in your home or office doesn't respond, the VoIP provider will switch all calls to another number you have provided. That might be a POTS (plain old telephone service) line or your cell phone.
Although typically a business feature, this can find use at home. If you are talking to someone and they now need to speak to someone else, you can "park" the call, which is like putting them on hold except that the other person in your office or home picks up the call by dialing a specific number (like "777" or "521").
This would usually require PBX software and a multiple channel SIP trunk.
This allows you transfer calls elsewhere - another phone, another extension or voicemail.
Use your computer as a phone
If you have a microphone and speakers (or headphones) on your computer, you can install software that functions as a SIP phone. One popular and free example is X-Lite.
Telemarketer Blocking (pause blocking)
Have you ever answered your phone and heard a few seconds of "dead air" and then a human or a computer connects and starts talking? That's what this feature is designed to handle: robot dialing that only starts after it knows you have answered. The system senses that "dead air" just as you do and either disconnects or sends them straight to voice mail.
Anonymous blocking and selective screening/blocking
This is is similar to the above, but allows you to add specific numbers and assign actions to them. In advanced systems, you may be able to add time ranges to the actions, so that an annoying friend calling at 11:00 PM will go to voice mail but a family member who might be calling because of an emergency will not.
Computer maintained contact lists for Caller ID
This is just a convenience feature. Rather than seeing "Smith, Paul" or nothing at all, your caller ID can use information that you have provided so that you'll see "Mom and Dad" instead.
If you have more than one phone number, this can use a different ring tone or you might assign different ring tones to certain callers.
Unlike your POTS lines, you'll probably have access to detailed call logs from your computer.
Although more typically seen in business, if you have a family, it could be useful to set up telephone extensions for each member and answer with menu choices that allow callers to direct their calls.
Area code selection (business)
A business that wants customers in another state to not have to use an out of state area code would select their VoIP number(s) to have a different code then where they are actually located.
A VoIP system might provide in-bound faxing that converts fax transmissions to PDF or other image formats and stores or emails them.
Paging and group paging
Paging is simple enough: the telephones answer the call automatically and activate the loud speaker. Group paging simply lets you direct the page to one section of your business.
This list is some of the more common services offered, but your VoIP service may offer others. As services offered vary widely, be sure you are getting the features you need.
The cost of VoIP varies widely. It might be cheaper than POTS, it might be about the same and it might be more.
I'll be talking more about that when I get to the disadvantages section, but it is important to understand that you have choices.
For example, let's say that you are using Verizon FIOS for your home or business Internet connection. Verizon offers a VoIP service, but you don't have to use them. You could sign up with almost any VoIP service and - even though you are at home - that includes many business class services. I have a business VoIP number in my home as well as a Verizon POTS line. As implied there, signing up for VoIP doesn't mean you have to give up your regular phone either. You might want to keep it while you test various services or you might want to keep it always - one doesn't negate the other.
VoIP plans will have a monthly cost that covers in-bound calls and may or may not include a certain number of allowed minutes for outgoing calls. This is where you need to compare plans carefully. My present plan costs $13.00 per month (with taxes) and I pay 1.3 cents per minute for outgoing calls. However, because I have a POTS phone that includes a calling plan, I don't actually use the VoIP line for anything but incoming calls. My VoIP service includes 4 "channels", which means that although I only have one VoIP number, I can have four telephone extensions and 4 simultaneous incoming or outgoing calls - all for $13.00 a month.
Other plans might cost much more - what you need to be aware of is what features you are getting for your money and what equipment you might need. For example, to actually have those extensions, I need to run PBX software on my computer. That's not particularly expensive (and I am a reseller of that software also), but without that, I'd probably need to choose a higher priced plan to get the features I want.
Disadvantages of VoIP
The most obvious disadvantage is reliability. If the Internet is down, you have no phone (although your provider might offer Line Unavailable Forward as described above). There's more to consider also: if your VoIP provider has Internet problems at their office, you may not have telephone access even if your Internet is up and running.
The Internet also can affect call quality. Choppy conversations, "under water" conversations, garbling and dead air can happen because of a poor Internet connection. The infrastructure of your VoIP provider matters also: if they don't have enough Internet bandwidth, enough computer power and enough personnel to keep it all running smoothly, your service can suffer because of them even if you have blazing speed and power at your end.
That's where price comes in again. As a simple exercise, go look for customer reviews of a dirt cheap VoiP service like Magic Jack and compare them against similar reviews for bigger companies like Vonage or Verizon. With VoIP, you often do get what you pay for!
That doesn't mean that the lower priced option is always bad, of course. The high priced spread may include options or features that you don't need and the cheaper service may be perfectly fine as an alternate or extra line.
Finally, you need to understand E911. Unlike a POTS line, where the telephone company knows the exact physical location of the phone, a VoIP line is transportable. Moreover, if you run a PBX, extensions could be literally anywhere. This means that someone dialing 911 is at some risk if they cannot identify where they are. The VoIP providers have improved their technology, but this remains an area where you need to fully understand the limitations - this could literally be a matter of life and death!
Faxing is another possible snag. Some fax machines work fine with VoIP, but some may not. If you need incoming or outgoing faxing and aren't doing it through a computer, you'll need to be sure this will work or retain POTS lines for faxing.
Is VoIP for you?
If you've read everything above, you can see that VoIP might be a good choice. It might save you money or give you features that you'd like to have. However, it's not as easy or as definite as some of the VoIP advertising might indicate.
Plan carefully, investigate your options and test. Most home and business providers offer some free test period; I'd strongly advise you to take advantage of those options before committing to anything or doing anything drastic like canceling your POTS line.
Personally, I haven't made up my mind yet. My service gives me capabilities I enjoy, and the price is certainly reasonable, but I am still keeping my POTS line too. Eventually I will likely fish or cut bait, but right now I'm still in testing mode.
Your comments, experiences and questions are welcome.
As mentioned above, I sell and support inexpensive Kerio Operator VoIP PBX software and hardware for small business and even families who want to control their phones more easily. Please contact me for more information.
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© 2013-12-11 Anthony Lawrence