Chances are good you're already making VoIP calls any time you place a long-distance call. Phone companies use VoIP to streamline their networks. By routing thousands of phone calls through a circuit switch and into an IP gateway, they can seriously reduce the bandwidth they're using for the long haul. Once the call is received by a gateway on the other side of the call, it's decompressed, reassembled and routed to a local circuit switch.
Although it will take some time, you can be sure that eventually all of the current circuit-switched networks will be replaced with packet-switching technology (more on packet switching and circuit switching later). IP telephony just makes sense, in terms of both economics and infrastructure requirements. More and more businesses are installing VoIP systems, and the technology will continue to grow in popularity as it makes its way into our homes. Perhaps the biggest draws to VoIP for the home users that are making the switch are price and flexibility.
With VoIP, you can make a call from anywhere you have broadband connectivity. Since the IP phones or ATAs broadcast their info over the Internet, they can be administered by the provider anywhere there's a connection. So business travelers can take their phones or ATAs with them on trips and always have access to their home phone. Another alternative is the softphone. A softphone is client software that loads the VoIP service onto your desktop or laptop. The Vonage softphone has an interface on your screen that looks like a traditional telephone. As long as you have a headset/microphone, you can place calls from your laptop anywhere in the broadband-connected world.
Most VoIP companies are offering minute-rate plans structured like cell phone bills for as little as $30 per month. On the higher end, some offer unlimited plans for $79. With the elimination of unregulated charges and the suite of free features that are included with these plans, it can be quite a savings.
Most VoIP companies provide the features that normal phone companies charge extra for when they are added to your service plan. VoIP includes:
- Caller ID
- Call waiting
- Call transfer
- Repeat dial
- Return call
- Three-way calling
There are also advanced call-filtering options available from some carriers. These features use caller ID information to allow you make a choice about how calls from a particular number are handled. You can:
- Forward the call to a particular number
- Send the call directly to voice mail
- Give the caller a busy signal
- Play a "not-in-service" message
- Send the caller to a funny rejection hotline
With many VoIP services, you can also check voice mail via the Web or attach messages to an e-mail that is sent to your computer or handheld. Not all VoIP services offer all of the features above. Prices and services vary, so if you're interested, it's best to do a little shopping.
Now that we've looked at VoIP in a general sense, let's look more closely at the components that make the system work. To understand how VoIP really works and why it's an improvement over the traditional phone system, it helps to first understand how a traditional phone system works.