VoIP: Packet Switching

A packet-switched phone network is the alternative to circuit switching. It works like this: While you're talking, the other party is listening, which means that only half of the connection is in use at any given time. Based on that, we can surmise that we could cut the file in half, down to about 4.7 MB, for efficiency. Plus, a significant amount of the time in most conversations is dead air -- for seconds at a time, neither party is talking. If we could remove these silent intervals, the file would be even smaller. Then, instead of sending a continuous stream of bytes (both silent and noisy), what if we sent just the packets of noisy bytes when you created them?

Data networks do not use circuit switching. Your Internet connection would be a lot slower if it maintained a constant connection to the Web page you were viewing at any given time. Instead, data networks simply send and retrieve data as you need it. And, instead of routing the data over a dedicated line, the data packets flow through a chaotic network along thousands of possible paths. This is called packet switching.

While circuit switching keeps the connection open and constant, packet switching opens a brief connection -- just long enough to send a small chunk of data, called a packet, from one system to another. It works like this:

  • The sending computer chops data into small packets, with an address on each one telling the network devices where to send them.
  • Inside of each packet is a payload. The payload is a piece of the e-mail, a music file or whatever type of file is being transmitted inside the packet.
  • The sending computer sends the packet to a nearby router and forgets about it. The nearby router send the packet to another router that is closer to the recipient computer. That router sends the packet along to another, even closer router, and so on.
  • When the receiving computer finally gets the packets (which may have all taken completely different paths to get there), it uses instructions contained within the packets to reassemble the data into its original state.

Packet switching is very efficient. It lets the network route the packets along the least congested and cheapest lines. It also frees up the two computers communicating with each other so that they can accept information from other computers, as well.

Next, we'll look at the advantages of using VoIP.