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VoIP Is Calling

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Voip Is Calling

February 14, 2005

By Carolyn Shapiro

Remember the rotary telephone?

In a few decades, the old land-line phone system could grow just as obsolete. Future generations will wonder at the days when people made calls without the Internet.

The proliferation of high-speed Internet service has spurred the latest telecommunications phenomenon: voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP. It allows users to abandon copper wires and hook their phones to their computers to call through the Internet.

The prices for Voip rival those of many land-line phone packages, and price is pivotal for spurring interest among residential consumers, according to Forrester Research Inc.

The tech research company’s survey last month found that 4 percent of households use Voip service and only 36 percent are at least somewhat interested in it. But the Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade group, predicted this month that Voip access lines will reach almost 10 million this year and 26 million in 2008.
“If you believe the hype the industry is sending out, it’s going to be huge,” said John Breyault, research associate for the Telecommunications Research & Action Center, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group based in Washington. “They basically say this is going to replace your regular phone.”

That shift remains a few decades away. Meanwhile, the average consumer needs to know a few things:

How does Voip work?

Voip allows customers to hook their regular home telephone to their high-speed Internet, or broadband, connection and send calls at least partially over the Internet. They will dial the phone the same way and continue to hear a dial-tone and regular ring.

An adapter converts the analog phone signal into digital information. It breaks down speech into bits of data or “packets” that can travel over the digital Internet network. The data is reassembled into the voice at the other end of the call.

With most services, Voip works whether the call goes to someone using Voip or the traditional phone system.
What are the requirements to get VoIP?

Voip users must have high-speed Internet, or broadband, access typically through a cable connection or DSL, a digital subscriber line, which is a phone wire dedicated to moving large amounts of data. In most cases, they will need a wireless router on that broadband connection, which allows them to add the phone as an element of a computer network.

Voip requires an adapter that will convert the voice into data packets. In most cases, the service companies will provide the adapter, or allow a retailer to sell it for them.

In some cases with DSL service, the customer has to maintain and pay for a local telephone line running to the house, even if they won’t use it for their phone service. Verizon requires its customers to keep the local line, even without a dial tone, and charges them a lower fee for that connection.

Consumers with cable broadband access can cut off their old local/long-distance service once they get VoIP, and won’t have that extra cost.

What are the benefits of VoIP?

Because it is free from the constraints of a local phone line, Voip allows users to take their phone service with them wherever they go.

Customers can select their area code, presumably the one from which they will get the most calls.

On the Internet, the area code merely identifies a Voip account; it is not a necessary element for routing a call.

For example, a college student can hook up Voip in her dorm room but choose her hometown area code, so calls to and from home would not incur long distance fees.

This “nomadic” feature also allows people to travel with their Voip adapters and, as long as they have broadband access, use any phone as their local number.

Voip customers also can manage and personalize their phone service the way they do their e-mail or other computer files. They can link their e-mail address lists to their phone book, and synchronize information from their personal digital assistants, such as Palm Pilots and Blackberrys, to their VoIP. They can track calls as they do on wireless phones.

Some Voip services allow users to schedule calls into an electronic calendar and arrange for the phone to ring at the designated time, so they don’t have to remember to wish a friend “Happy Birthday” or won’t miss an important conference call.

Voip also has “follow me” features that forward calls to several other numbers – an office, wireless phone, hospital room – either simultaneously or in sequence. It can do this all the time or in blocks of time and allows users to select particular phone numbers, so a customer wouldn’t miss a call from her doctor while she runs to the grocery store.

With VoIP, calls and voice mail messages can be saved as an audio file on the computer, so they can be recorded on a compact disc or e-mailed to other people.

What are the drawbacks?

One of the primary problems is that Voip doesn’t work seamlessly with the emergency 911 system. With a 911 call from a local land line, the emergency dispatcher knows immediately the location and phone number of the caller.

Because of the geographic freedom of VoIP, some services don’t transmit the location of the caller. Voip callers must tell the 911 operator their phone numbers and locations.

Some providers said they are working on this problem and hope to soon have the technology in place to address it and offer improved 911 service.

Another problem is VoIP’s dependency on electricity. Voip needs not only the power in the home or office, but also in the switching stations throughout the networks on which the call travels – so an outage along the way can cut service.
Consumers with traditional phone systems are vulnerable if a hurricane knocks out power to one of those switching stations. But unless that happens or a tree falls on the phone line to a house, a traditional land line will continue to operate during a blackout.

Voip subscribers also would lose service if their broadband connections go down. So they might need to keep a land line open and a phone that isn’t cordless, or a wireless phone with a car-adapted charger.

Another Voip hitch is that it adds traffic on the highway carrying information to a computer. If a user is surfing the Web and downloading information, the phone’s extra congestion can slow the Internet flow.

In some cases, quality of the phone call suffers as well. Some providers set up their systems to give the phone priority, like a fast lane for certain drivers on the highway, so the caller won’t notice a decline in service when other Internet speeds bog down.

Some consumers also might find that they cannot transfer their current phone numbers to their VoIP.

What does the service cost?

Voip service among most providers serving Hampton Roads ranges from $15 to $50 per month, depending on the package purchased. The lowest-priced service generally limits the number of long-distance calls or charges a per-minute rate for long distance, aimed at customers with few out-of-towners in their phone books.

The service cost doesn’t include the monthly charge for broadband access, which ranges from $30 to $40 from most local providers. For customers who already subscribe to broadband service for the Internet, Voip offers more potential cost advantages than for those who have to add broadband to their monthly bills.

Some providers also have set-up fees for installation or equipment, which can add as much as $30 to the initial cost.

Like most phone service packages that charge a flat fee for unlimited calls, Voip brings the most savings for heavy phone users and those who make frequent long-distance calls.

Which companies are offering Voip service?

Phone companies are using their existing phone networks to move Voip calls that originate as Internet data.

Cable television companies, many of which offer phone service and high-speed Internet access through their cable lines, are also getting into VoIP. Cox Communications Inc., which serves most cable customers in Hampton Roads, has launched Voip in Roanoke but is still working out the technology to apply it to its system elsewhere, Cox spokesman Thom Prevette said.

Voip has spawned companies dedicated to Voip service, such as Vonage Holdings Corp., one of the nation’s largest such startups. It sells the adapter technology and carries calls on its self-managed Internet network.

Consumers should be aware that startups have limited track records and an unclear future, Breyault said. This is especially important with services that require contracts or have prices based on service for a certain length of time, when the companies might not stay around to carry that out.

As competition in traditional and wireless phone service has evolved in recent years, some companies struggled to manage costs and ended up shutting down, leaving customers suddenly without service in some cases.

Who regulates VoIP?

State and federal governments generally keep regulatory hands off the Internet and the services provided on it. In February 2004, the Federal Communications Commission declared that regulation of Voip as an Internet service should remain minimal for now.

But the agency has initiated further study to decide government’s role in protecting consumers, particularly with the involvement of large phone companies operating on traditionally regulated networks.

Bills now under consideration by the Virginia General Assembly would eliminate any state jurisdiction to regulate VoIP, and would exclude that service from the telephone and telecom categories that are currently regulated by the State Corporation Commission.

Industry groups are pushing for government to keep them free of regulation. But as Voip use grows, Breyault said, the need will increase for regulators to make sure those companies pay for universal telephone service, meet other federal requirements and provide number portability.

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