Understanding the power of VoIP – an FAQ

Making calls over the Internet can shrink your home phone and cell phone bills. But voice over IP (VOIP) is more than just thrifty — it mixes traditional calling with new features that simply aren’t possible with a plain old telephone. Ready to jump on the bandwagon? Here are answers to some of the most common questions people have when they’re thinking about making the switch.

Q: What basic options do I get to choose from if I decide to use voice over IP?

A: There are two general ways to use VOIP — via either desktop voice-communications software or phone-line-replacement services. You can often combine the two. Both approaches require high-speed Internet access.

Some of the most popular software packages include Gizmo Project, Skype, and SightSpeed. These programs, which you download and install on your Mac, let you place calls to other users of the software for free, or to traditional phone numbers at a usual cost of 1 to 2 cents per minute within North America. (International calls cost more, but are still typically less than phone company rates.)

For a few bucks more each month, Gizmo and Skype will even give you a local phone number so you can receive an unlimited number of calls from people using regular phones, too. The calls travel over your broadband connection. You listen and talk directly through your USB headset or your computer’s speakers and microphone — no telephone required.

Phone-line-replacement services, on the other hand, let you use a regular phone to place calls. Some of the most popular services include BroadVoice (US$20 a month for unlimited calling to the United States and 20 other countries), Speakeasy ($84 a month for broadband service and unlimited calling to the contiguous United States and 22 other countries), VoicePulse ($25 a month for unlimited U.S. calling), and Vonage ($25 a month for unlimited calling to the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and five European countries).

You don’t need to have a computer turned on and nearby to use a phone-line-replacement service. Instead, you hook a special adapter (which you might need to pay for separately) to your broadband router. Then it’s a simple matter of hooking up your telephone to a jack on the adapter.

Q: Will I notice a big difference in sound quality when I use VOIP versus a regular phone?

A: VOIP calls can sound better than calls made over a traditional phone. But Internet traffic and other variables may lower call quality, sometimes resulting in garbled sound similar to what you get with bad cell-phone reception. Some VOIP users experience echo — that is, they hear themselves speaking on a slight delay. The bottom line is this: the faster your Internet connection, the less likely you are to have problems with sound quality.

Q: Is it necessary for me to get a headset in order to make calls on my Mac?

A: If you use any voice-communications software that runs on your computer, you need a mike and speakers — built in on most Macs. But I recommend that you opt for a USB headset that includes both a microphone and an earpiece. You will almost certainly want one if you’re making a lot of calls each day, if for no other reason than headsets reduce the likelihood of the echo, noise, and feedback that sometimes occur when you’re using voice-communications software with an external mike and speakers.

For those people who prefer the feel of a more traditional handset with a keypad, it’s worth checking into Ipevo’s $35 Free-1 and $45 Free.2 USB handsets. These stylish devices come in black and white. At present, though, they work only with Skype. If you’re using a different program, look at Logitech’s $50 Mobile Express Headset (macworld .com/2899), a Bluetooth earpiece and microphone combo that works with Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) and with most Bluetooth-equipped cell phones.

If you’d rather use a wireless handset, you might opt for Miglia’s $87 wireless Dialog+. (You’ll typically find it for $60 to $80 online under the name Dialog Phone Plus.) It includes a keypad and lets you wander up to 80 feet from your Mac. The Dialog Phone Plus is designed to work with Skype and Apple’s iChat AV, but because it appears as a standard audio input on your Mac, you should be able to use it with any of the software we’ve talked about.

Q: What special features can I expect from desktop voice-communications software?

A: It’s the special features that make desktop calling software so cool compared with phone-line- replacement services. Skype and SightSpeed both offer videoconferencing with other members. SightSpeed’s video quality is superb, giving even Apple’s own iChat AV a run for its money. Skype gives you Apple Address Book integration, so dialing a contact takes a fraction of the time it ordinarily would. Skype will even let you transfer calls to other numbers with a single mouse click.

Gizmo Project offers a huge palette of voice-mail and hold-music options — just grab a favorite song from iTunes and convert it to a WAV file, and Gizmo will play it for your callers while they’re on hold. Gizmo can also forward your voice-mail messages to your e-mail address or send an SMS alert to your cell phone when you receive a new voice mail.

All that’s not to say that phone-replacement services don’t offer anything special (particularly compared with traditional phones’ limited menu of call-waiting and party lines). Check the features list of a service you’re interested in to see what it includes.

Q: If I use a phone-line-replacement service, can I make calls through my Mac, too — for instance, when I’m traveling?

A: One breed of desktop voice-communications software, called a softphone, allows you to use your phone-line-replacement service from the comfort of your Mac desktop. When you run a softphone on your Mac, your phone number follows your computer wherever it goes. If you use your Mac for contact management, your phone is never far from your address book, either. So whether you’re at home in Wichita or in a hotel room in Yonkers, you’ll be reachable as long as you have broadband access and a microphone. Best of all, you can avoid the ridiculous long-distance and cell phone-roaming charges associated with international travel by calling home from your Mac instead of your cell.

Many VOIP phone services — Vonage, BroadVoice, VoicePulse, and others — support softphones. Vonage requires that you use the company’s own application (download it here). BroadVoice and VoicePulse allow you to use any softphone. The best one for the Mac, hands down, is CounterPath’s $34 eyeBeam Basic).

EyeBeam looks like an on-screen telephone. The process of configur-ing it to use your phone-line-replacement service can be a bit daunting, but VoicePulse and BroadVoice both offer support for setting up eyeBeam, so you won’t be flying solo. If you want to take it for a test drive, CounterPath offers a free, stripped-down version called X-Lite. Download it here.

Even if your phone-line-replacement service doesn’t support a softphone, you can usually tote your phone adapter along with you. That means you can take your phone number anywhere you have access to the Internet and a place to connect a network cable — making your service quite mobile indeed.

Q: Is it true that if I use VOIP I won’t be able to call 911 in case of an emergency?

A: That depends on how your chosen VOIP provider supports emergency calling. If you’re using desktop voice-calling software, you won’t be able to dial 911. If you’re using a phone-line-replacement service, check the company’s Web site to see how it deals with the issue.

Most providers are required by local and federal law to support emergency calling. (They give your home address as your location.) If you’re using a softphone with a phone service, you’ll need to ask whether that service offers 911 calling for softphone users. Also, if you carry your adapter with you on a trip, you may render your phone-line-replacement service’s 911 dialing useless. Carry your adapter away with you to Honolulu and call 911, and the police will show up at your home address back in Pittsburgh.

For more information about emergency services calling and VOIP, see VOIP911.gov, which includes a fact sheet and tips from the FCC.

Q: Can I use VOIP with my corporate telephone system?

A: You can use softphones like eyeBeam with many corporate telephone systems, as long as they support VOIP calling using the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) standard, a technology that’s increasingly common in enterprise phone equipment these days.

You might need assistance from your company’s networking person to get hooked up, but the payoff is worth it. Imagine your office extension ringing on your laptop at the same time it rings on your desk phone. You could conceivably be in your jammies at home or sipping a latte at Starbucks while handling calls placed to your office. Such flexibility is very doable with today’s enterprise VOIP gear, a broadband link, and a softphone sitting in your OS X Dock.

Ted Wallingford is the cofounder of Best Technology Strategy and the author of Switching to VOIP (O’Reilly Media, 2005). Read his blog at macVOIP.com/stn.

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