VoIP Handbook

June 6th, 2007 PC World, Tech, Tech Features

It’s the biggest change to the telephone in a century. Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) has landed, but when should you take the plunge? Drew Turney finds out more…

VOIP for Dummies

You’ve probably heard the term by now — maybe even experienced your first VOIP phone call.

VOIP is coming into the mainstream in a big way. As of December 2006, there were over a million VOIP subscribers in Australia. Not bad for a new market that was little more than a geek fringe only a few years back.

To the layman, VOIP (voice over Internet Telephony) is speaking over the Internet. Instead of sending your voice as an analogue signal over dedicated phone lines, VOIP breaks the signal down into packets of data, sending them over the Internet like any other transmission such as a web page or email.

The benefit isn’t that your voice is digitised and races across the world faster — you might be surprised to learn that already happens. The benefit is because a traditional voice connection has to stay open from one end to the other continuously, and that chews up a lot of bandwidth between your house, your local exchange and the network.

Using VOIP, your voice signal is digitised before it enters the PSTN network, broken up into the same millions of bytes as any other data traffic and reassembled into a voice signal at the other end. Because there’s no need for a dedicated open connection between you and the person on the other end, that frees up a lot of bandwidth. But that’s not all — sent over the Internet instead of the PSTN phone system, your call becomes just more Internet traffic. That means big cost savings, one of the biggest reasons for the uptake of VOIP in Australia.

Popularised by the completely software-based Skype, there are now a host of companies playing the VOIP field, and with a bit of shopping a round and a rudimentary technical knowledge, you can be up and running in no time.

Your voice — digitised

The technology VOIP makes use of benefits for everyone, not just the user. A traditional phone call, with an always-open connection regardless of whether there’s noise or silence, transmits roughly 9600Kb of data in a ten-minute period. When the same call is made through a VOIP system, data packets are created from only the sound portions of the call and sent back and forth over the Internet, totalling roughly 1Mb.

The maths is irrefutable. If everyone used VOIP, telephony would use a tenth of the bandwidth of the global digital networks that it does now. Freeing up that much data bandwidth overnight would open up a universe of possibilities.

But that’s not the reason most people choose VOIP. The early ads for the first free software-based services said it all; just plug your headset into your computer and call anyone anywhere — free.

That method still exists, but there are a lot more phone users than computer users, so not every potential VOIP user is comfortable with a PC, and nor would many of us want to sit down and wait for the computer to boot up every time we want to make a phone call.

That’s why VOIP has matured and now comes in three packages depending on your home or office set-up and price range.

First is computer to computer VOIP, which is just like sending an email, but speaking your message instead of typing it. Dedicated VOIP client software on your computer takes the voice signal you speak into a PC headset, digitises it and sends it off into the ether towards its destination.

It means you’ll have a ‘soft’ phone with a completely new number. You’re also limited to your headset and PC’s sound output and the person at the other end needs the same software to receive your call, but entirely software-based VOIP is completely free once you’re set up.

Next is the VOIP phone, which works without you even having to interact with your computer, your VOIP phone is a handset like you’re used with all the usual functions (and some very cool new ones) that simply plugs into your broadband modem.

All the software and digitisation is done on board so much like a PC, you can unplug your VOIP phone and take it with you. Plug it into any broadband Internet connection and you’re ready to receive calls again — with your number and data such as address books intact.

Lastly is the Analogue Telephone Adaptor (ATA). This device sits between you and the network. Simply plug your analogue phone into it and it does the digitising, sending the call request and voice signals to your call processing centre, the provider which reroutes the call in the right direction. The main advantage is that your telephony experience won’t change — you’ll you’re your usual handset and keep your old number.

The first and biggest advantage of VOIP to most users is the cost. After set-up costs associated with a VOIP phone or ATA, you can find plans of roughly the amount you pay for your mobile plan.

One of the lesser-mentioned advantages of VOIP is that as part of your digital network, it can take advantage of everything the digital world has to offer. You’ll have a hugely expanded toolkit for caller ID, call transfer, conference calling, even getting a .wav files of your voice messages emailed to you.

DSL is the most common broadband delivery method in Australia, and as such you need a landline to receive it, so VOIP ironically won’t let you go completely analogue free unless you have cable or satellite.

You also have to be mindful that VOIP is powered by your house electricity supply like your computer, so if there’s no power you’ll have no phone, unlike an analogue phone line that delivers its own power.

It will undoubtedly sound like a blessing that VOIP renders you geographically untraceable as there’s no dedicated connection between speaker and listener. But that includes emergency calls to 000, traceable because of technology that can scan your connection on the PSTN network.

The biggest issue facing VOIP however is that it depends on bandwidth. The copper phone system is antiquated but robust as it only transmits voice traffic. VOIP data goes across the Internet with everything else. It’s vulnerable to processor drain if you use your broadband connection for many different purposes, and a lot of factors between you, the call processing centre, various ISPs and backbone nodes and the listener can result in latency, jitter or packet loss — problems we simply don’t notice in data assembly that isn’t real time like a phone call.

The promise and the reality

When it comes to installing VOIP in a small to medium business, two benefits immediately stand out; cost and convenience.

There’s actually a host of features that won’t be so obvious until you’ve explored everything VOIP has to offer. If you’re in sales and spend most of your time on the road you can carry your VOIP phone with you and connect over Wireless.

At this stage it’s more suited to the Wifi-rich population centres overseas than Australia, and while the limitations of wireless bandwidth will undoubtedly play a part, it’s just one of the possibilities the inevitable increase of data connectivity will bring about.

Extra benefits aside, plenty of companies are already seeing the light — research predicts that over half the VOIP revenue generated will come from the business sector in four years. Private network services such as IProvide, part of the AAPT group (see more below) will sway business users too — in the same time frame, 90 percent of revenue will come from the commercial sector.

The last thing you need in business is phone system downtime due to new installations or broadband problems. That aside from the learning curve associated with a new way or working and support calls when things inevitably go wrong — even if it’s user fault.

For the minimum of interruption to your operations, VOIP can be as simple as an Analogue Telephone Adapter between your existing system (like a PABX) and the exchange. Linksys have made it even simpler with part of their Voice System product offering, which can offer you the flexibility of VOIP with the strength of analogue.

After surveying the marketplace, Linksys identified two problem areas; the loss of VOIP phone systems from DSL failure and the lack of number portability. Their response was a product that acts as a PSTN gateway, allowing for analogue transmission so you can keep your own handsets and front end with existing phone numbers and if your DSL fails you can still access analogue lines.

Cost saving’s a big consideration no matter what your business, and although you might get a discount by having your phone and data services with one provider, true cost savings can be made by bundling all your communication together by deploying VOIP along with your Internet access.

If you want to move wholly to VOIP over DSL, it means replacing your analogue phone system with a VOIP front and back end. Linksys One is a suite of products that suit a start-up or other new network venture. The handsets and router in the range offer you new numbers, and the system will move with you if you change address because the software that drives it is built into your hardware — not the PSTN exchange.

For a new start-up, the costs of deploying a VOIP system are considerably cheaper. The Linksys One products are the front-end of the network you’ll already be installing if you’re in business. The only outlay is for the handsets and service router (which handles all your voice and data traffic through an array of ports), although plenty of resellers structure costs in plans with no upfront fees as well.

AAPT’s IProvide is an entirely different proposition. As mentioned, one of the problems facing VOIP is data networks without the maturity or robustness to handle the real-time packet data necessary for voice communication. Surging through the Internet with the millions of other bits of data, voice signals can come through snaggled or garbled.

Charged in 2005 with creating the channel partner program for parent company AAPT, IProvide offers a unique take on VOIP. Although IProvide Office offers a bundle of telephone, broadband, Internet, Virtual Private Network (VPN) and remote access, your phone call data is delivered over what’s called a ‘carrier grade private network’.

The result is crystal clarity during your phone calls as the data isn’t competing with the rest of the Internet traffic through your office and across the world but goes through AAPT’s Tier 1 network. IProvide are so sure of the quality they guarantee it, letting you cancel within 30 days.

IProvide Office is an ATA solution so you hold onto your existing front-end network and if you have multiple sites at different offices, calls between them are free. And despite channelling your data through the Internet and your voice data through a proprietary network, it still goes through a single broadband connection.

It can be rolled out for $1,500 for a 6-8 person workplace, a cost that once again covers mainly hardware. Weighed up against a PABX system costing $5-10,000 that dates quickly, there’s not much more to consider.

The home phone rebooted

A lot of home and domestic users are put off by VOIP because they immediately think ‘it’s a computer thing’. And as many of the technically proficient among us forget, there are still huge numbers of Australians who are the first to admit they don’t even know how to turn a computer on.

There’s no need for such a user base not to enjoy the cost savings VOIP can offer, and to think of it as any more technical than an analogue phone system can be a mistake.

First is the Analogue Telephone Adaptor (ATA), which connects you to the world of VOIP through your traditional phone. In the chain between your phone and the PSTN network, the ATA converts the voice signal that would normally go through the analogue system into data packets and send it over your broadband data connection with the rest of your Internet traffic.

For the technologically hesitant, it’s as easy as plugging your existing phone into the adaptor and plugging that into your Internet connection, either through your PC or straight into your router. Just be aware that as essentially a PC peripheral it’ll be at the mercy of your power supply, and in Australia where most broadband comes over DSL, you still need an analogue phone line in any case.

But it goes a lot farther than just one phone line with an adaptor attached. Linksys have a full suite of home or single user VOIP products, and among them is a range of ATAs with anything from one to eight ports if you have a business at home or simply a big family with everyone wanting their own number.

How technically literate do you have to be otherwise? Just take a look at your current phone usage. You might be a very heavy computer user with a few friends or family who are similarly knowledgeable and you do most of your home communication by email. If so you can get away with paying nothing at all. Some software-based services are completely free, and all you need is a USB headset to call.

Of course, you can only call people with the same software for free and there are a lot of programs out there to choose from, but the bigger ones have attracted millions of users so a free phone service isn’t an impossible dream. The better services will let you use the software to call out to analogue networks in any case, often at vastly cheaper rates than traditional providers.

Keep in mind however that anything PC based — and that includes VOIP software — is also susceptible to virus attacks. When you set up a VOIP handset system, your call is routed through your provider’s call processing centre so it can be sent through the Internet in the right direction, and the security on a large corporations servers containing thousands of records is going to be a lot more robust than your home PC.

But if you want to avoid the whole software tap dance, a VOIP handset might be for you. After plugging it into your router, it configures itself as the software, phone number and functions are all onboard. You just pick up the handset and dial the number, and if the person you’re calling is with the same provider as you, your call may well be free.

If it has to be routed out through the PSTN network, it’s still considerably cheaper than a dedicated analogue line. Anecdotal evidence suggests a home VOIP handset system costs around as much as a mobile plan — and many providers structure costs in similar ways, with nothing to pay at the beginning of fixed contracts. Linksys’ single user range includes routers that can handle all your wireless or Ethernet-based DSL and voice.

Without a doubt, the biggest advantage to the home user is cost, one of the main reasons for the build-up of VOIP to begin with. The promise of your phone calls traversing the Internet for vastly reduced sums is very tantalising, even if the technology is still catching up with the idea in a lot of cases.

A quick sample of Australia provider pricing reveals you might pay a monthly fee of up to $10, up to 10 cents a minute for local calls and around 30 cents a minute to mobiles.

IProvide

A division of AAPT, IProvide’s flagship product is IProvide Office, a VOIP solution that integrates with your current analogue phone systems and handsets, so if you have a PABX or similar set-up that you’re happy with, there’s no need to watch it wistfully left out with the garbage — staff don’t need to learn new systems and it opens you up to the lower cost world of VOIP.

IProvide Office takes care of all your connections; broadband DSL, remote access and your other usual data functions as well as voice traffic. Where the remainder of your data traffic goes off into the ether of the Internet, your VOIP traffic is actually carried over AAPT’s dedicated Tier 1 voice network, not the Internet as a whole. The result is a dedicated network for your voice that IProvide provide a very confident guarantee on.

Linksys

Linksys One is a similar product suite in that one connection routes all your voice and data traffic. After contacting a Linksys approved reseller and selecting the number of devices needed (such as handsets), your workplace can be set up in as little as an hour.

Linksys One products consist of intelligent routers and VOIP handsets with a dizzying array of features. Even before you think about add-ons like wireless phones or video security, you’ll enjoy features like multiple lines per handset, teleconferencing and optional power supply in case you can’t use power over Ethernet (PoE). You can also configure the handset via the onscreen menu or over the web.

If you have an analogue office switchboard you’re happy with but want to take advantage of VOIP, Linksys Voice Systems are the answer. The SPA 400 is a mutli-port PSTN Gateway that interfaces your phone system and routes the traffic through VOIP, an Analogue Telephone Adaptor (ATA) and VOIP router in one that also handles all your other data traffic.


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