Cablevision, Comcast, Verizon, and many other high-speed broadband Internet providers are now also offering telephone services through "Voice over Internet Protocol." This technology sends ordinary telephone calls over the Internet rather than over telephone lines. While impractical without the use of a broadband Internet connection, with the number of home broadband users exceeding 50 percent, a small but growing number of people are opting to use VoIP for their telephone service.
Cost! If you already have a broadband Internet connection, providers of VoIP offer plans that frequently include unlimited local and long distance calls throughout the United States (and sometimes Canada) for $25 to $35 per month.
It is also possible to make some calls using VoIP at no cost at all. Services providing this feature usually limit those calls to other people who use the same service, so you would not be able to make (or receive) all your calls in this manner. You need to use special VoIP software on your computer and a headset or possibly a USB telephone; when installed, just make the calls through your PC. One such provider is Skype.
Among the pioneering Internet telephony providers offering VoIP is Skype. It comprises an integrated solution that combines service and software for free peer-to-peer calling. Users need a USB headset or microphone and speakers, click on contact names instead of dialing.
Internet connection: First of all, your broadband Internet connection must be active for VoIP to work — if it goes down (say due to a power outage), you lose the ability to use the phone.
Your telephone number: In some cases you may need to get a new telephone number in order to use VoIP. This varies from provider to provider. For example, Verizon's VoIP service (VoiceWing) can transfer most phone numbers into its system. That means you will not need a new telephone number. However, they say if you have DSL service, the number may be lost. Optimum Voice, from Cablevision, does not currently support the transfer of an existing telephone number (this information is current and accurate as of January 2005).
911 Emergency Access: A very important question is whether or not you will be able to access your local 911 services with VoIP. A traditional "landline" telephone is tethered to a physical location; like cell phones, VoIP phones are not — a laptop with VoIP installed can be calling from anywhere. This makes the use of the 911 emergency system difficult. Companies providing VoIP are working on automated methods for updating the location of a VoIP call.
One should also check with potential VoIP providers to determine compatibility with fax machines, TiVo/Replay TV boxes, satellite television receivers, alarm systems, conventional modems, and faxmodems.
An "analog telephone adapter" (ATA), supplied by your VoIP provider, will be needed to plug your telephone into your broadband connection.
Test Your VoIP Connection
If you are interested in testing the quality of your broadband connection to determine if it is good enough for VoIP, go to www.testyourvoip.com. They will make a call from your location to one of their test centers and report the results for free. They rated a call from my cable modem line as slightly better than a good cell phone call, but a bit lower than a regular local phone call.
Jeffrey Branzburg is a contributing editor and regular columnist for Technology & Learning.