Many people heard about voice-over-IP but surprisingly few people are using it at home. And, what is really funny, many among them are actually using VoIP or similar services indirectly when at the office, when making an international or a long-distance phone call or even when using the products like Skype!

I have some neighbors who are really interested in switching to VoIP but are afraid of the complexity, reliability and quality of the service. In this post I will try to explain what are their concerns and how to look at them from the correct perspective.

911 service

First of all, some people believe that it is not reliable and they will not be able to dial 911 when needed. Yes, strictly speaking it is as reliable as your Internet connection. And if your Internet connection is not reliable enough you should really think about switching to another provider. But whatever you do, with VoIP you will never be able to achieve anything close to five-nines (99.999%) reliability. That is the major drawback. But, look - all these people I talked to have cellphones! And some of them have more than one cellphone at home (both adults + kids). I think there is a good chance that when they need to call 911 and VoIP service is down there will be a cell phone available for that call.

In addition to that, if your Internet service is over DSL and even if your DSL is a dry-loop - many providers still allow you to dial 911 via this connection. So plugging the regular power-less touch phone ($10 new) into that wall jack will provide you another option for contacting the emergency service.

It is important to mention that unlike with normal telcos, with VoIP your 911 call is dispatched differently. Your VoIP provider has to have the up-to-date address information for your number. This is important because in VoIP world you can literally take your phone line with you anywhere in the world.

Home bulgar alarms do not work with VoIP

This is usually true, they do not. Or they do but it requires a particular configuration for the system. And not all providers will work anyway. This is a valid concern and a technical limitation.

I have found the solution that seems to be more practical, more secure and even saves money. Today many alarm monitoring companies offer monitoring over cellular network. For that you typically need to purchase a module ($120..$250 one time cost). That is a significant cost. And they will charge you extra $8-10 a month for this service as they need to pay to the wireless provider.

I look at these expenses from the following perspective. My landline used to cost $26/month (just plain phone service, no extra features). I have got free VoIP service from my Internet provider. Even if it is not free, you can find it for a few bucks almost anywhere. So, when I switch to VoIP this is $26 a month of savings. Then I start paying more for the alarm system monitoring, that is $9 more. 26 minus 9 is 17. So in about a year and a half my wireless module for the alarm system is paid off. And I get more reliable alarm system as it is wireless and cannot be disconnected by cutting the phone wire or cable in the backyard.

VoIP requires extra equipment which is expensive

This is not true. At most, if you want to use the same phones are you do now at home it is enough to buy a small box called ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter). It is a small router that has typically at least one Ethernet port to plug it into your router and one telephone jack (RJ11) to connect to your home phone circuit. There are more advanced devices but the basic one costs about $30. It is not even practical to rent it from your provider as they typically charge something insanely high for it. Just buy Linksys SPA-2102 or 3102 and it will do everything you need.

Most of the VoIP companies provide quite simple and detailed instructions on how to configure their service (at the end they want the service to work so you remain their customer!).

VoIP sound quality is too low

This is typically not true. If you have voice quality problems with your VoIP connection it is something that needs to be addressed and can be normally fixed with some tweaks in the ATA configuration or by your provider. In fact, VoIP can provide better quality than some modern “traditional” phone lines. Why? Because when you are calling someone you do not know what happens to your call between your telco and the callee.

In VoIP world you typically use G711 codec. This codec gives you 64Kbit of bandwidth. It has the same 8kHz sampling frequency as classical phone line. In fact, that is what your normal phone provides is using internally! So, the only difference is that the conversion from analog audio to the digital form happens now entirely at your home, not kilometers away. Which, obviously, does not make the result any worse :)

I will give you one example. My mom used to call her sister who lives in Siberia (northern part of Asia :) ) from Eastern Europe. Not only she had to pay quite a bit per minute, the quality was not there. And she tried a number of local providers. And my mom is not a technical person at all, no computer at home. And no Internet access.

I have decided to make a test. I used a local VoIP provider that had local telephone access number that my mom could call for free. This provider is forwarding the call to me (North America) over Internet via SIP. The call arrives to my VoIP server and then it makes another call to Siberia. The quality was excellent, like if you are talking to someone in the same room. No perceived latency. And, last but not least, the total cost per minute of this weird call routing was about 15 times less than what my mom used to pay.

VoIP has security issues

It does. Just like many communication methods that use public network. And, yes, SIP protocol is definitely not the most secure. I would say it is reasonable secure comparing to the traditional phone system. If you are concerned about eavesdropping then you should probably first stop using that cordless phone you have because it is very easy to intercept. With VoIP you have to exercise the same level of caution as with regular phone, i.e. do not trust just anyone who calls you and introduces as an employee of a bank where you have an account :) And anyone can spoof the caller ID if it is really needed. So…treat the phone as a phone. If you want really secure communications - there are tools for that. And, in fact, it is easier to do it with VoIP than with regular telephony.

VoIP is too complicated to use

If properly set up in its simplest form it is not much more complicated than regular phone. Yes, there may be an extra component involved, the ATA box. But in most of the cases this little box works for years without any problems - because it is very simple and reliable. And if it dies…well, it needs to be replaced :) But also you can use the same VoIP service on your computer, on your cellphone, your tables etc. And that does not require the ATA box. So, you have plenty of simple backup options if something goes wrong.

In fact, the complexity is a beauty of VoIP. If you want to do something special with traditional telco service either your cost will skyrocket or you will need some expensive equipment on your side. Possibly both. With VoIP this is all mostly about software and its configuration. The more features you want, the more complex it becomes to configure. You want 1-800 toll-free number for your home? Easy, 1-2 bucks a month and you will have it. But a little bit of configuration will be required so you can accept the incoming calls for it. You want a sophisticated IVR (Interactive Voice Response)? Simple, but you will need to configure it. Many people did it before you so you will be able to use their experience. Often for free. And all this is doable with some open-source software and very inexpensive equipment. If you are geek, then you can install your own PBX (this is, essentially, all you will ever need) on a $35 Raspberry PI micro-computer. Or you can use the hosted PBX service that is offered by many VoIP providers, often for free or for a nominal fee. It typically comes with nice Web configuration console and support.


We can talk for a while about the pros and cons of VoIP. But I would encourage the people to try it if they are not sure. There is not too much to lose ($30 for ATA box) plus some of your time. Your number can be ported to another provider. Or you can get another number to play with and later port your regular number once you are satisfied with the set-up. If you get everything working not only you save some money, but you also get a number of new options available for you. If you fail, I am sure your old telco will be very happy to have you back :)

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22 May 2012