Phone calls from a regular home phone are made using the public switched telephone network (the PSTN). When you pick up the receiver and hear a dial tone, you have access to a line on the network. The line stays open between you and the person you are calling until the end of the call.
VoIP calls don’t use the phone network. They route calls via the internet. To send voice across the internet, the voice information is coded into a digital format and transmitted in packets of information in the form of data. The data packets are then sent across the internet and reassembled into sound at the other end for the receiver to hear.
When considering choosing a VoIP service, it is a good idea to be aware of the characteristics of VoIP services so you know how VoIP may change your telecommunications experience.
This should help inform your decision about whether to subscribe to a VoIP service, and which VoIP service best meets your needs.
You should be able to obtain information from VoIP service providers about:
- the features offered by a VoIP service
- the equipment you require to access the services
- the costs related to the service
- any limitations of the service
- what your rights are if you want to complain about any aspect of the service.
This section of the ACMA’s website outlines some of the advantages VoIP services may offer consumers, and also some of the unique features and potential limitations of some VoIP services when compared with a regular fixed line phone service. This information is intended to complement the information that is normally supplied by VoIP providers.
For further information, you can also download the Communications Alliance consumer booklet So you want a VoIP phone Service?.
VoIP services offer an alternative to regular fixed line phone services that may provide benefits to consumers.
The main benefit of VoIP is that some providers offer free calls between their VoIP customers, and very low cost calls to other numbers including long distance and international calls.
Examples of charging structures for VoIP include:
- free calls, usually between users on the same service
- a one-off charge per connection
- connection flagfall plus charges for time connected
- charges per second or minute connected
- subscriptions that offer a set amount of minutes or calls per month
VoIP calls are cheaper than calls made on the normal telephone line for a number of reasons. Calls made using a PSTN phone line take up the full capacity of two phone lines, the caller’s and the person’s called, for the duration of the call. The line is in use even when one party is listening and nothing is being transmitted from his or her end.
In a VoIP call the conversation is split into data packets which are then transmitted across the network and reassembled at the receiving end. This uses capacity on the lines more efficiently which translates into savings for the consumer.
Many VoIP services provide additional, and easier to use call features without the additional costs that are sometimes incurred if these features are enabled using a regular fixed phone line. These may include:
- electronic notification of voicemails
- opportunity to block calls from certain numbers
- conference calls
- routing to a selected phone number
- instant messaging
- video calls
- file transfer
- ability to send text or visual information during a conversation
- ability to send files, such as a photo or document to the person with whom you’re speaking
- higher definition voice conversation
- ability to use your VoIP phone number no matter where you are
- making and receiving VoIP calls over any broadband internet connection
- presence indication where you can tell if the person you want to call is available
- ‘follow me’ where the facilities are the same wherever you are logged on.
Some features of VoIP services may only be available if both the person making a call and the person receiving a call are users of a PC-based VoIP service or are using the same provider. This means VoIP services may offer instant messaging, video calls and file transfer integrated with the voice service. These features may be useful if you want to send textual or visual information during a conversation or to send files, such as a photo or document to the person with whom you’re speaking.
Some VoIP providers can offer a higher fidelity voice conversation than that provided by a regular PSTN service for calls that only use the internet. This is because these VoIP providers can make use of the greater capacity available on a broadband internet connection to provide sound quality approaching that of a compact disc.
Some VoIP services offer the opportunity to use your VoIP phone number no matter where you are. This is often called follow me services. You can make calls and receive calls over your VoIP service anywhere a broadband internet connection and relevant equipment is available, including other states or countries - for example, from an internet cafe when you are travelling.
Not all VoIP services provide the capability to make calls to normal phone numbers. And not all VoIP services give you a phone number so you can receive calls from PSTN phone lines.
Some small businesses have benefited from the data characteristics of VoIP, using their VoIP service to transmit both voice and data.
There is no one type of VoIP service. There is considerable variation among VoIP services as to the features they offer, the equipment required to operate them, and the way they operate.
Almost all VoIP services require a PC for setup of the route to the VoIP service provider.
Some VoIP products then depend on the use of a PC with headset for making and receiving calls, while others use a small device known as an Analog Telephone Adaptor (ATA) to connect existing telephones, Recently specialised WiFi connected handsets have become available which enable cordless connections directly from a router connected to the broadband modem.
While it is recommended that a broadband connection is used for VoIP, it is still possible to use VoIP over a dial-up modem connection. Dial-up connections with a maximum speed of less than 56Kbps will have significantly poorer voice quality but will still work.
A broadband connection such as ADSL, cable modem or wireless will provide sufficient capacity to provide voice quality at least as good as the PSTN but may still be affected by other simultaneous traffic such as downloading large files, for example videos or music.
The other equipment you will need to access a VoIP service depends on the method of service provision offered by your VoIP provider. It may include any or all of the following:
- a router possibly with a WiFi ethernet connection
- an Analog Telephone Adaptor to connect traditional handsets
- a microphone and speakers or headseat for PC connection
- a free standing WiFi VoIP handset.