Last week I was sent a brand new VoIP phone from Safecom to try out, test, report faults and write guides/reviews on. It is from this test that I formed some views on VoIP technology that I want to share, and hopefully some hints and tips that those looking to use VoIP may find useful.
For those unaquainted with the technology, at least in its use rather than what it stands for, VoIP is Voice over IP, and is the technology used to make telephone calls using your internet connection rather than a conventional phone line.
The advantages are easy to guess, even if you don’t know what they are from the off, its cost. You can get an incoming number, with no line rental that never expires from pretty much any area code in the country, and recieve calls on that number and make calls to all free numbers for no cost whatsoever. Not only that, but calls that do cost can be made at a fraction of BTs call costs and there are unlimited call packages available also.
After some tinkering and very little (read no) reading of instruction manuals, I had my new phone connected to my router and had popped it in the DMZ for ease of testing. I had also registered with Free World Dialup and SIPGate as two service providors to try out. The former just allowed calls in the VoIP world, the latter gave you a PTSN number as well.
I have to say, that despite initial issues with the phone that required firmware upgrades and other such things (no surprise as I was testing the phone and its was VERY new), all worked very well. The phone provides superb call quality, multiple incoming lines (and so numbers), and the ability to dial PTSN numbers when you have credit on your account as if you were using a normal phone.
One of the main downsides is bandwidth usage. The phone requires at least 100Kbps up/down on your connection for crystal clear call quality, otherwise you get distortion and breakups on call. While this is much less than many broadband connections provide, on the upstream it uses nearly half of what most ISPs provide, 256Kbps. For people who already struggle to run home servers on this upload bandwidth, it can cause problems in terms of slow server speed and call problems. If you run servers I would therefore recommend that you have a faster uplaod than the stock 256Kbps, or emply bandwidth limiting on your server(s) so that your calls don’t get swamped when more users than normal come online and use your servers.
The final issue, and its much smaller than the bandwidth one, is reliability. Free World Dialup is almost perfect. If you use STUN or direct access without a NAT all calls are made peer to peer and the connection reliablility is superb. Calling the PTSN network or recieving calls from it however can be a problem. The gateways are not perfect, and of the 50 or so times I have tried to make calls to and from my phone on SIPGate using the the PTSN network somewhere in the equation, 5 or so calls have failed. This is a high proportion, that I am sure will get better with time, but it is something worth considering – with VoIP be prepared to have to try to dial a couple of times sometimes and for people who try to call you from normal phones to have to do the same.
On the whole though, for normal home and small (home) business use, I would recommend VoIP, and in particular buying a VoIP phone for use with a VoIP type service. It allows you to not lose the familiarity and style of a normal phone, but to avoid line rental and have multiple lines at no cost. You also get caller ID, call waiting, voicemail, and calls on hold for free too. While there may be some teething problems when you first start, and calls may not be quite as reliable, once connected they sound just as good (if not better VoIP to VoIP) and so its well worth checking out.
Please leave your views on my posting or your own experience of VoIP in the comments section.