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Choosing a VoIP Service Provider
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You have likely heard of Voice Over Internet Protocol phones by now, commonly called VoIP or Internet phones. VoIP has been around for many years, but in the past few months the service quality and number of service providers has greatly increased.

After trying my first VoIP phone in 2003, I was sold on the idea that you no longer needed a wired telephone landline to make calls. VoIP opens up all sorts of new possibilities and conveniences that are just not possible with wired landlines these days.

VoIP is definitely not an alternative to a cell phone and I suspect that many people in North America will continue to rely on their "landline" phones for years to come, despite marketing attempts by wireless service providers to drop their "landlines". No service provider truly offers a plan that is the same as a landline service, nor are you able to pick and choose your long distance service provider with a cell phone plan. Both cell phone and landline plans are often sold on airtime (or usually unlimited airtime on landlines), but extra features like call waiting, call display, or voice mail are charged extra. Now with VoIP all the extras are included and the price might be a lot more reasonable, but there are other issues that you need to know about before making the switch.

What is VoIP?

A VoIP phone uses an existing high speed internet connection (Cable, ADSL, office LAN, etc) to make phone calls over the internet. You use a regular telephone, but instead of your voice being carried over a landline wired connection, your voice is digitized by a VoIP interface and then is sent over the internet. The caller on the other end could be on a regular landline, cellular phone, or even another VoIP connection. In most cases the other caller will not be able to tell that you are using a VoIP connection.

Where is VoIP available?

If you have a high speed internet connection, then you can have a VoIP phone. There are many service providers in both the US and Canada that are now offering VoIP service.

What equipment do you need?

Signing up with a VoIP service provider is just like signing up with a landline service provider or a cellular provider. They sell you a monthly service, but first they must provide you with some equipment to use their service. Landline service providers likely install wires into your residence and cellular phone providers sell you either a phone or a SIM card. VoIP providers will give, rent, or sell you an interface box that you then plug in both a regular landline phone and a high speed internet connection. Beyond the interface box, you'll obviously need a stable high speed internet connection -- dial up internet service or "lite" cable internet packages will not work with VoIP service. Your current Internet Service Provider (ISP) must allow provide you with at least 2 IP addresses since your VoIP phone will need one address all to itself; the second IP address would be used by your computer (or router and several computers).

A typical VoIP interface box

What plans are offered by VoIP service providers?

Like cell phone plans, VoIP plans vary greatly between service providers. Features offered by plans vary, but expect some or all of these in a typical VoIP monthly plan:
  • Call Display (with or without name)
  • Call Waiting
  • Conference Call (3-5 way calling)
  • Call Forwarding
  • Voice Mail
  • Speed Dialing
  • Call Return
  • Do Not Disturb
  • Repeat Dialing
  • Free calling between VoIP subscribers using the same service provider
  • White Page Listing
  • Virtual Number
  • Fax to Email
  • Unlimited North American Long Distance
  • Web Interface Portal

Most VoIP service providers offer either a set amount of outgoing airtime per month (incoming calls are usually free) or an unlimited airtime plan. Many VoIP service providers also offer business plans that require higher amounts of airtime.

Can I choose my long distance provider on VoIP?

Like cellular phone service providers, the answer is no. Your VoIP service provider will also be your long distance provider. The positive news is that your VoIP service provider will likely offer FREE long distance anywhere in Canada and the US under your service plan. Some of the cheaper plans with some VoIP service providers may limit your long distance to one province or state, so make sure to check before signing up.

Because you don't have the choice for long distance with VoIP, it is important that you consider your long distance usage prior to signing up. This includes any international calls you might make or calls to locations that are often excluded in "North American" plans (usually this means Alaska, Hawaii, Yukon, Northwest, and Nunavut territories). Like regular landline long distance, rates vary greatly between VoIP service providers. Most VoIP service provider websites have links where you can see their rates.

Can I take my VoIP service with me?

Because all you need is the interface box and a high speed internet connection, you can take your VoIP service anywhere in the world. For example, you travel to Italy for two months and plug your VoIP service into a high speed internet connection there. You now have a telephone line that you can make and receive calls on, just like you did at home --same number, same long distance and everything. Callers to your number would not even know that you are overseas!

This feature also means that you can have a local number in another city and callers will not know where you are physically based. For example, a business VoIP line could have a number in Toronto, but the phone is physically located in Calgary.

What about 911 services?

Because your VoIP is not physically tied to an address, 911 services could be an issue since a 911 call would not be routed correctly. In recent months VoIP service providers have been addressing this issue and now many VoIP service providers allow you to set (and change) the physical location of your VoIP service. If a 911 call was made from your VoIP line then the physical location on the VoIP file would transfer your call to your local 911 office.

New numbers and number portability

When signing up for VoIP service, the VoIP service provider will assign you a number based on the area code you request. Most people will request the area code local to where they live, but remember that you can request virtually any area code in North America. Local numbers are not yet available in every market (at the moment, numbers are restricted to larger cities), so make sure to check.

If you have an existing landline number and wish to transfer the landline number to the VoIP line then there will be a transfer period of a week to a few months (depending on where you live and who your current landline provider is). Many VoIP service providers will assign you a temporary number and then switch your landline number to their VoIP service. Most VoIP service provider web sites have a tool to check number portability.

I should also mention that many VoIP service providers offer "virtual numbers". Like my example above of the business in Calgary with a local Toronto number, you may have multiple numbers in different area codes assigned to your VoIP number. You would then give out the local number to customers in each city and they would not know that you are physically located in another location.

VoIP drawbacks

There are two major drawbacks with VoIP that any user should be aware of. If either your internet connection or your power goes down then you do not have a phone. This is unlike landlines that may work both independently of your internet connection and will usually continue to work even during a power outage. My recommendation would be to ensure that you have a cell phone available if either your internet connection or power goes down.

Internet Bandwidth

When in use, a VoIP line uses internet bandwidth. You can still use your computer and talk on the VoIP line at the same time, but you might notice a slight speed drop while surfing the net. Most VoIP service providers offer a choice of bandwidth usage; higher VoIP bandwidths mean improved call quality, but decreases in your surfing speeds. If you are sharing a VoIP line with several computers though a router and are noticing an overall speed decrease, either decrease the VoIP bandwidth or consider upgrading to the next speed available from your internet service provider.

How easy is it to connect a VoIP line?

I was actually surprised at how easy it was to connect and configure my VoIP line. Typical VoIP interface boxes have four connections to be made: power source, one CAT5 cable to your internet modem, a second CAT5 cable to either your computer or router, and one regular RJ45 line to your telephone. There are variations in this setup, so make sure to read the instructions that come with the VoIP interface box. The whole connection process shouldn't take more than a few minutes at most. Remember that once you have the system set up then you'll need to login to the VoIP service provider's page to register your interface device before it will work properly. Note that some VoIP service providers will wait until the device is registered before assigning you a telephone number.

A VoIP interface box typically includes connections for 2 telephone lines (RJ45),
2 network lines (CAT5), and power supply.

How did I choose my VoIP service provider?

Selecting a VoIP service provider is like choosing a cell phone service provider -- you need to do your research first by visiting service providers' web sites and learning about the service they offer and the fees involved. Talking to friends is also very important since they will likely be more than happy to share their thoughts on their current VoIP service provider. Another option to consider is to call potential VoIP service providers and to ask them to tell you about their product, service fees, number portability, and so on. Customer service is very important to me and therefore if a service provider can't answer your questions about their product they you really shouldn't be considering them for service since this could be an indication of problems to come!

Who did I choose?

Based on the points in the section above, I finally decided to sign up with VoIP.net. They offered the best price of all the service providers I investigated, plus their unlimited North America plan includes all long distance and all the features I could possibly want for US$20/month. The VoIP interface was free (there was a shipping and handling charge) and arrived about a week after I ordered it.

Most calls on the VoIP line have been as clear as a regular landline, but a few calls have been choppy, similar to a bad cell phone connection. This is something that VoIP service providers are working on, but be prepared to experience a few choppy calls on your VoIP line.

I finally had my landline number "ported" in late January 2006, so now I'm exclusively on a VoIP connection. When the port occurred, I had to do a little re-wiring in the basement to disconnect the incoming landline wires and route the VoIP wires into the existing phone wiring in the house. This was fairly easy and maybe took 5 minutes. Of course, if you live in an apartment or condo this could be more tricky to accomplish!

VoIP interface box in action. This picture was taken prior to the port, so now there's an RJ45 connection (the typical wire that attaches to your phone) coming out of the interface box leading directly to the red and green wires on the landline connection (on left).
Do you have VoIP experiences to share?
Why not post them on the GeckoBeachForums.com VoIP Forum?


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