First, just what is VoIP? From a technical perspective, Voice over Internet Protocol is simply defined as the set of rules under which real-time voice transmissions will be sent over the Internet. In commercial terms, Internet telephony, which is now also being colloquially referred to as "VoIP" (as will I) can at least to some degree be considered a viable alternative to other types of wired telephone service. It's essentially available now to anyone with a broadband Internet connection. As with each of these competing technologies, it has its pros and cons.
If you already have a broadband connection, VoIP service probably will be less expensive than using a separate dedicated phone line -- not dramatically so and not so much that the negatives might not offset the cost benefit, but savings could become more significant depending on your pattern of usage.
Most of the same services offered by conventional phone service providers, such as voice mail, call forwarding, and call waiting, also are offered by VoIP service providers.
However, there have been some consumer complaints that connections between VoIP providers and the public telephone exchange system are not always available. There have also been complaints about sound quality.
Information technology consultants have expressed concerns about possible security issues related to VoIP --- the same issues common to all transmissions over the Internet -- worms, viruses, trojan horses, etc.
There have been problems reported with VoIP services connecting to local 911 emergency systems. Government and industry representatives seem to at least be discussing possible solutions. But in the meantime, if you're considering VoIP as your only phone system, you need to be aware that you probably won't be able to reach 911 through a VoIP service.
So, is VoIP for you? Maybe, but it's not for me. The inner geek in me finds it interesting, but the pragmatist in me can find no practical advantage to replacing either of my existing phone systems, and many drawbacks.
I have one more thing to share here and it's called Skype (www.skype.com). I single out this service because, if you aren't yet familiar with it, you will be soon. Its technology, business model and pricing structure, are unique among VoIP providers, and if successful, could lead to significant changes in public access to commercial telecommunications networks.
First, how do the systems differ? Other companies' components are designed and configured to emulate conventional telephone systems. They interface with the standard wiring in your home or business and, at least in theory, should be indistinguishable in usage from the phones we all grew up with. The hardware, firmware and software, which create the interface are all contained in the converter box.
Skype's service is quite different in that the system's components all reside on your computer. It uses your existing broadband connection for transmission, and standard sound card to encode and decode the analog audio signal. The software is in the form of a small, free application you download from Skype.
If your computer has a built-in speaker and microphone, you have everything you need to use Skype, but you'll probably want a better-quality method for input/output, such as a combination headphone/microphone set. You also can get a fairly conventional phone handset, in a wired or wireless configuration, which works with Skype. The main difference is that it plugs into your computer's USB port instead of a phone jack.
Once your system's configured and you've registered with Skype, all calls between yourself and any other registered Skype user, anywhere in the world, at any time of the day, are free. Period.
So how does Skype make money? Besides maintaining low overhead, they sell other services.
Calls through Skype that connect with the public telephone exchange system cost two cents per minute (very cheap). They also sell long-distance access and charge nominal fees for conventional phone services such as renting a telephone number and providing a voice mailbox.
Will Skype succeed? It's hard to say. As always, the most important aspect of having these various methods of telecommunications available is that we have choices. The marketplace will decide the rest.
Michael E. Rau is a mass communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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