It’s been a while since I wrote about VoIP and while things haven’t changed very much there are a few things worth noting. Quality is always improving and for the most part you will not detect much difference between VoIP and land-line calls, though the delay is just slightly greater and you may need to repeat things once or twice in a call.
In my last article I stated that the cost of PC to Land-line calls using VoIP was still not as competitive as some cheap telecoms services which use only landlines, such as Call 18866 who allow unlimited duration landline calls within the UK for just a 2p connection charge, or international calls for as little as 2p per minute. Now VoIP is catching up a little, a service which is currently still in beta testing (not fully launched yet) offers free voice to land-line calls to many countries. VoIP Buster will allow anybody to make a 1 minute call through their network using their PC to any of several countries free of charge, or if you buy credit (from as little as 1 Euro) which can be used to call anywhere in the world for very low rates, then your calls to the free countries are of unlimited duration. Of course, PC to PC calls are still free between any two users in the world, but I had problems answering an incoming call using their software. Take note though, their rate card does not always match the special offers listed on their home page, and the rate card lists the tarrifs that they actually charge.
Call 18866 are also available via VoIP software now. Any compatiable phone software can be configured to dial through their network. Again you have to register to benefit from it but their call charges start from as little as a 2p connection fee for an unlimited duration UK call. Call18866 is more generally used, however, from a land-line phone rather than a PC, users therefore register to the service with their main UK Land-line phone number. When outgoing calls are made using the VoIP service that main land-line number is used as the Caller ID, so anybody receiving a call from you with Caller Display enabled, such as mobile phone users, or anybody using 1471 (on BT phones) to check where you called from, will get the impression you are calling from home. This is regardless of where you use the service from, so you could be connecting to the Internet at a friends house or from a hotel abroad and still appear to be calling from home.
The devious of mind may envisage heading off to Paris for a few days and calling in sick from the hotel using their own home phone number as the Caller ID, but this number portability carries a lot of potential for businesses with mobile workers. The portability actually works both ways, for a small fee, or with some services for no fee, you can get a telephone number assigned to your VoIP account which enables anybody to call your computer from a normal land-line, these numbers can be 0870 or 0845 numbers or even numbers that indicate you are in a major city, perhaps even in the centre of a city on the other side of the world if that is the image you wish to portray. That number can be presented on your outgoing calls, made using VoIP, from any location and whenever you hook up to to the Internet you can receive calls on that number and check the voicemail on it.
In the past if a worker was to revieve business calls when working from home a company had set up call forwarding between geographical locations at an extra cost to themselves, now that numbers can be assigned to Internet users who can simply log-in to use them, and the Internet takes care of Geography, it is easy to set people up to use the same phone number from home as they do in the office, and even when they are travelling and away from both.
Spread of WiFi
WiFi is the service that allows you to connect to the Internet without plugging in any cables. This is becoming increasingly popular in homes, businesses, pubs and cafes, meaning that in order to use the Internet, and therefore VoIP, you do not need to be near an appropiate socket and run a cable between that socket and your computer, instead you can just switch on from where you are seated and make and receive your calls. As WiFi coverage increases a computer can also be used as a very large mobile phone which can make and receive calls from every location that it is able to connect to the Internet. Of course, most (though not all) public WiFi hotspots require some kind of payment for access, so this does increase the cost of using VoIP in this manner.
More Hardware Options
Keeping your computer on and wearing a headset may be the perfect way of working for many companies, but for the average individual these are not ideal ways of using a phone. If you’re looking for something to hold to your head there are a now wider selection of USB phones that plug into your computer and either imitate a standard desk phone or mobile phone in their design and sometimes in their features. There are also an increasing number of phones which connect directly to a router, and some which connect to wireless routers using WiFi, which can be used to make and receive VoIP calls without leaving a PC switched on. These WiFi phones will also work in free to access “open” public WiFi hotspots but will not function in ones where a device has to register via a web interface before it can be used. Furthermore there is software that will turn a PDA, such as a pocket PC, into a SIP or Skype phone and, as many of these are WiFi compatiable these days and will also be able to register with commercial WiFi operators, these gadgets can already be used as portable phones both in and away from the home and office. WiFi VoIP phones start from about £100 at the time of writing, if you already have a wireless standard phone then a slightly cheaper alternative is to get a VoIP analogue telephone adaptor which will allow you to use any existing telephone to directly dial through your Internet router using VoIP, there are also cheaper versions that connect your home phone via USB to a PC for the same purpose.
Below are a couple of links to the kind of equipment I am referring to here, if you’re interested in buying then ebay is also a great place to look, but be warned, prices are often higher than from the distributors below (once you add postage) and there are a lot of phones around which look like they have LCD displays but just have a piece of plastic on the front that does nothing… this is not a problem, but the picture may lead you think your phone will have more features than it really does.
Communication technologies have been merging for a long time, I often check email from my mobile phone (using wapmx.com) and occasionally make phone calls from my computer. I expect that very soon there will be a wide selection of portable devices which are both mobile phones and wireless computers, for which software will be available that can detect wireless networks and calculate the most economic routing for a call, checking whether your recipient is currently available via their own VoIP device or will need to be called via land-line and choosing between VoIP and the mobile service provider to make the call. Increasingly people will be able to talk to others around the world for next to nothing not only from home or the office but also from the train station, the cinema lobby or the cafe.
When I last wrote about VoIP I was impressed to discover how good it had become, with this update I am impressed to discover how well it is developing. If you do not currently have a Skype account I suggest you get one, just to reserve a name of your liking on the system. I would not predict that Skype will be the main VoIP system in the future, but at this stage it is probably the easiest to use and configure and is well integrated into a lot of VoIP hardware, so reserving a name and seeing which of your friends you can find with Skype accounts may be prudent. I would also recommend looking at VoIP Buster if you want to cut your call costs and some of the providers I mentioned in my last article of you a interested in number protability with VoIP.
There are some areas I have touched on here where a hands-on guide may be of more use to you, if you think you need more leave a comment.
My previous article on VoIP can be found here.