When I speak with individuals or groups about internet telephones, I hear the same questions over and over. That helped me as I wrote the book Talk Is Cheap, because the more questions I could answer in the book, the more value it will have to readers.
Some cynical people (my teenage daughter, for instance) believe these questions highlight the lack of logical thinking in America today. A better way to look at it is to consider the range of questions as illustrative of areas where internet telephone vendors, and the press, have dropped the information ball.
So I'll start the information ball rolling, with a caveat: most of these questions do not have a single answer. Some answers depend on the telephone service provider you choose, and others depend on the preferences you set.
Yes, with most services you can keep your existing telephone number. It can take up to ten business days to switch your existing number from your traditional telephone company to your new internet telephone service provider. During that time, your new provider gives you a temporary number so you can start dialing out over your new service while receiving calls over your traditional telephone provider line.
Rarely, some traditional telephone providers will not transfer the number to your internet telephone provider. Technical reasons are usually blamed, but those excuses are wearing thin, and most traditional telephone providers now realize they have to switch numbers when requested. If this becomes an issue for you, look for an internet telephone provider that has a better technical relationship to your existing telephone company.
Since we're talking about broadband phones (another name for internet telephones, or internet telephony, or VoIP, the ugly acronym for "Voice Over Internet Protocol"), asking if broadband is required seems to validate my daughter's cynicism. However, several internet telephone services in the past have advertised internet calling over dialup connections. Skype, currently the most popular VoIP service in the world, encouraged this thinking early on.
However, the answer to this question is always, "Yes, you need a broadband connection." Even if dialup connections are possible, their sound quality stinks.
Better than expected, at least most of the time. Using an internet telephone to call a regular telephone drops the audio quality down to the level of a regular telephone call, which, frankly, is pretty low. Conversations between two people using the same service will almost always be better than a regular telephone call.
When you use headsets with microphones that support a wider audio frequency range than normal telephone handsets, the quality can be startlingly good. Skype, the computer-to-computer telephone service, transmits the full frequency range of human hearing. A good Skype-to-Skype connection with good headsets will fool you into thinking the person is in the chair beside you rather than an ocean away.
Only one group will not save money with internet telephones: people without broadband service who have no extra features (like Caller ID or Call Waiting) on their phones and make no long distance calls whatsoever. Every other consumer will save money using an internet telephone provider.
If you already have a broadband service provider, you will save money with an internet telephone. Period.
Brand-name internet telephone service starts as low as $10 per month. No Ma Bell company holdover charges less than $20 per month per line after all of the assorted fees and taxes. While the entry-level broadband phone service will limit the number of minutes included in your monthly service before charging by the minute, unlimited minute plans (including long distance calls to Canada, and sometimes Mexico) start at $20 per month.
You're hosed, unless you've taken some extra steps not necessary with traditional telephones. But if you use cordless phones, you're hosed when the power goes out, even with a traditional telephone company.
Traditional telephones receive power from the telephone line itself, sent out by the telephone company central office. But cordless phones require more power and can't get enough from the telephone line, which is why they all include a separate power cord for the base station.
Prepared people plug their broadband modem, router, and all other internet telephony equipment into a battery backup unit. Widely available for computers, these units are now restyled for broadband phone equipment use. For a few dollars, lack of power will not mean lack of your internet telephone.
No lack of headlines lately, is there? Broadband phone vendors haven't done as much as they should have to start with, but what isn't reported in the press has been the blocking of 911 access connections by traditional telephone companies in many parts of the country. The antiquated 911 infrastructure also makes it difficult in many areas to support modern networking protocols and connections used by the broadband phone vendors.
Now that Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have jumped in, traditional telephone companies should be more accommodating. However, the FCC only directs them to "play nicely" with the internet telephone services.
When consumers register their new broadband phones properly, providing the physical address where installed, 911 service works well. Vonage, for example, has successfully routed over 65,000 911 calls made by its customers.
Interestingly, 911 services over internet telephones will, within two years, provide much better emergency service information than traditional telephone 911 calls today.
Maybe you don't need an internet telephone for long distance if you're happy with your cell phone. But most users find cell phone bills have a way of surprising them now and then, after accidentally going over their allotment of minutes and triggering extra charges.
Need a better reason? Many users enjoy having all of their personal-number voice mails delivered to them via email (even at work, if you list that address), a service many broadband phone companies provide.
While very few homes without a computer have a broadband network connection, it is possible to use a service like Vonage without a computer. The initial setup, however, must be done via the Web, which does require a computer.
The answer is technically, no, but realistically, yes, you do need a computer.
Only if you want to. For peer-to-peer connections, such as Skype, you must go through a computer. I call these computer-centric broadband phone services. Phone-centric providers, like Vonage, don't require a computer in the loop and use your existing telephone to make and receive calls.
This distinction rarely appears in the press reports about internet telephones, and it's a critical difference. Skype and other computer-centric services will rarely, if ever, be considered as the best choice for the only telephone in a household. However, some of the features in Skype truly extend the notion of a telephone. Skype is not only "out of the box," but it explodes and shatters the box.
Quite well, actually.
Seriously, internet telephones rely on a similar network for making phone connections as the one traditional telephone companies have used for years. Every long distance call for decades has gone over a network similar to the internet, if not actually segments of the "real" internet. The difference is that the physical wires connecting your home telephone to your service provider are not the pair of copper wires installed by the traditional telephone company, but your broadband network connection.
The chief technical officer for Vonage, Louie Mamakos, says, "it's telephone service over broadband, not your phone company," and most people are satisfied with that answer. There are many technical layers under that quick answer, but consumers have accepted cable TV, satellite TV, and cell phones, and they seem to accept that internet telephones reach all the other telephones in the world. It doesn't matter to users if the calls leave the house over a coax cable from the cable company instead of a pair of copper wires from a traditional telephone company.
People like internet telephones when they try them. The added features, included free from the various broadband phone service providers, match and sometimes overwhelm the services traditional telephone companies offer. Internet telephone service companies have developed more innovations in less than 10 years than Ma Bell has in over 100 years. Everyone leaves home sooner or later, and thousands of people just like you are weaning themselves from Ma Bell every week.
James E. Gaskin has been solving computer and network problems for businesses small and large since 1984. He writes books, articles, and jokes about technology and real life. In 16 books and hundreds of articles, network consultant Gaskin tells people faster, cheaper, newer, and smarter ways to connect to each other and the world. He also maintains the site for his newest book, Talk Is Cheap.
Return to the O'Reilly Network
Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.