Sending messages over the Internet is no big deal–we have been doing that for years with e-mail. Using your computer as a telephone was possible even before that. All you needed was a modem: just set up one of the dialer programs and you could shout at your friends through your computer–not elegant but geek-cool. After that came Internet telephony–cheap or free, and even more geek-cool as you were bypassing the phone companies to make calls through the Internet. However, the quality was in the “you get what you pay for” category.
Those quality issues have been resolved with VoIP.
The public telephone system has been in service for over a century and allows you to talk to Europe as easily as next door. The alternative of Internet telephony could not compete. Its quality was like bad AM radio, you could only reach others with similar software packages and were still left shouting into your computer. Why couldn’t the Internet handle a simple voice-only phone call, when (with a broadband connection) you could watch video or listen to a radio station? The reason is that the Internet is typically a one-way affair, unlike a conventional telephone line in which traffic is continuous in both directions. With normal telephone, two people can talk to each other continuously and simultaneously, rather like my Aunt Bertha talking to her friends. This is changed now with Voice over Internet Protocol or “VoIP”. The term VoIP encompasses both the older software-based Internet telephony and the newer hardware-based system.
VoIP offers virtually all the features of conventional telephony, with features not possible in the regular system. Just as cell phones untethered us from the landline, VoIP releases us from the limitations of the conventional phone network.
* Remote location with noisy phone lines–not a problem! You can get cheap rates and good quality from anywhere you have a broadband connection to the Internet.
* Add numbers in remote area codes–your customers in Montreal can call your Vancouver office using a 514 area code.
* Carry your phone number with you. Take your equipment with you and use it as though it were in your office, from anywhere there is a broadband connection. This is handy for a business trip to Hong Kong or just changing locations within your home city.
* Unlike the old Internet telephony, you can exchange calls with any other number. You are not limited to other subscribers in the same service, but can call and receive calls as with a conventional line.
* Quality is comparable to a landline and superior to a cell phone.
* Services that are extras on conventional phones are included in VoIP, including caller ID, call waiting, forwarding and voice mail, along with many others.
* Voice mail can be forwarded to your e-mail account and treated like any other attachment.
* Some providers offer Wi-Fi-enabled phones, which will work anywhere there is a wireless access point.
If this sounds too good to be true, do not be deceived. It is very good, but there are drawbacks:
* It is dependent upon a broadband connection, which depends on power. If your power or connection goes out, so does your phone service.
* If your broadband connection is spotty, so are your phone calls.
* Some providers offer 411 (directory assistance), but some do not. Both Canada and the United States are planning to legislate a requirement for white pages and 911 service for VoIP.
* There might be interference problems with other broadband-based services, such as security systems or satellite decoders.
* Like computers, some systems require significant installation, and all of them can require occasional restarting.
Despite the concerns with any new system, particularly when you are replacing a very reliable incumbent, several large companies are going for VoIP, including Boeing, Dow, Ford and Falconbridge. Companies such as Nortel, Mine Site Technologies and Cisco are offering VoIP solutions specifically for underground installation, and they are finding a good market for these solutions.
VoIP allows good quality communication whether you are deep underground or in a distant location–all you need is an Internet connection.
This is the first in a series of columns on new information technology by freelance writer Dan Davies (firstname.lastname@example.org). Please let us know what you think of it, and send us suggestions for future topics.