December 1, 2005

VOIP or Voice over Internet Protocol

Voice Over IP or VOIP is the latest buzz word to hit the IT world, just recently confirmed by the fact that eBay, the internet auction site paid over AUD $3Billion for Skype, providers of VOIP.

VOIP in simple terms is voice communication over the Internet. In practical terms, that means using your computer (or a specialised phone router) and an application (I’ll get to that in a minute) to make regular phone calls. If the phone calls are to others who are also running a similar application then communication is free. However, if the communication is to a regular PSTN or mobile phone, it costs money. The catch here is that it doesn’t cost MUCH money and certainly a lot less then a comparable call from a landline phone.

The two main applications that are available for VOIP are Skype and Gizmo. Both work in a very similar manner. First off, you’ll need to download one or both and install on your local computer. Once loaded you’ll need to create an account (a wizard will help walk you through this process) and then you’ll need to find friends to chat to.

Before you start chatting however make sure you have a good set of headphones and a microphone to plug into your computer. To find people to chat to you can use the built in phone books – these generally work quite well. I was able to find friends of mine in the US and the UK and connect with them. If however you want to take advantage of the cheaper calling rates to normal phones then you will need to buy credits. For Skype these are called Skypeouts and can be purchased in blocks of 10 Euros. As an example, a typical call to a landline in the US costs (at the time of publication) .027 cents per minute.

Alternatively RTX technologies produce a USB cordless dualphone ($199) that works with Skype. Simply plug the phone in to a USB port on your computer (Windows only) and the phone interfaces with Skype so you can make and receive Skype calls like you would normal calls. Additionally, because you are interfaced with your computer your Skype address book is accessible via the phone. Another great feature of this phone is its ability to plug into a regular PSTN line allowing you to make regular local untimed phone calls. In my testing, the USB cordless dualphone worked well for both regular and Skype calls. Setup was very easy but make sure your computer is connected to the internet as the software needs to download the latest version before installation. Voice quality over Skype was generally good but suffered when my internet connection was busy checking emails. This phone is first generation and aimed at people who want to test the VOIP waters but don’t want to be tied down to their computers. At only $50 more then an equivalent DECT phone but with Skype capabilities it is a good purchasing option.

If you’d prefer to get more serious about Skype and ditch your phone provider altogether there are other options. Available in stores now are VOIP boxes from different providers. I tested VOIP services from MyNetFone and Engin.

Engin’s voice box was the simplest to plug-in and get going. Literally, take the box out, plug it in to your broadband router (You’ll need one of these – so if you only have a one-port ADSL router you’ll either need to upgrade to a four-port or buy a hub for $50) and your regular phone line and you are ready to go. We use a DECT cordless phone at home and this worked well with the Engin box. Sound quality was inferior to regular phone call but in most cases adequate. During heavy Internet usage periods voice quality suffered noticeably and the service was unusable. Callers complained of mumbled sounds and most sentences needed to be repeated twice. My wife who is more critical then me complained and made me disconnect it.

Engin’s pricing plans may compensate for the lack of voice quality on occasion. A basic monthly subscription is $9.95 (plus you’ll be spending about $150 on the Engin box) and local and national calls are untimed 10c all day every day, and calls to mobile are 29c per minute. International calls are very competitively priced at 3.5c per minute. Additionally with the Engin service you get another phone number.

Setup for MyNetFone was a little more challenging however I found quality of service was much better then Engin. I tested the MyNetFone service on a NetComm V300 VOIP ($229) router that doubles as a VOIP box and a router. Initial set-up was more challenging but if you have experience configuring routers then you should be fine. If you don’t have this experience I suggest you employ your local technician to get you running. You’ll need to know how to login to the router, add your particular settings (like your phone number, password and IP details). Once setup though I found the service was excellent. The NetComm unit has a feature called QOS (Quality of Service) that instructs the router to prioritise voice data packets over regular packets. In practical terms this means voice quality doesn’t suffer during heavy internet usage periods. In my tests the NetComm router was almost perfect. On some occasions dialling a number didn’t actually place a call – in these situations I had two options, hang-up and try again (this usually worked) or dial ## before the number to use my existing PSTN phone line.

MyNetFone’s pricing is comparable to Engin’s – a mega-saver plan costs $9.95 per month and that gives you access to 10c untimed local and national calls. Mobile calls are billed at 29c per minute with no connection fee. International calls cost as little as 2c per minute (this is comparable to SkypeOut rates). MyNetFone do not provide an additional phone number with their service.

Either way, VOIP promises to bring even cheaper phone calls in the future as the technology becomes more common, and will in the future probably displace regular phones as the commonest means of communicating. For now, if you are really keen I’d suggest buying a dedicated router (like the NetComm V300) and signing up to a service like MyNetFone and giving it a shot. If however you think you’d like to wait I’d suggest downloading and using Skype as a cheaper alternative. Either way, Telstra should beware - VOIP technology will develop quickly and overtake regular PSTN lines over the coming 5-10 years.