Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.
Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (Voice over IP or VoIP)
If you are reading this column, chances are good that you have high-speed Internet access of one type or another. If you have that access from home, you definitely need to know that it is now reasonably easy, even for fairly non-technical people, to use that same access for telephone service. I remember messing around with this years ago when I still had dial-up access, but the quality of the connection was so painfully bad that the technology was clearly not yet ready for everyday use. Also, you had to do your dialing for most VoIP services through your computer. Even just earlier this year, I was still seeing articles about VoIP that talked about how great it could be, and that touted its best features (principally free or much less expensive long distance calling) but that nonetheless made it seem so complicated and computer-centered that it didn't really seem "doable" to me. In fact, if you'd like to see a great, detailed overview of VoIP technology and how it all works, check out this LLRX article from February, 2004. The author, Chris Hayes, used a software application from a company called Skype to communicate with branch offices of his business and dialed them through his computer. Heck, I can barely even get my speakers to work. What I wanted was to be able to just use my phone, dang it, and get the same benefits. Lo and behold, I recently found out that I can!
Last month my family switched from our Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS, to those in the know) to a VoIP service called Vonage. Now, I will be the first to tell you that I am not a technology expert (that's why my view is so frequently from the trenches, after all), but even I didn't find this too difficult. Basically, we signed up, and they sent us a piece of hardware: a broadband router configured for VoIP.
Broadband routers are evidently a fairly common piece of equipment, even on home systems. We already had one because we use it as an extra layer of security between our cable modem and our home network. For those interested in the security aspect of using a broadband router, here it is in a nutshell: Without a router, imagine that your home computer system is a house with an unlocked front door. Hackers can get into your system though a high-speed or broadband Internet connection fairly easily since it is on and available all the time. They may not sneak in if they aren't aware that your door is unlocked, but if they care to check, in they go. With a router, you can not only lock your door, but it's also a little like having a doorman. You can go in and out of your system at will, but the only traffic allowed in is that which you invite. If their name isn't on the list when the doorman checks, they stay outside.
So, you get a broadband router as part of the service, which is a little extra security bonus. You connect it to your DSL or cable modem or network connection, and then you connect your PCs or home network to it. But the fabulous thing is that the router also has a jack for your phone. You just plug your phone into it the same way you would plug a phone into a wall jack and it works, voila!
So far so good, but there are some tricky bits you should be aware of:
The Tricky Bits
One, this phone you have just plugged in will be the only phone in your house to use the VoIP service unless you do a little home phone wiring. Somewhere in your house is a place where all your phone lines are connected -- after all, there is only one POTS line coming into your house from the street. If you connect from there to the VoIP router, all the phones in your house will work on the VoIP service. Your VoIP provider will doubtless have more information about that for you if you would like to pursue it.
Two, your VoIP number will be different from your usual phone number unless you ask to have the number switched over by your old phone service. This isn't too difficult, and it can be done through your VoIP provider, though it does take some paperwork and faxing and then a frustrating delay by your old service. When you think about it, this is no surprise -- your old service is losing you as a customer to an upstart that is giving away for free (or at least greatly reduced cost) what they have been charging oodles for. They are not going to rush out and make the process easy for you. It's up to you whether or not you keep your old number. If you don't want to wait for the switch (during which time you will be paying both for VoIP and for POTS), you can choose a number within your area code (or not if you'd like to be a local call for your Mom in Rural City, America) through your VoIP provider and use it instead. Then, of course, you have the hassle of telling everyone about your new number. Also, if you have DSL as opposed to cable, you will have to keep your POTS service anyway, even if you change your regular number. DSL works via a POTS line and has its own number, so you'll have to at least pay for local calling. Contact your provider for details.
Three, 911 service has to be set up manually. Since your phone number is assigned to your router and not to a physical address, you need to let the 911 authorities in your area know where the router normally resides. Rest assured, your VoIP provider will have more information about this, but it is something you need to take care of as soon as you can.
One last drawback, then we're on to the benefits, and it's very basic. If you lose power, you lose phone service. If you have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) you can delay the inevitable for a short time. Or, if you have a generator, you can delay it indefinitely. You have to figure that most drastic events that might take out your power for any length of time may also leave your phone service vulnerable, so what steps you take to help ensure that your phone service is available even in a power outage are up to you. Definitely something to consider.
Ah, the good bits. First and foremost, reduced cost. Our POTS bill was regularly about $80 a month, sometimes much more. Our VoIP service is a little over $25, every month. We get unlimited local and long distance calls including calls to Canada. Most other VoIP services that use your existing phones evidently cost somewhere in the $20 to $30 range per month as well. And, since this is still a fledgling industry, referrals that help spread the word about the service are very rewarding. Our provider currently offers a free month of service to new customers when they are referred by a current customer, and the current customer gets two months of service free.
Second, you can get email notification when you have voice mail. Cool, unless you get lots of voice mail form telemarketers, and handy when you are waiting for a particular call.
Third, your router is, theoretically at least, mobile. Since your number is assigned to your router and not to a physical address, you can have any area code you like. You can also disconnect your router and carry it with you to connect to another system should the fancy take you. (My husband loves the idea that he can take the router to his family's house over the holidays and get our local calls.)
Last, you can not only get a number in any area code you like, but you can get more than one and in different area codes, even in Canada. You can have a local number, maybe your old POTS number, and a number that is local for your Aunt Wendy in Winnipeg.
Our provider is Vonage, though there are others, of which Net-2-Phone is probably the best known. A Google Search for Internet Phone will turn up quite a few options, just be sure that to look for the ability to use the service through your phone or voice lines and not through your PC if you want the benefits described above.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, but remember that I am not the technology whiz in my family. Happy Holidays!