$$ - VoIP for the home

Introduction

This article outlines two different types of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology that may assist the reader to reduce their home telecommunication costs. A subsequent article scheduled for the November edition of Pulse+IT will discuss VoIP services suitable for small businesses such as medical centres and similar sized healthcare organisations.

VoIP refers to an arrangement whereby the Internet, rather than the traditional phone system, is used to transmit voice data between callers.

Having been lauded for several years as a viable alternative to traditional telecommunication products, such claims have historically been unravelled by less than satisfactory call quality. Fortunately, ongoing improvements to both Internet infrastructure and VoIP technology have significantly reduced call quality issues and entrenched VoIP as a competitive telecommunications option.

ISP VoIP Solutions

For many years now, ISPs of all shapes and sizes have retailed telecommunication products to supplement their Internet revenue. While some persist with “traditional” phone packages, many now offer VoIP services in addition to these, or exclusively.

To reduce the technical barriers to entry for their customers, many large ISPs bundle ADSL modems/routers into which a standard phone can be plugged. Once connected and configured, the telephone can be used as if it was connected to a traditional landline service.

There is much posturing taking place in the market and VoIP call rates offered by the various ISPs differ substantially when the mandatory bundled Internet packages are considered. Universally however, the connection and call charges levied for ISP VoIP services are significantly cheaper than those offered by the same ISPs for traditional telephony services.

VoIP Softphones

While the VoIP solution offered by your ISP may provide you with an easy pathway to cheaper home telephony, there exists dozens of software-based VoIP solutions that are usually even more competitive. The remainder of this article will focus on Skype, the most popular cross-platform “softphone” presently available.

Skype is essentially a free software application that can be downloaded and installed on computers running Windows, MacOS X, or Linux. When used on a computer with a broadband connection to the Internet, Skype users can text chat or make voice or video calls with other Skype users, all at no cost. It is even possible to conduct conference calls for up to ten participants, again at no cost.

In addition to these free services, the Skype software allows the user to dial mobile and landline telephones anywhere in the world at competitive prices. Text messages to mobile phones can also be sent from Skype, and Skype users can optionally affix an “Online number” to their account to allow friends and colleagues not using Skype to call them using their mobile or landline phone.

The Skype software includes a built-in address book, which allows the user to easily determine which of their contacts are presently “Online” and available to receive calls.

Complementary Skype Devices

There are many microphone and speaker combinations that can be used to place and receive Skype calls:

Built-in speakers and microphones

As most laptops and many desktop computer configurations include speakers and a microphone, it is likely that you already have everything that is required to make and receive voice calls using Skype. Depending on your hardware however, it may be difficult to ensure good directional separation of the speakers and microphone, which can lead to audio feedback and echoing, significantly degrading the sound quality for one or all parties in the conversation. In the absence of one of the hardware alternatives mentioned below, using earphones in conjunction with a built-in microphone may serve to overcome this problem.

Integrated headsets

Containing either one or two earphones and a microphone, integrated headsets allow for hands free conversation and generally prevent audio feedback issues.

Integrated headsets are available in configurations that connect to the audio and microphone ports on your computer, or alternatively, to a spare USB port. Diminutive Bluetooth headsets of the type typically paired with mobile phones can also be used assuming your computer supports this technology. Using such a headset theoretically allows the user to move around within a ten metre radius from their computer whilst on a call.

USB handsets

Designed to plug into a USB port and with an outward appearance that resembles a mobile phone, USB handsets usually feature a numeric keypad to allow phone numbers to be dialled from the handset itself, without having to interact with the Skype software installed on the computer it is connected to.

For readers that require a cost effective solution, prefer the look and feel of a traditional phone, and don’t mind being restricted to making calls in proximity to their computer, a USB handset is likely to be a suitable complement to their Skype software.

Cordless hybrids

A cordless hybrid Skype phone connects to both the home’s landline connection and the Internet router, allowing both traditional and Skype calls to be made and received from a single device. As with traditional cordless phones systems, multiple handsets can be positioned around the house.

Cordless hybrids natively support Skype, so there is no need to connect the phone to a computer. In fact it is not even a requirement that Skype software be used at all, a characteristic that is likely to appeal to less technically literate users that “just want things to work”.

Wi-Fi handsets

Similar in size to a mobile phone, these devices are designed to connect to Wi-Fi networks, allowing the user to make Skype calls from anywhere within their wireless home network’s range. Unlike cordless hybrid solutions, Wi-Fi handsets are not able to make phone calls over traditional networks, however they offer the added flexibility of being able to be transported easily and used when in range of a work place or public Wi-Fi network.

Webcams

While many new laptops and some new desktop monitors include built-in web cameras (webcams), there are many cost effective aftermarket devices available for readers that don’t own such technology.

Connected via a USB port, web cameras typically contain a directional microphone, in addition to the video camera itself. When combined with a set of speakers or a headset and Skype software, a web camera can facilitate high quality video conferencing at a fraction of the cost of dedicated solutions.

Readers potentially interested in purchasing a web camera should note that Skype has partnered with hardware manufacturer, Logitech, to certify some of their newer web cameras for premium resolution video conferencing. According to the Skype website, using a certified camera permits two-way video conferencing at a resolution of 640x480 pixels, an improvement over the standard Skype video conferencing resolution of 320x240 pixels.

Skype Costs

As indicated earlier, Skype does not charge for calls, text chat or video conferences made “Skype-to-Skype”.

Calling from Skype to an Australian mobile phone costs 26.4 cents per minute, with calls billed in per minute increments. Calling from Skype to a landline phone is much cheaper at 2.7 cents per minute regardless of whether the person being called is in Australia or in many other places around the world. A 5.9 cent connection fee applies to all outgoing calls to mobile phones and landlines. Standard length SMS messages can be sent at a cost of 11.8 cents per message.

For households that make a significant number of calls, or for those that routinely make lengthy phone calls, Skype subscription plans are likely to be a more cost effective option than the aforementioned ad hoc pricing arrangements. Plans that include unlimited calls to Australian landline phones are available for just $5.95 per month, and a plan that includes unlimited calls to landlines anywhere in the world is available for $14.95 per month. Additional Skype services, such as voicemail and a “real” telephone number that facilitates the receipt of inbound calls from the traditional telephone network are included with both of these subscription packages.

Conclusion

Assisted by steadily improving network infrastructure and a maturation of the technology, VoIP services have improved to the point where call quality is no longer the “show stopper” that it once was.

When coupled with a mobile phone service, home users are likely to find that adopting either an ISP supplied or software based VoIP solution, such as Skype, will significantly reduce their reliance on their existing landline phone service, and in some cases, allow them to disconnect the service altogether.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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