Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : July 2006

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 TECHNOLOGY TALK:

BY JOHN ANDERSON  

Internet Telephone Service

I remember my first long-distance relationship. Beside the difference in time zones, the biggest adjustment I faced was the size of my phone bill. I almost immediately began looking for a better solution. I started shopping around for better long-distance plans, cell phones with unlimited long-distance calling – I even tried calling using my computer, which resulted in delays between verbal exchanges often associated with your average space shuttle mission. The price was great (free), but the quality left a lot to be desired.

Well, a lot has changed in just a few years, and now Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a bona fide alternative to your regular telephone service. VoIP companies are advertising right alongside your other communications commercials, complete with jingles and catchy theme songs.

Just What is VoIP?

VoIP is a method for taking analog audio signals, like the kind you hear when you talk on the phone, and turning them into digital data that can be transmitted over the Internet.

You can use VoIP to turn a standard Internet connection into a way to place free phone calls. By using some of the free VoIP software that is available to make Internet phone calls, you bypass the phone company (and its charges) entirely. However, using the free software does not always compare to the features available to you from your typical phone service provider or some of the other VoIP providers.

VoIP providers like Vonage (www.vonage.com) are growing steadily, and major carriers like AT&T are already setting up VoIP calling plans in several markets around the United States. Moreover, cable companies providing high-speed Internet connections – like Comcast (www.comcast.com) – are also beginning to offer the service.

There are actually three different variations of VoIP service in use today:

n ATA. The simplest and most common way is through the use of a device called an analog telephone adaptor (ATA). The ATA allows you to connect a standard phone to your computer or your Internet connection for use with VoIP. The ATA takes the analog signal from your phone and converts it into digital data for Internet transmission. Providers usually bundle ATAs free with their service. You simply plug in the ATA, plug the cable from your phone that would normally go in the wall socket into the ATA, and you're ready to make calls.

n IP Phones. These specialized phones look just like normal phones with a handset, cradle and buttons. But instead of having the standard phone connectors, IP phones have an Ethernet connector. IP phones connect directly to your router and have all the necessary hardware and software right onboard to handle the call.

n Computer-to-Computer. This is certainly the easiest way to use VoIP. You don't even have to pay for long-distance calls. There are several companies offering free or very low-cost software that you can use for this type of VoIP. All you need is the software, a microphone, speakers, a sound card and a high-speed Internet connection. Except for your normal monthly ISP fee, there is usually no charge for computer-to-computer calls, no matter the distance.

You can also use your service wherever you have broadband connection. If you are traveling on business, you can either take your ATAs with you, or use a softphone. A softphone is software that loads the VoIP service onto your desktop or laptop. As long as you have a headset/microphone, you can place calls from your laptop anywhere in the broadband-connected world.

Most VoIP companies are offering minute-rate plans structured like cell phone bills for as little as $25 per month. Companies like Vonage also offer plans for businesses as well as residential packages.

And you don't have to give up the features that normal phone companies provide. As a matter of fact, you can usually get for free what the other companies charge you extra for when they are added to your service plan. VoIP includes:

  • Caller ID
  • Call waiting
  • Call transfer
  • Repeat dial
  • Return call
  • Three-way calling

With many VoIP services, you can also check voicemail via the Web and get e-mail notification of new voicemail messages. When you also consider that you can also use VoIP for fax lines and add additional lines for only a few dollars more a month, the savings really become apparent. One of the biggest surprises was when I found that you can get a phone number in a different area code. For instance, if you have relatives in California, you can give them a local number that will ring your phone number here in Maryland.

Drawbacks

Computers and Internet modems all require the electricity to be on for them to work. If the power goes out, so will your phone. The systems they are delivered on are also a little more prone to glitches than our tried-and-true phone system. Because of this, VoIP's reliability should be considered when making your decision to switch.

Emergency 911 calls also become a challenge with VoIP. There is no way to associate a geographic location with an IP address. So if the caller can't tell the 911 operator where he or she is located, then there is no way to know which call center to route the emergency call to and which EMS should respond. Providers such as Vonage require that you list a street address where your phone number is registered and will process 911 calls. They also warn that if you decide to travel with your service and connect it in a location other than the one registered, you should immediately update the 911 information as soon as you set up the ATA unit at its new location.

VoIP is also susceptible to all the problems normally associated with broadband services. Phone conversations can become distorted, garbled or lost because of transmission errors.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: July 2006

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