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What you need to know about voice over internet protocol (VoIP)

29th Oct 2007
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VoIP technology offers many advantages over conventional telephony to businesses of all sizes. Whilst VoIP technology itself isn't new, when Stewart Twynham first investigated its potential for one of his clients, he found a market still maturing - leaving the way open for wrong and possibly costly decisions.

An Introduction to VoIP
Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) refers to the passing of the human voice over a computer network. This network could be the network inside your office - but more often than not we refer to the internet.

Because most broadband internet connections are largely "unmetered" - ie you pay for your connection rather than usage, the cost of calls made using VoIP could be a fraction of the cost of calls made over the traditional Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

The downside - and there is always a downside - is that computer networks tend to pass information in a fairly disjointed way. Each "packet" of information arriving at different times possibly via different routes. This is fine for computer data, but can dramatically affect call quality - a few milliseconds of jitter will have you sounding like a Dalek in no time. And don't forget, if the person at the other end doesn't have the same equipment that you do, it may not work at all, or the cost saving may be less. Such is the nature of VoIP.

Correctly configured computer networks, the right equipment, and proper installation are themes you'll hear throughout this article. It's time to do some homework.

There's so much more to VoIP
The VoIP market has largely grown off the back of companies providing low-cost long distance and international calling . If you have previously used a "calling card" or some form of least cost routing (LCR), then the chances are you've been using voice over IP without even realising it as the call still begins and ends in an ordinary telephone. Or you may have used Skype or an alternative network - even Tesco is getting in on the act with its internet phone.

Whilst saving money is important to many businesses, there are many other benefits of VoIP which should not be overlooked. If you employ Voice over IP on your computer network, then:

  • With the right equipment you can begin to unify your communications. This brings several operational benefits, for example voicemail integrated with your e-mail system, calls connected directly through your CRM system, incoming calls automatically recorded and logged against the relevant client.
  • You can dramatically cut cabling and infrastructure costs - you need less wires, you may not require so many or even any phone lines. You may take up less space in your server room
  • Moving your phone is as easy as moving your computer. This doesn't just make office moves easier - anywhere in the world you can get broadband probably means that you can have your phone as well. Homeworkers can have their office phone right there with them at home.

Making the right choices
The technology behind VoIP is actually over 30 years old. However VoIP in its present form has only become a reality through the spread of broadband internet access. Always on, un-metered high speed connections mean that VoIP can now come right up to the front door of your business or home.

In most countries, broadband internet access has only been a reality for the last ten years or so, meaning that the VoIP market you see today is also really quite new. This presents a great many issues to those choosing VoIP technology:

  • Supplier selection - There are no "long established" VoIP suppliers - because the technology isn't that old, they tend to be either installers or service providers. You may be faced with choosing between an established traditional telephone supplier that has VoIP experience, or possibly an IT company.
  • Equipment - Consumer VoIP solutions such as Skype and other internet phone technologies offer a cheap and cheerful, but not necessarily robust answer to a business's calling needs. Traditional telephone system ("switch") manufacturers have moved into the VoIP space, but tend to offer proprietary (and expensive) bolt-ons to otherwise traditional hardware. Many pure VoIP solutions have failed to gain traction commercially, the main exceptions being Cisco's established platform, and an excellent open source offering called Asterisk. In short, there is no one-size-fits-all magic bullet to your business's VoIP telephony needs.
  • Quality - If you are downloading a file and it takes three seconds longer than normal, then you probably won't even notice. A three second pause in a telephone conversation with your biggest client could be more troublesome. VoIP systems can introduce delays, echo, distortion, or may not even work at all under certain circumstances. Bigger VoIP systems require specialist installation if they are to offer the right call quality every time.
  • Security - Having your telephony as part of your computer network poses many new risks. A major IT outage could, for example, bring your normally unscathed phone system down with it. The need to open your network up to use some of the new telephony features may expose your IT systems in new ways. Mis-programming your VoIP switch may result in callers being able to "break out" and call Australia on your phone bill.

The future of VoIP
Two exciting changes are taking place in the world of VoIP telephony - the growth of managed service providers and the use of VoIP by the telephone companies.

Use of VoIP by the telcos
It has been a very badly kept secret that telecoms companies like BT have for years been looking to upgrade their own networks to VoIP. The principle is fairly simple even if the project itself is incredibly ambitious:

  • Step one: upgrading the entire communications network to a single IP (internet protocol) network which can handle everything from voice/ISDN through to high speed data communications. All voice calls will be converted at the local exchange to travel through the communications network as a VoIP call.
  • Step two: getting rid of analogue signals altogether, and introducing VoIP right to your BT socket, possibly over fibre optics rather than copper wire.

    Managed service providers
    Most people outsource their existing phone lines and calls to companies like BT, paying a quarterly fee in return for a phone services. So it's a natural progression to apply the same approach to VoIP. Managed Service Providers provide access to their own VoIP gateways - you can normally still keep your telephone numbers - and they provide a fully-functioning phone system without the hassle.

    The main benefits:

    The downsides:

    The future for VoIP is definitely bright, and it will be interesting to see how it eventually develops. With competition from BT only a few years away, the VoIP marketplace certainly won't be standing still.

    Stewart Twynham
    Bawden Quinn Associates Ltd

    Further reading

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