If you have high-speed Internet access through a cable company, chances are you’ve been approached to switch your “traditional” phone service over to a high-speed Internet phone plan. In my conversations with home and business owners, I am asked a lot of the same questions. Here are some straight answers:
“What is VoIP?”
It stands for Voice over Internet Protocol. This is the geeky name for the emerging technology that makes it possible to make and receive phone calls using a high speed Internet phone connection instead of traditional telephone lines.
You’ll also hear the terms “high-speed Internet Phone”, “Internet Telephony”, and “Broadband Phone” to mean the same thing. Whatever you call it, it uses computer hardware and software to help people use a broadband Internet connection as the main way to make and receive telephone calls.
High-speed Internet phone service usually allows you to be given a standard telephone number. You then can call any other standard phone number. It doesn’t matter if the other party has high-speed Internet phone service or not.
Make sure you know what you’re buying
For example, some high-speed Internet phone services may only allow you to call other users of the same service. What you want is service that will enable you to make a connection between your Internet-based calls and anyone, anywhere including those people who use the traditional telephone network.
“How does high-speed Internet phone service work?”
For starters, you must have a high-speed Internet connection. You’ll also need an adapter to convert your voice into a digital format.
Your phone is hooked up to the adapter which is then connected, either directly or through your computer, to your high-speed Internet cable modem. You can use either the “normal” touchtone phone you currently use on the standard telephone network or a specialized Internet Protocol (IP) phone that provides direct access to any number of features made possible by using VoIP.
An adapter will be necessary to make your phone compatible with the “packet-switching” technology that the Internet runs on. Packet switching is what makes email, video, audio, etc. possible. In the past, phone networks used “circuit-switching” technology.
With packet-switching, your voice message is broken into small pieces (packets) which travel through the Internet and are re-assembled on the other end.
Advantages of high-speed Internet phone service
I probably don’t need to remind you that VoIP for homeowners and small business owners is relatively new. It continues to evolve and improve as do the federal and state policies about VoIP and traditional phone service.
As with all telecommunications services, you should carefully research and understand all the terms of any VoIP service agreement — including the fine print — before you sign a contract or agree to begin using high-speed Internet phone service.
“What sorts of cost savings can I expect?”
Most high-speed Internet phone service providers have monthly service charges that are in the $20-$40 range. This usually includes unlimited local and long distance minutes. If you do a lot of long distance calling you will save a ton of money.
“What sorts of enhanced phone features are available?”
Most high-speed Internet phone service providers offer most (if not all) of the same features that you’d expect from the standard phone service providers: Caller ID, Call Waiting, etc. plus a lot of features that are not available with standard phone service like voice activated dialing, video conferencing, voicemails in written form, spoken e-mails, etc.
“Are there limitations on which area codes I can use?”
High-speed Internet phone service subscribers can get phone numbers from different states. For example, if you live and/or work in Michigan, you could easily get an Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana (or any other) number.
“Can I travel with my home or office phone?”
You may be able to use your high-speed Internet phone adapter anywhere you have Internet access. For example, if you live in Illinois and travel to Pennsylvania, you may be able to use your high-speed Internet phone adapter in Pennsylvania to make and receive calls with your same telephone number, just as if you were at home or in the office. Granted, you can do this with a cellphone too, but this way you use just one phone number — your office/home number — while on the road.
“What sorts of taxes and fees can I expect to pay?”
Currently, high-speed Internet phone service doesn’t get taxed as much as traditional phone service. No guarantee, however, that this difference may stay in effect. Federal and state policies can change at any time — especially if the market grows big enough to attract the attention of government regulators.
Disadvantages of high-speed Internet phone service
“Will 911 service work with my phone?”
When you make a call to 911 from a standard telephone, the operator can pinpoint your location without asking you for any information. That is not the case with high-speed Internet phone service. Most VoIP providers are improving their 911 services, but they are not on par with traditional phone service in this regard. So if you’re considering high-speed Internet phone service, you really should check with your vendor (and local police and fire departments) and understand what their limitations are on 911 calls before entering into a contract.
“If I lose power, will I lose my service?”
In the old days, your telephone had its own source of power from the phone company. If you blew a fuse in your house, or even if your whole neighborhood lost power, your phones were still good. This is not automatically the case with high-speed Internet phone service. Unless you have some type of backup power for your high-speed Internet phone modem, you will lose all Internet phone services if you lose power.
“Can I keep my present phone number?”
When switching to high-speed Internet phone service, you may or may not be able to keep your current phone numbers. Check with your vendor before making the switch.
“Will I be listed in directory service?”
This might be good news and it might be bad news, but here it is: If you switch from traditional telephone service to high-speed Internet phone service, your new number will likely not be in the telephone directory or available from directory assistance. Maybe you like this, maybe not. Be aware that you also may no longer be able to receive free phone directories from the landline service provider either.
“Can I call any 900 numbers?”
High-speed Internet phone service customers are generally not able to dial 900 or 10-10 numbers, or receive collect calls.
“If I am not pleased who do I call?”
High-speed Internet phone service providers operate in an industry that is, so far, under not a lot of regulation — unlike traditional phone service. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has authority over those aspects of the industry that are regulated. If you have questions or complaints about your high-speed Internet phone service provider, you should contact them first. If they can’t fix the problem, you should call the FCC , local Better Business Bureau, or your state’s Attorney General.