In my last column, I promised to tell you more this month about Voice over Internet Protocol ("VoIP"). People have been using VoIP for enterprise calling for years—i.e., calling around a corporation or a university, typically using leased lines. With 86 percent of U.S. organizations surveyed reporting that they are in various stages of evaluating or deploying this technology, according to a study recently published by Sage Research, Inc., even though some may consider VoIP to be the technology of tomorrow, the cost savings and business economies may warrant your consideration of VoIP when moving your existing organization into new space or starting a new firm.
What Is VoIP and How Does it Work?
VoIP technology enables the real-time transmission of voice signals as packetized data over high-speed broadband networks that employ the same suite of protocols the Internet uses. In VoIP systems, analog voice signals are digitized and transmitted as a stream of packets over a digital data network. Unfortunately, standards for VoIP technology are still in flux. Even VoIP implementations that comply with standards may not necessarily interoperate with the standards-compliant products of other vendors. Variations among VoIP products include the algorithms and implementations used to support various aspects of Internet telephony.
VoIP technology allows voice calls placed from and to standard telephones supported by the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), sometimes referred to as plain old telephone service (POTS), to be conveyed over IP networks. VoIP "gateways" provide the bridge between the local PSTN and the IP network for both the calling and receiving ends of a call. To place a call, the calling party will access the nearest gateway either by a direct connection or by placing a call over the local PSTN and entering the desired destination phone number.
The technology translates the destination telephone number into the data network address ("IP address") associated with a corresponding terminating gateway nearest to the number you called. The terminating gateway then will initiate a call to the destination phone number over the local PSTN to completely establish end-to-end two-way communications. Despite the additional connections required, the overall call set-up time is not significantly longer than with a call fully supported by the PSTN.
For a home or home office user, you will need to insert an Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA) between your telephone and the wall plug for the telephone line. An ATA costs about $100, but they are often provided at no cost by VoIP providers. For an office with multiple phone and telephone lines, you will need to buy an appropriate gateway, which acts as an ATA for all the phones on your system.
What Will VoIP Mean for You?
After years of providing more "vaporware" than substance, VoIP providers are generating renewed interest in the marketplace with the sharp growth in broadband connections to both homes and offices, improved quality of service, and connections that allow VoIP calls from ordinary telephones to ordinary telephones. VoIP services even now typically promise a smaller phone bill, essentially eliminating toll charges for calls to numbers within the United States and Canada and enabling interoffice videoconferencing.
Services such as Vonage Digital Voice™ by Voinage Holdings Corp. ( www.voinage.com) and Packet8 and Centile by 8x8, Inc. ( www.8x8.com) offer flat-rate VoIP plans using regular telephones for $20–$60/month for local and long-distance calls (including Canada) and deeply discounted international toll rates (e.g., 5¢ per minute to London, Paris, Moscow, Hong Kong, and all of China; 6¢ per minute to Rome, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Sydney, and Mexico City; rates to cellular phones typically are higher).
Software-driven services such as CommCenterK PC2PhoneK calling software from Net2Phone® ( www.net2phone.com) or iConnectHere powered by DeltaThree ( www.iconnecthere.com) allow you to place low cost phone calls from your computer (2¢ per minute within the U.S.) to a telephone or free phone calls from your computer to another computer. If calling from computer to computer, both parties to the call will have to have the software installed on their respective computers and a headset plugged into each computer.
Internet telephony offers flexibility not available on the PSTN. For example, you could receive calls wherever you may be online. You could check your voicemail messages from anywhere you may be online, play them back on the media player installed on the computer you are using, save them to your hard drive, or forward them to others. You even can receive e-mail notification that you have received a voicemail message, with or without the voicemail message attached to your e-mail message. The Vonage Digital Voice™ service offers a panoply of free features, including three-way calling, user-programmable call hunt (rollover), call forwarding, call transfer, call waiting, caller ID, caller ID block (*67), repeat dialing (camp on), and call return (*69). In the longer term, VoIP services eventually could facilitate advanced communications services that will integrate voice with e-mail, instant messaging, and caller-to-caller videoconferencing—features that vendors such as Microsoft already are working to achieve.
Even now, if you are placing calls from a VoIP-enabled notebook computer with a wireless connection to a broadband network, you do not have to be tied to a physical location or to copper wires—or to an all-too-often "I can’t hear you now" cellular connection—to make calls. Consolidators like Boingo™ ( www.boingo.com) offer the ability to "roam" between 802.11 hot spots in hotels, airports, bars, restaurants, and cafes for $21.95 per month. Efforts are under way to install "hot spots" in courtrooms across the country. Verizon® has announced plans to put a "hot spot" in every pay phone on its system. At some time in the future, vehicles will come equipped with (or aftermarket manufacturers will make available) wireless routers and WiFi connections. All of this means that high-speed wireless broadband connectivity away from your home or office eventually will become ubiquitous in urban environments.
As for your home or office, cable companies are considered to be critical to the ultimate success of VoIP, principally because they are the dominant domestic providers of the high-speed broadband connections that VoIP requires. With relatively inexpensive cable-based broadband connections now available with data transfer rates of 3 Mbps (twice the 1.5 Mbps rate of a T-1 line) and soon to be available at 5 Mbps, the solo practitioner or small office user need not be concerned about the bandwidth consumption of multiple concurrent VoIP telephone conversations—even while surfing the net and/or watching television.
If you switch to true VoIP telephone equipment (which can be expensive), you also need not be concerned about having to install wires for your telephones and your computers—or about the lost investment in cabling when you relocate. Using a secure wireless network, you can put your workstations wherever you want them (so long as you have electric power connections available), without being concerned about cabling. Simply plug your VoIP telephone set and your computer into a wireless bridge (a device that communicates by radio with a wireless access point), perform the appropriate security configurations of the bridge from the browser in a computer connected to it, and you’re ready to go.
Whether you decide to use VoIP telephony with your existing wired POTS telephone sets or to upgrade to a complete VoIP system, implementation of a VoIP telephony solution could save you a significant amount of money in the long run. On the other hand, the ongoing price wars among the traditional telephone companies and the availability of deeply discounted toll telephone service from resellers may either erode VoIP providers’ price advantage or drive down their prices to maintain it. Only you can decide what is best for your situation in your marketplace. A VoIP solution offers you another alternative.
J. Anthony Vittal ( firstname.lastname@example.org) chairs the litigation department of Finestone, Richter & Vittal, P.C., in Los Angeles, California. A former member of the ABA Standing Committee on Technology and Information Systems and a member of various technology-oriented committees of ABA Sections, he speaks and writes frequently on legal technology topics.