If you listened to a telephone conversation on one of the early VoIP networks back in the 1990s, you would never have guessed that it was going to become the dominant technology for voice networks. The actual quality of the voice was fine when you could hear it – since it was digitized – but the problem was that it kept breaking up, and the long round-trip times over the IP network caused echoes and made people talk over each other. In other words, it was just terrible. John Chambers of Cisco may have pointed to the VoIP phone on his desk all the time, but no one seriously believed that it was going to wipe out the traditional circuit-switched voice network.
And yet, it truly has. Even if you still have an old analog landline – and many of us still do – what actually happens is that the signal is converted to IP as soon as it hits your local telephone exchange, and then is routed across a shared IP backbone – along with all the other data traffic that your service provider carries. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a telephone company anywhere in the world that intends to stick with old circuit-switched technology.
Today, most businesses run on VoIP. Large companies have their own private VoIP networks that run over their internal data networks, providing virtually free and crystal-clear calling between their various corporate locations. Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) has also become common, providing a wide range of value-added capabilities. VoIP is also the enabling technology for the vast majority of the world’s call centers, where it not only provides low-cost voice calls, but also allows voice to be directly integrated with customer care systems.
VoIP is also becoming increasingly prevalent in small and medium-size businesses. Companies such as sipVine provide complete turnkey business VoIP solutions, as well as offering VoIP connectivity between existing telephony equipment. Again, the quality is as good as or better than anything you could get with a circuit-switched connection in the past – and it costs a fraction of what companies used to pay for traditional voice services.
VoIP is also starting to play an increasing role in the consumer telecommunications market. Companies such as Vonage are offering complete residential VoIP packages that can cost less than $10 a month. Not only that, the long-distance rates are as low as a cent a minute, compared to 10 times as much for calls made using established telcos.
Finally, there is an extraordinary choice of VoIP services that you can access directly from your computer. Skype is the best known of these, but there are many others. For example, Google Voice lets you make free telephone calls from your desktop to any phone in North America – not just to other computers as is the case with Skype. VoIP apps are also starting to show up on mobile phones, and while they are prohibitively expensive when used over mobile data connections, they are incredibly cheap if you can access a public Wi-Fi network.