Voice Over IP (VOIP): A Technology Whose Time Has Come

09/17/2009 - A consultant friend of mine prompted me to look into VOIP a couple of weeks ago. He asked if I knew anything about it, and when I told him that I knew very little, he told me that he was looking into it and considering changing his phone system over from his current PBX system to a VOIP system.

This piqued my interest enough for me to start looking into various companies and to find out what options were available. I quickly assembled a list of companies--some recommended, some I had already heard about--and began to navigate the confusing waterways that are VOIP.

Today it's a little over a week into the saga, and I'm happy to say that I have both of my lines switched over to VOIP, and all of my phones in my office are working over VOIP. In a few days I'll be calling Bellsouth and cancelling phone service, for the first time since I was 18 years old. I've gone with a company that has been excellent to deal with; they've helped me with configuration issues all along the way, and I'm extremely pleased with their customer service. More on that in a bit.

Setting up and using VOIP is not difficult; however, there are a few things that are different from what you're used to, and these were a little bit confusing to me at first.

To begin with, when you buy VOIP service, you will need a device to take the signal from the Internet and allow you to make calls. There are two ways to do this: the first method is to buy an IP phone, which looks like a regular telephone except that it is designed to take a signal from your broadband router and not from standard phone lines. The common model is made by Linksys; prices vary, although some companies offer significant discounts to their customers.

The second method for using VOIP is to get a line adapter; this is what I've done. I bought two small boxes from my provider; each is 3 inches square and an inch thick, and has ethernet and phone jacks on the back of it. Using this device, you can connect to your broadband router and then plug in a standard telephone handset, and you're immediately in business. This is what I've done; I have 2 VOIP adapters plugged into the phone wiring in my office--I just plugged into each of the adapters and then ran these wires to a wall jack in my office, and now all of the 2-line phones in my office, including my cordless phones, work on VOIP.

Here's a small caveat: if you use static IP addresses as I do (most of you don't unless you're hosting a server of some kind), you'll need to configure the adapters with your static IP addresses. If you're using static IPs, you're probably familiar with configuring servers or routers with IP addresses, so this won't scare you; it's not hard at all. To configure the Linksys adapters that I have, I simply set the adapters to use a static instead of dynamic IP, entered IP address, router gateway address, subnet mask, and DNS, and I was ready to go.

VOIP systems are loaded with great calling features. With the system that I'm using, I have callerID, call-forwarding, call blocking, find me (the system calls my phones one at a time until it finds me--if it fails it goes to voice-mail), robust voice-mail, including multiple messages for different scenarios, anonymous call blocking, follow me (easily program your VOIP number to forward to your current location), and much more. I can see my messages online or have each voice-mail recording emailed to me; I can fax from the web portal or by using email; there are so many features I can't possibly remember them all.

So who did I decide to use as my carrier? I researched for a while, came up with a short list of five companies, including Vonage, RingCentral, 8x8, and a few others. I quickly weeded out Vonage, partly because I was put off by the pushy salesperson and pricey service plans, but also because the person with whom I spoke didn't seem to be willing to help me to understand how all of this works.

I ended up wth RingCentral, for several reasons: their prices are very reasonable and comparable to the others I researched; their feature set was very complete and I was impressed with their online portal. Being a programmer who writes web portals every day, I'm particularly aware of well-designed online web applications, and theirs is very easy to use.

The main selling point for RingCentral was their customer service. Now, after calling them a few times with setup questions, I'm even more enamored with their support personnel; they speak clear English, are very friendly, have been consistently knowledgeable (with one exception), and have been easy to reach on the phone--usually within 30 seconds. There was one question that I had where I got misinformed, and this was by one of their support people when I spoke to someone else the next day, he corrected the previous person's misinformation. I was told by the first tech person that I would not be able to use my phone adapter with all the phones in my office, that the voltage wouldn't support a network of phones. However, this has proven to be patently false; I have at least a half-dozen handsets all throughout my office, and they all work flawlessly, including my cordless phones.

How much am I saving? My phone bill will drop by half, and this will include having unlimited long-distance now instead of paying by the minute as I was with Bellsouth/AT&T.

How does it sound? Wonderful. I can't tell the difference. If you'd like to try it out, go to THIS PAGE and click the "Click to Call" button--it's a free call.