Smart Choices in VoIP For New Users

Smart Choices in VoIP For New Users

The buzz surrounding Voice over IP technology has been growing for quite some

time, but only recently has the notion of ditching standard telephone service grown

so compelling that companies like Skype can claim over 215 million downloads of

its product. In this article, we’ll explore the current offerings and help you make

wise choices while embarking on the VoIP path.

Let’s start with vocabulary. The most important and oft-repeated acronym you

must learn and understand in regards to Voice over IP is SIP. SIP stands for Session

Initiation Protocol, a well-established, open-standard protocol that is the glue to

the VoIP world. It allows a vast array of services, software, and hardware to work

together to create flexible, feature-rich calling solutions with many attractive

benefits. If it doesn’t support SIP, you shouldn’t support them.

WHAT DO I NEED

At minimum, you need a high-speed Internet connection, a SIP phone number, and

a softphone. A softphone is a software version of an IP phone that lets you make

calls using your computer.

Some services, like Stanaphone and Gizmo, will provide you with a softphone to use

with their system. Most of these will only let you configure SIP numbers that belong

to their network. If you want to utilize multiple SIPs across different networks, your

best option is to use X-Lite, a free softphone from Counterpath (formerly known as

Xten Networks). With X-Lite, it appears you can configure up to 9 different SIP

numbers. Like Gizmo, X-Lite comes in Mac, Windows, and PC versions.

If you want to use your existing phone, rather than a headset or microphone and

speakers, you’ll need an analog phone adapter. Dedicated, SIP-compatible IP

phones are also available. Wi-Fi IP phones can be carried with you and used

wherever there’s a wireless Internet signal. There are also WiFi mobile phones

available.

You should also receive a SIP URL which looks similar to an email address and is a

simple way to share your new contact information. You can easily dial a SIP URL in

your softphone application or link to it from a web page. If you’re using a hardware

phone, SIP Broker has a free service that can maps the SIP server names to short

numeric codes, allowing you to easily dial users on over 200 different services.

WHAT CAN I DO WITH IT

You can make free calls to other IP phone users worldwide. You can make calls to

traditional phone numbers or attach a local phone number that routes to your SIP

number, allowing regular phone users to call you. If you travel, you can carry that

same phone number with you wherever there’s an Internet connection, and the folks

back home won’t incur long-distance charges when they call you. Free voice mail,

too, and messages are delivered to your e-mail.

In a business situation, you could slash or eliminate your long-distance charges by

setting up free calling between remote or international offices. Videoconferencing

also becomes possible without dedicated line charges. For the more adventurous,

you could also setup a PBX. Asterisk is a powerful, open-source PBX system with a

feature list that can give any sized business the advantages of a full-fledged digital

phone system.

If you work in a scenario where 2-way radios are utilized, DingoTel offers a product

which can turn these in to VoIP walkie-talkies while making use of the radios full

reception range, sometimes up to 12 miles depending on the model.

For the budget-conscious, with some services like Gizmo and SIPphone, standard

phone users in major cities can dial a free access number, enter your SIP number

and speak to you via your IP phone. SIP Broker also maintains a few numbers which

allow callers to dial SIP numbers on any of their 220+ supported networks.

It may seem tedious, but programming the entire of sequence of numbers in to a

phone’s contacts directory is quite straightforward. Just remember to insert pauses

to allow for the phone system’s menu options to respond. If your friends have free

long-distance calling plans, they could reach you via any of the available access

numbers mentioned above at no cost to either of you.

IPKall and Stanaphone will give you a free local number as long as you don’t mind it

being in Washington State or New York City. IPKall will forward your number to any

SIP URL, but Stanaphone’s will only work with the SIP number provided through

them.

Free World Dialup and SIPphone have peering agreements allowing you to SIP dial

users on a number of different VoIP networks using a short prefix. SIP Broker can

also help you reach anyone on a service that allows incoming SIP calls, which

Vonage and CallVantage do not.

There are also SIP-compatible softphones available for the Pocket PC, Palm OS,

Symbian, and Linux handheld markets that can turn your handheld in to a cordless

Internet phone.

SERVICE PROVIDERS

You have to pay when you want make calls to regular telephone numbers. If you

want a local number that links to your SIP number, that’ll usually cost you, too. The

good news is that the prices are very reasonable. There are many service providers,

plans, and packages out there to suit home and business users. Here are some

important questions to ask:

Does the plan include hardware, i.e. an analog phone adapter?

Will I own the hardware being provided by the service?

If I am buying the hardware, is it locked to your service or can I use it with other

SIP service providers?

Do you offer a “Bring Your Own Device” calling plan?

Does the plan include a virtual phone number so anyone can call me?

Are all incoming calls free?

Can I receive incoming SIP calls by number and/or URLs?

Make sure you understand any contracts, fees, calling rates or restrictions before

agreeing to service. There are numerous service providers offering free and paid

services. With a little bit of research, you’ll find something ideal for your intended

purpose.

OPTIONS

If you’re looking to stay on your computer while having some room to grow, check

out Gizmo. Gizmo is an excellent, cross-platform SIP softphone that works with

network services from SIPphone. In this setup, you could add incoming virtual

phone numbers for $12/3 months or $35/year that will allow folks to call you. All

incoming calls are free to you and to the person dialing (as long as it isn’t a long-

distance call, of course). They also maintains in major cities that users can dial,

enter your SIP number, and then be connected to you free of charge. They also have

decent outgoing rates for non-IP calls and sell making this a solution that scales

well for the average user. There’s even an Adium plugin available for you Mac users

out there.

Stanaphone is a free service from hosting giant Intermedia that also provides you

with a free virtual phone number in the New York City area. You can also receive

faxes sent to your virtual number in your email. Voice mail is also included. You

can also utilize a SIP phone adapter with the service, but you’ll have to pay to make

outgoing calls to standard phone numbers. At 2.6 cents a minute for calls in the

US, they’re a bit more expensive than Gizmo/SIPphone but the free virtual number

and fax receiving are nice bonuses although their service lacks in other features.

Stanaphone has a softphone client for Windows and PocketPC, but Mac users can

also use CounterPath’s X-Lite softphone with the service. The web site also says

only Stanaphone to Stanaphone calls are free, so you might be better off sticking

with Gizmo and their flexible peering agreements.

Free World Dialup offers SIP network services, but also has their own combination

Video IP Phone / instant messaging program. Within one program, you can make

SIP-based voice and video calls and chat with your friends whether they’re on

Yahoo, MSN, AOL, or ICQ. Their traditional inbound and outbound calling service is

still in Beta and a bit more expensive than Gizmo. Their Communicator application

is also available for PC only, although many hardware devices will work with the

FWD SIP network.

A number of service providers offer packages targeted towards specific kinds of

users. Broadvoice, for example, has unlimited worldwide plans starting at $19.95,

while also offering a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) plan at just $5.95 a month.

TelePacket has plans that start at just $0.95 a month while Packet 8 has plans that

target videoconferencing users at $19.95 a month.

SUGGESTIONS

If you want to test the waters, I’d start with trying out Gizmo. It’s a lightweight,

feature-rich softphone that also gets you service through SIPphone. They provide

local access numbers for non-VoIP users to call SIP numbers from traditional

phones, have many peering agreements with other networks to keep you connected,

and support options like virtual phone numbers and offer low-cost rates on calls

made to standard phones to give you a more robust VoIP phone package when

you’re ready.

If you want to take the plunge, check out Broadvoice or Packet 8, who offers E911

service. They both offer robust feature sets, unlimited calling plans, inexpensive

virtual phone numbers, and have a good track record of reliability and service.

As for speaking and listening on any of these services, you have three basic options:

use a quality headset, purchase a phone adapter, or purchase an IP phone. A

headset, of course, is the most economical option. Buying a phone adapter is a

good choice if you love your phone and/or want to continue using your standard

phone service. Most, if not all, phone adapters also plug in to your phone line to

utilize the attached phone for both VoIP and regular phone calls. If you like the idea

of an IP phone and have a wireless network, we strongly suggest getting a WiFi

phone. It offers the most flexibility because it allows you to not only talk wirelessly

at home, but wherever there is a wireless Internet connection.

CONCLUSION

Whether you just want a new toy or are looking for a replacement phone system for

your home or office, the current crop of VoIP offerings present a wide array of

services and options. Review each company’s web site, read the fine print, and

search the web for service reviews and user experiences. You’re sure to find a

suitable solution with the ideal combination of cost, features, and quality that you’re

looking for.

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