Deconstructing VoIP

Updated: Oct 7 2005, 05:30am hrs
As a technology, VoIP, or voice-over-internet-protocol is a clever reinvention of the wheel. Yet, it is a technology that has the potential to redefine the way the world communicates. VoIP is a method of taking analog audio signals, the ones currently used in phones, and turning them into digital data to be transmitted over the internet. The practical upshot of this is that by using some of the free VoIP software callers can entirely bypass phone company and its charges. Like all free services, the demand is growing manifold. In the US, the FCC is looking seriously at the potential ramifications of VoIP service on telecom companies.

There are three ways to place a VoIP call. ATA, or the analog telephone adaptor, is the most common way. It allows connecting a standard phone to a computer or an internet connection for use with VoIP. The ATA takes the analog signals from the traditional phone and converts it into digital data for transmission over the internet. Providers like Vonage and AT&T CallVantage are bundling ATAs free with their service. Then, there are IP Phones. These phones connect directly to the router and have all the hardware and software necessary right onboard to handle the IP call.

The third way is computer-to-computer communication. This is certainly the easiest way to use VoIP. One does not even have to pay for long-distance calls. Companies offer or very low-cost software for this. All one needs is the software, a microphone, speakers, a sound card and an internet connection. Except for the normal monthly ISP fee, there is usually no charge for computer-to-computer calls, no matter the distance.

What is drawing the consumers to shift to VoIP is the flexibility it offers. With VoIP a call can be made wherever there is a broadband connection. IP phones can be carried by business travelers with them for ready access to connectivity.

Another alternative is the softphone which is a client software that loads the VoIP service onto a desktop or a laptop. As long as the user has a headset microphone, he can place calls from his laptop anywhere in the broadband-connected world.

One of the challenges facing the worldwide use of VoIP is that the protocols over which IP Devices communicate, are not always compatible. VoIP calls going between several networks may run into a snag if they hit conflicting protocols. Since VoIP is a relatively new technology, this compatibility issue will continue to be a problem until a governing body creates a standard universal protocol for VoIP.

The overall hurdle facing VoIP is that there are currently no overriding standards. This includes hardware, protocols and virtually every aspect of the system.

The network that makes up the internet is far more complex and therefore functions within a far greater margin of error. What this all adds up to is one of the major flaws in VoIP reliability. Because VoIP uses an internet connection, it is susceptible to all the hiccups normally associated with home broadband services. All of these factors will affect call quality latency, jitter, packet loss. Phone conversations can become distorted, garbled or lost because of transmission errors. Stability in internet data transfer needs to be guaranteed before VoIP could truly replace traditional phones.

VoIP is susceptible to worms, viruses and hacking, although this is very rare and VoIP developers are working on VoIP encryption to counter this. Another issue is having a phone system dependent on individual PCs of varying specifications and power. A call can be affected by processor drain common while using multiple applications.

Like any emerging technology, VoIP has some challenges to overcome, but it is clear that developers will keep refining this technology until it eventually replaces the current phone system. Though service providers in India claim that all the quality issues have been taken care of, the proof of performance, of course, is in using it.