An advertising slogan from the 1970s – you’ve come a long way, baby – describes perfectly the co-evolution of telephones and computers in the decades since the popular ad campaign was launched. Baby Boomers will surely remember also the sci-fi depictions of talking computers of the future, especially those using futuristic audio/visual devices that look like televisions (of the time) doing things today’s computer monitors do, including talk to us.
Of all the capabilities of today’s computers, it’s perhaps the computer’s ability to send and receive calls that perplexes people the most. We’re hard-wired into thinking a separate, hard-wired device is required to talk to someone far, far away but our computers can bridge that gap without a lot of wiring of any kind.
Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, represents a branch of technology that enables telephone conversations to be made from a computer screen or peripheral devices attached to the computer.
As a computer application, Skype and similar programs allow the computer to function as a telephone, enabling the user to both place and receive calls from the computer using only the computer’s microphone (built-in or otherwise) to do the talking. For more clear conversation, specially programmed headsets and microphones can be purchased to enhance the quality of these calls.
The two most valued benefits offered by VoIP telephone services are flexibility and cost:
Flexibility – When your phone number is directly linked to a computer, any computer can be your phone. Simply log into your VoIP account like you would any other online account and start talking, no matter where you are. And, no matter where you are, your telephone number stays the same; your friends, family, and business colleagues never have to juggle a list of phone numbers to track you down.
Cost – Since VoIP uses the same transmission routes as your internet service, there’s little or no installation costs associated with establishing an account. Most VoIP services are offered at a very low, flat rate for domestic calls and calls to specified foreign countries. Most VoIP carriers reduce rates even further by allowing free phone calls to and from all members within a carrier’s network.
As with all technological breakthroughs, the benefits come with a few challenges alongside:
Quality – Given the cost and flexibility of the service, many users are able to overlook diminished quality in sound while others claim the latency (delay between what you say and what the caller says) and jitter (irregularities in transmission) are too disruptive to rely on.
Emergency Calls – VoIP’s portability makes it impossible for an emergency response center to track a 911 call from a VoIP caller. Traditional telephones are geographically keyed in to a specific address, making it quick work to find the physical source of distress and send emergency responders to the rescue. When call centers receive calls from a VoIP line, no physical address is associated with it.
Power Failures – When electricity or internet service are on the blink, so is the VoIP phone line. For this reason, many VoIP users choose to supplement their telephone systems with both VoIP and land lines, reasoning that if one utility is down, the other may still be working.
Security – Security breaches have become a way of life on the internet, which places your VoIP service in a vulnerable situation. Many traditional telephone users stick to land lines and cell phones to avoid all risk of hacking.
There are, of course, other pros and cons associated with VoIP technology as we know it today but it’s come a long way, baby, since it was merely the stuff of science fiction on Saturday late-night night TV. The growing popularity of the VoIP services now available is sure to encourage further development and refinement to an outstanding technology that’s already put the future at our fingertips today.