“My MagicJack isn’t working!”……..”Why is my Vonage audio choppy?”……..”Ooma has no dial tone!”
Consumers have jumped into VoIP with open arms, due to the promise of low cost and feature rich phone service. This, in turn, has turned VoIP into a highly competitive business, with the result that there are now hundreds of different providers offering service.
The only down side to this low cost phone service is that minimal support tends to be offered by many of the cheaper providers. After all, when a service is as low as $35 per year it is tough for them to offer extensive support. This can lead to frustration for many consumers.
After spending almost 10 years in the VoIP industry, helping thousands of consumers with their support related questions, I have put together my top five VoIP troubleshooting tips to ensure trouble-free phone service at home. If you are new to VoIP, do not let this list frighten you, most of the time VoIP installations go very smoothly.
1. Run a VoIP Test
Before you give any credit card information to a provider, make sure you run a test on your Internet service to see if you are a suitable candidate for VoIP. After all, a good Internet service is a requirement for VoIP. Our VoIP test is a great place to start. It tests your Internet speed and looks for any issues with respect to packet loss, latency and jitter. It will also provide an overall MOS score which is essentially a subjective audio quality rating. I recommend running this test at various times of the day to ensure your results are consistent across heavier loads – more on this next.
2. Get a High Quality Internet Service
You have heard of the expression “you get what you pay for”, well this is often true when it comes to Internet service. That $20 per month Internet service may seem like a great deal but you may be disappointed when you try and stream movies or run a VoIP service. VoIP relies on a quality Internet service, since that is the medium that your voice packets travel over. Running a VoIP test will often highlight issues here, just keep in mind that it is not unusual to see dramatic changes in quality based on the time of day that you run your test. For example, cable providers often share bandwidth within a neighborhood so early evening may be a problematic time to use your phone service, as your kids and indeed kids next door start streaming Netflix movies.
Regarding the various Internet technologies that we typically have access to, here are my thoughts in terms of their quality:
- FiOS – This tends to be a safe bet since it is usually a direct connection to the provider’s Central Office (CO) so it is unaffected by your neighborhood usage. Speeds are usually high and consistent.
- Cable – Great speeds uplink and downlink but consistency of service may drop at peak times in your neighborhood.
- DSL – Uses your phone line and has a direct connection to the CO. Speeds tend to be lower than cable and FiOS and be careful here due to the asymmetric nature of this type of service. Your VoIP service typically needs approximately 90Kbps bandwidth in both the uplink and downlink directions. If you are seeing issues at certain times of the day make sure a family member is not uploading videos at the same time. Problems tend to be in the uplink direction, in other words to the CO, because of the lower uplink speed capabilities. If you do run into problems, you could get your VoIP provider to change the codec settings for your service. More aggressive compression of your voice reduces the bandwidth needs and the reduction in audio quality will likely go unnoticed.
- Satellite – In my opinion do not even look at a third party VoIP provider if you have satellite Internet. The satellite is in Geosynchronous Orbit approximately 22,000 miles above sea level, resulting in at least 500ms delay before the audio even reaches the Internet. This latency makes it very difficult to run VoIP calls. Note that some satellite providers offer their own VoIP service and this can be an option that works since they are in control of the system and can optimize for low latency and jitter.
3. Network Topology
With network topology I am referring to your actual network setup at home. The factor of interest here is Quality of Service (QoS) which essentially means prioritizing your voice data packets over everything else – yes, even Facebook!
This is actually a large topic as there are many variables when it comes to network topology. For example, you may have additional routers, switches, or wireless access points in your home. In terms of the Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA) that your VoIP provider sends to you, it may have one or two Ethernet connections on it. If it has two connections then the best setup tends to be a direct connection to your Internet modem and then use the other Ethernet port to connect to all hardware downstream, such as routers, switches and computers. The ATA usually has a built-in router that ensures the phone packets have higher priority than everything else downstream.
Alternatively, if the ATA only has one Ethernet port then your connection options are more limited and you may need to delve into the configuration side of your routers and turn on QoS for voice traffic. It is beyond the scope of this article to highlight how to do this for each manufacturer but your favorite search engine is your friend here.
Our VoIP setup guide expands on this topic and has 6 setup scenarios covered, which tends to account for most network topologies found at home.
One final point regarding your network relates to firewall settings. If you are unable to successfully make calls you may need to configure some ports in your network firewall (usually inside your modem or router). Port 5060 is the standard port used for SIP signaling, though other ports may need to be opened too for the payload. Consult your service provider in order to find all of the ports that are used during calls.
4. Phone Wiring and Security Systems
Be careful if you are using the phone wiring inside your home with VoIP. If you have phones in multiple rooms and are connecting your ATA to the internal wiring in your home you MUST disconnect the landline phone wiring at the Demarcation Point in your Network Interface Device (NID) – this is typically a grey or black box located on the outside of your house. The reason for this is because the phone wiring coming into your home carries power, as this was needed in the past to ensure you could use your phone even when you had a power outage. This power source can cause problems with the VoIP ATA device, hence the need to disconnect at the NID.
Note that DSL service presents some further challenges here since DSL actually uses the phone wiring to carry Internet traffic. The terminology to use here is called “Dry loop DSL” or “Naked DSL” which is Internet without regular landline phone service. Make sure you ask about this if you plan to use DSL and internal wiring in your home for phone service.
Another solution here and one I recommend is to just use cordless phones in your home rather than wired phones. They are inexpensive and just plug the base into the ATA device and connect multiple phones around the home.
Security systems typically do not play well with VoIP. The reason for this is because most alarm systems use DTMF (Dual Tone Multi Frequency) tones to communicate with the alarm monitoring center. The VoIP ATA converts these tones into digital packets but then compresses the packets and these may not be re-produced consistently by the alarm company. Best practice here is to check with the alarm company to see if they have certified any VoIP providers for use with their service. Alternatively, consider a cellular or Internet based alarm system.
5. Audio Issues
If you have followed the steps above and have good results when running the VoIP test, you should have no audio issues. However, in the real world things can go wrong and you may find yourself with one-way or two-way audio problems.
First let’s tackle acoustic echo related issues. This can occur if your volume is too high on your speaker, which in turn gets picked up by the microphone and results in a nasty echo. Turn off or reduce the volume on the speaker to see if this solves the problem, it usually does fix it.
Next up is background noise. Sometimes this can occur with older analog cordless phones. If you have an older wired phone, connect it directly to the ATA device to see if this solves the problem. The newer DECT6.0 cordless phones tend to have few problems.
Finally, choppy voice, this is where the audio is generally decent but chops out at times. You may be having insufficient bandwidth problems at intermittent times. This is not necessarily the Internet providers fault, verify that you do not have any applications running that could be eating up additional bandwidth. Also make sure you have no rogue applications running, using anti-malware and anto-spyware software. In a similar manner, excessive jitter can cause choppy audio. This will tend to show up when you run your VoIP test but one workaround is to get your VoIP provider to update the size of the jitter buffer that is configured in your ATA.
If this does not fix your audio problems and your VoIP test results are still good, it may be worth looking at your setup and minimizing your network topology so all that is being tested is your VoIP service. Remove all routers, computers and wireless devices from your network and test your VoIP line with just the ATA connected to your Internet modem. If you still see issues, try powering down your ATA and powering it back on again.
If you are still observing issues after running through these steps, then at least you are armed with some knowledge when calling up the support line for your VoIP provider. You will likely be taken more seriously and may get escalated to a higher tier of support.
If you get no joy, try another provider. However, when you try another provider do not jump in and transfer your phone number over immediately. Instead, keep your current service going but choose a new provider that has a 30 day money back guarantee. Order a new phone number and test out the new service. Only when you are happy that it is all working should you port your old number over to the new provider. This is an important point to note, if you cancel your old service first you may never get that number back.
Hopefully you are now armed with enough knowledge to debug your VoIP problems. If you are new to VoIP, do not be frightened by the steps above, most consumers have no issues and are enjoying trouble free service. They are also saving a small fortune!