The following article was written and sent to us by Bill Pierce from Ontario, Canada. Bill has an interesting perspective on VoIP, in terms of where we started and how this technology evolved. He also offers some good advice on selecting a VoIP provider.
The telephone and I go back a long way – well, not quite to Alexander Graham Bell, but to dim memories from my early youth of a black phone without even a dial, let alone a number pad, and when you picked up the receiver a real human voice said, “Number please…”
To date it somewhat more accurately, that was in the early 1950’s. From there we gradually progressed to a dial, an eight-party line, direct long distance dialing, Touch Tone service, the breakup of the Bell monopoly, cell phones and Internet calls. It’s been a long ride, but with only a few bumps toward the end.
Of course, back in the day it was a lot simpler. Your choices were very limited: you either had service from Bell or occasionally from another provider in the areas Bell didn’t serve. Or you were one of the very few who did without a phone. The internals of the system itself, the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), were a mystery to all but telecom engineers. There was no need for individual telephone users to know (or care) as long as they could make and receive their calls.
The PSTN started becoming digital in the 1970s, but as a closed-ended internal system. Then came the Internet, which to a great extent disrupted nearly everything we old-timers knew about telephones – and a number of other technologies. It’s still happening today.
While the cost of real items kept going up, the cost of the virtual world kept declining. A 15-munute long distance call across the country was on the order of $18.00 in the early 1960’s (more than a half-day’s pay for a typical worker); today it’s effectively less than 10 cents, rolled into a flat rate for telephone service. For the most part, it’s not worth accounting and collecting for individual calls.
The first big break came in the 1970’s when the courts ruled that third-party firms could lease long distance lines from the Bell System and resell calls to business and residential customers. Some of them were large operations that became widely known, such as Sprint and MCI, but others were smaller local companies. Then in 1982 a US federal court oversaw the breakup of the Bell System ultimately into a total of 11 different firms (now merged into five huge communications corporations and one remnant of the past).
By the 1990’s the Internet was changing personal computers from standalone machines used by technically minded individuals into an interconnected network of devices for the masses. First email and then instant messaging kept people in touch nearly in real-time, and this eventually led to the rise of social media a decade or so later. The obvious conclusion was that everything was digital. Whether text, pictures, audio or video, it could all be transformed into packets of bytes in one place and sent across the net to another.
That included telephone calls. The same algorithms that digitized calls on the proprietary PSTN could be used on the open Internet as well. The network structure was already there; it was merely a matter of developing standardized procedures that routed calls on and off the net, to and from telephones at the originating end and the final destination. Collectively these are known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol).
VoIP systems were created relatively early, but the equipment was somewhat cumbersome and expensive, and quality and reliability sometimes suffered. Some of the early adopters were large corporate and government communications systems. It remained for the increase in Internet bandwidth capacity and the miniaturization of hardware in the early 2000’s to allow small VoIP adapters to be installed almost anywhere and to connect ordinary telephones via the Internet.
Just as firms arose 40 years earlier to resell leased long distance capacity, the same occurred with VoIP service. Most of the large traditional telecom companies had too much invested in their existing PSTN network to promote VoIP, but cable providers, seeking to lure customers away from their old telephone company altogether, began offering it. And so have a host of smaller operations, some of the tiniest of them working out of college dorm rooms and apartment spare bedrooms. Installing and configuring VoIP service is not quite as easy as doing the same thing for a wireless home router, but the odds are that you are acquainted with a student or computer nerd who knows how, and if you are truly technically curious, in a few evenings of Internet browsing you could learn almost everything you need to know yourself.
It might actually be possible for a truly savvy technophile to become their own VoIP provider, although finding a larger telecommunications company willing to provide a single individual with access to the numbering system of the PSTN would be rather difficult, and the process more involved than most people would like. But rest assured that any number of resellers out there will gladly offer you VoIP service, and at far lower cost than especially the large telecom giants and firms spending a lot of money on advertising.
One big problem is that it’s a little like the Wild West out there. We’re big believers in the free market, and we have a lot of faith that the market will sort out the good from the bad, and only the best will survive. Government regulation is largely seen as anti-competitive and an impediment to free enterprise. The old Bell System was a regulated monopoly; consumers had little choice and paid rather dearly, especially for long distance service, but almost everyone could expect basic local service, and there was an established mechanism if they had complaints.
Today it’s much more of a free-for-all. You are handing over your telephone number to third (and often fourth) parties whom you entrust to connect you to the outside world. You may believe you own that number, but the truth is that this is something of a legal gray area. Also, expensive as they were (and still are), the old telecoms prided themselves on all but 100 percent up-time, interrupted only by the rare ravages of nature. VoIP providers, while usually quite reliable, do not make quite the same promises. Should service be cut off, for a variety of reasons, you are not automatically entitled to a refund or compensation, as was the case in the old days. And if you feel you have been wronged by your provider, the procedure for handling complaints and grievances is more akin to mediation than actual legal redress and restitution.
Rates are not strictly regulated by government agencies. Providers do not need to submit and be granted rate requests in advance. The market is supposed to be capable of regulating prices on its own. There are few if any requirements about the level of customer support. Some providers take the attitude that the system should ideally be technically sophisticated and robust enough to support itself. Moreover, VoIP call quality is normally good, about equal to that of cellular connections, but often not truly high fidelity.
Despite the disclaimers, if you are still connected via a traditional phone company’s expensive landline, or unhappy with your cellular provider’s high rates, you should consider VoIP service. If most of your calling is within a single country, or at least within North America, you may find you can bring the cost of telephone service to below $10 per month (in addition to what you already pay for existing Internet service). Even if you chat around the world, it’s entirely possible in many cases to keep the cost under $30 per month. For an additional fee, some providers have apps that allow smart phones to make VoIP calls over a Wi-Fi Internet connection, thereby avoiding high cellular long distance and/or roaming charges.
However, you do need to be a little careful. Take a look at potential VoIP providers. Ask detailed questions about rates for the kind of calls you make and receive. Consider how long the provider has been established and their prospects for remaining in business. Consult reviews from other customers. Ask if they have introductory packages and trial periods for new customers – and how long these are in effect, as well as the total costs after the introductory period and whether there are penalties for cancellation.
There’s a lot more choice today than my dim boyhood memories of that stark black receiver in my parents’ old hallway of another century. In those days an international phone call was reserved for matters of life and death. Those simpler times are now long gone, mostly for the better, and the conversations are both more frequent and often less momentous, but the consumer is also expected to know a lot more.