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What is VoIP and how does it work?

By Tim Smith | Tuesday, June 6th 2023

VoIP (pronounced 'voyp') is the technical name for making phone calls over the internet. It's a way to make cheap or even free phone calls. You are probably already using VoIP without realising it via Whatsapp, Skype, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger and other popular apps. You might also see it called 'internet calls'.

To use VoIP you need a stable broadband connection. The higher the speed the better for call quality but you can certainly achieve decent quality calls with just a 2Mbps broadband line. There are a variety of ways in which you can enjoy the convenience of VoIP calls, from phone and computer apps to specialist hardware. We take a look at all those options in this guide.

What is VoIP?

VoIP stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol, and that's about as technical as we need to get now. Simply put, it does exactly what it says: it lets you make and receive phone calls using your broadband internet connection rather than a traditional phone line. It also allows you to make video calls and hence also participate in video conference calls.

It achieves this using hardware and/or software that takes your voice and turns it into data that can be sent and received over the internet. It's a remarkably simple technology that has been around since the dawn of home internet in the 1990s. This means it's well understood and catered for by hardware, software and app makers. Just like your standard landline, not a lot can go wrong with it.

How much does VoIP cost?

VoIP, aka 'broadband phone', is available in a variety of forms from expensive-to-set-up hardware, via computer software, to free apps that you can use on your phone or tablet. Many of these methods will offer free calling both nationally and internationally. However, there are some costs that you need to keep in mind, and you need to check on.

VoIP call subscriptions

Most VoIP software is free to use at a basic level; you simply download the app and get started. However, some, such as Skype and Zoom, impose fees for different kinds of usage. For example, Skype will charge for calls made to non-Skype users and landlines, for voicemail and SMS messages. Zoom permits meetings up to 40 minutes and with 30 people for free – for more people and longer meetings, it offers a tiered pricing structure.

Unless you regularly want to use VoIP to call non-mobile numbers, or are looking at a business package, most VoIP software is free for personal use. Apps like Whatsapp and Facetime (for iPhones only) do not require any subscription and can be used for free voice or video calls to other UK mobile numbers both here and abroad.

VoIP hardware costs

In a word, if you're going to opt for hardware rather than software – a VoIP adaptor (to use your old phone) or a specialist VoIP phone – then you're going to pay for it. You'll probably also want to get a good quality headset and microphone if you decide to use VoIP software with your computer.

Line rental

Yes, good old line rental is still an issue if you are getting your broadband supply via ADSL or superfast fibre. This is because that form of broadband comes into your home using the same old copper wire as your traditional phone. So, keep this cost in mind when you price up your VoIP options.

Do I need VoIP?

If you use your landline phone to make international or expensive national calls, or if you are a business owner looking to hold regular video conferencing calls, then yes, you need VoIP. For individuals wanting to save their mobile minutes or avoid the cost of a landline, using a free VoIP service like Whatsapp is an ideal way to save money. Businesses looking for video conferencing services will find the convenience of Zoom, Teams or Skype indispensable, especially in these days of increased home working.

Calls to premium lines (0845, 0872 for example) will cost you more than calls to national and local landline phone numbers in the UK using VoIP systems, apps or software — even Skype, FaceTime and other services that are for the most part free. So, before signing up to any VoIP deals, or using any VoIP services, make sure to read all the call rate fine print and check which VoIP service is right for you.

What are the different types of VoIP?

All VoIP systems use the same basic principle. They convert human voice into digital data, transmit it over your broadband connection, then turn it back into voice at the other end. There are a number of different ways of achieving this though. We'll look at the main ones for home use here.

  • VoIP Apps – You'll most likely be familiar with apps like Skype and WhatsApp. Both of these can be used to make and receive VoIP calls. But so can FaceTime on an Apple Mac computer and iPhone. Facebook Messenger and Zoom are also commonly available apps that enable you to make VoIP calls. The latter is popular for video conferencing services, as is Microsoft’s own VoIP service, Teams
  • Digital Voice – The Openreach network is in the process of rolling out its full fibre network, and scrapping the old copper telephone wires. This means anyone who signs up for full fibre is likely to be given the choice of having a home phone or not. If you do still want a home phone, you can choose to have what BT calls Digital Voice and Sky calls Internet Calls, and use VoIP technology to make and receive calls on your home phone rather than a telephone wire. The provider concerned will set this up for you and there is no extra charge
  • Hardware-based VoIP phones – If you don’t want to upgrade to full fibre, then you can buy an IP phone (or VoIP phone). These start at around £25 for a refurbished phone unit, and get as expensive as £500+ for phones with so many features you'll never use them. In all cases with hardware VoIP phones, setting them up can be quite a complicated and technical process. You will also need to have a paid VoIP account
  • VoIP adaptors – These enable you to use your existing phone unit to make and receive VoIP calls. They range in price from £20 for refurbished models up to £500+. Although they are less complex to set up than VoIP phones, you'll still need to have a paid VoIP subscription from a company such as Vonage or 8x8
  • VoIP computer software – We've already looked at apps for your phone or tablet, there are also computer programs that you can use with your PC or Mac. You will probably also need to get a good quality headset, either USB-wired or wireless. Always check for the call rates when you use any VoIP system though. This is especially true in the case of computer software, which often touts itself as "free to download" but can hide a host of call charges

How do I use VoIP?

This depends on the method you've chosen to use to make and receive VoIP calls. At its most simple, with apps such as Whatsapp or FaceTime, it's a case of opening the app on your smartphone or tablet, finding who you want to call and tapping the call icon. You just need to have the person you are calling to have also signed up to the same app. With more hi-tech (expensive) hardware systems, you'll have an actual handset or headset to use. But, once you are set up, VoIP calls are as easy to make as landline or mobile calls.

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Frequently asked questions

Can I get VoIP to my home?

If you can get broadband (or even a good mobile phone signal) into your home, then you can get VoIP. This is because VoIP (also known as internet telephony or broadband phone) uses your internet connection to turn your voice into data. If you sign up for a full fibre broadband service, you will be offered a VoIP home phone that uses your internet connection as standard by some providers.

How much does VoIP cost?

This depends on what method you're using to make and receive your VoIP calls. For example, a hi-tech, physical VoIP-phone or adaptor for your computer, paired with a subscription plan is going to be relatively expensive to purchase. However, if you're using apps like Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or FaceTime for straightforward, personal use, then you can benefit from free video and voice calls.

What kind of quality are VoIP calls?

This depends on the stability of your internet connection. Speed is something of an issue, however you can expect to be able to make and receive VoIP calls using internet connections running at just 2Mbps. Fast is good, but stable is best. So, if your internet connection sometimes wobbles, you will also find your VoIP calls breaking up.

Are VoIP calls expensive?

No. Depending on the VoIP system, local, national and even international calls can be cheap in comparison to standard landlines or mobiles. In some cases, such as Whatsapp, calls to other mobile users who have also got Whatsapp are completely free.

Can I keep my old landline phone number?

The quick and uncomplicated answer to this is that it's best not to bother. This is because you will have to cancel your existing landline — and this is likely to mean cancelling your broadband too. In short, either set up call forwarding from your landline, or just take a new number. Or, if you are using a service like Whatsapp, you just use your existing mobile number.

Can I call non-VoIP phones via VoIP?

Yes you can. However, before making any calls, make sure you check with whichever system you've chosen to see if there are additional charges — for example to premium line numbers, or international landline calls.

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