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What is VOIP and how does it work?

By Tim Smith | Wednesday, October 7th 2020

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

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 a 2Mbps broadband line. There are a variety of ways, including specialist hardware and also phone and computer apps, that will enable you to benefit from VOIP calls. We'll be looking 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. It's also known as 'internet telephony' or 'broadband phone'. It does exactly what it says: it lets you make and receive phone calls using your broadband internet connection.

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 flavours from expensive-to-set-up hardware, via computer software, to apps that you can use on your phone or tablet device. 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

Systems including but not limited to Skype and Zoom Phone have monthly subscription fees. These are usually much cheaper than standard line rental, and come with free minutes of call time to local, national and international numbers.

VOIP hardware costs

Simply put, 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 of you are getting your broadband supply via ADSL. 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're on a tight budget on your mobile phone call credit, then yes, you need VOIP. At the very least you can benefit from the, usually, much cheaper calls you'll be able to make using a VOIP system.

Calls to premium line (0845, 0872 for example) will cost you more than calls to national and local 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.

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. There's hardware, software and even apps. 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 a Macintosh computer, and iPhone. Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Zoom are also commonly available apps that enable you to make VOIP calls
  • Hardware-based VoIP phones – If you prefer the feel of a traditional telephone, the dialling buttons can be easier to see for example, then you can buy an actual phone (sometimes called an IP phone, or VOIP phone). These start at around £25 our unit for a refurbished 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 old phone unit to make and receive VOIP calls. They range in price from £20 for refurbished models up to a £500+. Although they are less complex to set up than VOIP phones. As with a VOIP phone, you'll need to have a paid VOIP subscription
  • 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 hides 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 Facebook Messenger, Skype or FaceTime, it's a case of press that app's icon, look for the call button and off you go. With more hi-tech (expensive) hardware systems you'll have an actual handset or headset to use. But, when all's said and done, 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 ADSL, fibre or cable 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, and broadband phone) uses your internet connection to turn your voice into data and then send and receive it.

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 is going to be relatively expensive to purchase. However, if you're using apps like Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime then you can benefit from free 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 make and receive VOIP calls using internet connections running at 2Mbps. Fast is good, but stable is best. So, if your internet connection sometimes goes down, 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 Skype, they will be free or very cheap via a monthly subscription.

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 'number portability' as the process of taking your phone number with you is known in the UK, can be a complicated process. You will have to cancel your existing landline — and this can mean cancelling your broadband/phone deal. Because VOIP uses your internet connection, this is very much a Catch 22. In short, either set up call forwarding from your landline, or just take a new number.

Can I call non-VOIP phones via VOIP?

Absolutely yes you can. That's the beauty of it. However, before making any calls, make sure to check with whichever system you've chosen to see if there are additional charges — for example to premium line numbers, or international calls.

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