The buzz surrounding Voice over IP technology has been growing for quite some
time, but only recently has the notion of ditching standard telephone service grown
so compelling that companies like Skype can claim over 215 million downloads of
its product. In this article, we’ll explore the current offerings and help you make
wise choices while embarking on the VoIP path.
Let’s start with vocabulary. The most important and oft-repeated acronym you
must learn and understand in regards to Voice over IP is SIP. SIP stands for Session
Initiation Protocol, a well-established, open-standard protocol that is the glue to
the VoIP world. It allows a vast array of services, software, and hardware to work
together to create flexible, feature-rich calling solutions with many attractive
benefits. If it doesn’t support SIP, you shouldn’t support them.
WHAT DO I NEED
At minimum, you need a high-speed Internet connection, a SIP phone number, and
a softphone. A softphone is a software version of an IP phone that lets you make
calls using your computer.
Some services, like Stanaphone and Gizmo, will provide you with a softphone to use
with their system. Most of these will only let you configure SIP numbers that belong
to their network. If you want to utilize multiple SIPs across different networks, your
best option is to use X-Lite, a free softphone from Counterpath (formerly known as
Xten Networks). With X-Lite, it appears you can configure up to 9 different SIP
numbers. Like Gizmo, X-Lite comes in Mac, Windows, and PC versions.
If you want to use your existing phone, rather than a headset or microphone and
speakers, you’ll need an analog phone adapter. Dedicated, SIP-compatible IP
phones are also available. Wi-Fi IP phones can be carried with you and used
wherever there’s a wireless Internet signal. There are also WiFi mobile phones
You should also receive a SIP URL which looks similar to an email address and is a
simple way to share your new contact information. You can easily dial a SIP URL in
your softphone application or link to it from a web page. If you’re using a hardware
phone, SIP Broker has a free service that can maps the SIP server names to short
numeric codes, allowing you to easily dial users on over 200 different services.
WHAT CAN I DO WITH IT
You can make free calls to other IP phone users worldwide. You can make calls to
traditional phone numbers or attach a local phone number that routes to your SIP
number, allowing regular phone users to call you. If you travel, you can carry that
same phone number with you wherever there’s an Internet connection, and the folks
back home won’t incur long-distance charges when they call you. Free voice mail,
too, and messages are delivered to your e-mail.
In a business situation, you could slash or eliminate your long-distance charges by
setting up free calling between remote or international offices. Videoconferencing
also becomes possible without dedicated line charges. For the more adventurous,
you could also setup a PBX. Asterisk is a powerful, open-source PBX system with a
feature list that can give any sized business the advantages of a full-fledged digital
If you work in a scenario where 2-way radios are utilized, DingoTel offers a product
which can turn these in to VoIP walkie-talkies while making use of the radios full
reception range, sometimes up to 12 miles depending on the model.
For the budget-conscious, with some services like Gizmo and SIPphone, standard
phone users in major cities can dial a free access number, enter your SIP number
and speak to you via your IP phone. SIP Broker also maintains a few numbers which
allow callers to dial SIP numbers on any of their 220+ supported networks.
It may seem tedious, but programming the entire of sequence of numbers in to a
phone’s contacts directory is quite straightforward. Just remember to insert pauses
to allow for the phone system’s menu options to respond. If your friends have free
long-distance calling plans, they could reach you via any of the available access
numbers mentioned above at no cost to either of you.
IPKall and Stanaphone will give you a free local number as long as you don’t mind it
being in Washington State or New York City. IPKall will forward your number to any
SIP URL, but Stanaphone’s will only work with the SIP number provided through
Free World Dialup and SIPphone have peering agreements allowing you to SIP dial
users on a number of different VoIP networks using a short prefix. SIP Broker can
also help you reach anyone on a service that allows incoming SIP calls, which
Vonage and CallVantage do not.
There are also SIP-compatible softphones available for the Pocket PC, Palm OS,
Symbian, and Linux handheld markets that can turn your handheld in to a cordless
You have to pay when you want make calls to regular telephone numbers. If you
want a local number that links to your SIP number, that’ll usually cost you, too. The
good news is that the prices are very reasonable. There are many service providers,
plans, and packages out there to suit home and business users. Here are some
important questions to ask:
Does the plan include hardware, i.e. an analog phone adapter?
Will I own the hardware being provided by the service?
If I am buying the hardware, is it locked to your service or can I use it with other
SIP service providers?
Do you offer a “Bring Your Own Device” calling plan?
Does the plan include a virtual phone number so anyone can call me?
Are all incoming calls free?
Can I receive incoming SIP calls by number and/or URLs?
Make sure you understand any contracts, fees, calling rates or restrictions before
agreeing to service. There are numerous service providers offering free and paid
services. With a little bit of research, you’ll find something ideal for your intended
If you’re looking to stay on your computer while having some room to grow, check
out Gizmo. Gizmo is an excellent, cross-platform SIP softphone that works with
network services from SIPphone. In this setup, you could add incoming virtual
phone numbers for $12/3 months or $35/year that will allow folks to call you. All
incoming calls are free to you and to the person dialing (as long as it isn’t a long-
distance call, of course). They also maintains in major cities that users can dial,
enter your SIP number, and then be connected to you free of charge. They also have
decent outgoing rates for non-IP calls and sell making this a solution that scales
well for the average user. There’s even an Adium plugin available for you Mac users
Stanaphone is a free service from hosting giant Intermedia that also provides you
with a free virtual phone number in the New York City area. You can also receive
faxes sent to your virtual number in your email. Voice mail is also included. You
can also utilize a SIP phone adapter with the service, but you’ll have to pay to make
outgoing calls to standard phone numbers. At 2.6 cents a minute for calls in the
US, they’re a bit more expensive than Gizmo/SIPphone but the free virtual number
and fax receiving are nice bonuses although their service lacks in other features.
Stanaphone has a softphone client for Windows and PocketPC, but Mac users can
also use CounterPath’s X-Lite softphone with the service. The web site also says
only Stanaphone to Stanaphone calls are free, so you might be better off sticking
with Gizmo and their flexible peering agreements.
Free World Dialup offers SIP network services, but also has their own combination
Video IP Phone / instant messaging program. Within one program, you can make
SIP-based voice and video calls and chat with your friends whether they’re on
Yahoo, MSN, AOL, or ICQ. Their traditional inbound and outbound calling service is
still in Beta and a bit more expensive than Gizmo. Their Communicator application
is also available for PC only, although many hardware devices will work with the
FWD SIP network.
A number of service providers offer packages targeted towards specific kinds of
users. Broadvoice, for example, has unlimited worldwide plans starting at $19.95,
while also offering a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) plan at just $5.95 a month.
TelePacket has plans that start at just $0.95 a month while Packet 8 has plans that
target videoconferencing users at $19.95 a month.
If you want to test the waters, I’d start with trying out Gizmo. It’s a lightweight,
feature-rich softphone that also gets you service through SIPphone. They provide
local access numbers for non-VoIP users to call SIP numbers from traditional
phones, have many peering agreements with other networks to keep you connected,
and support options like virtual phone numbers and offer low-cost rates on calls
made to standard phones to give you a more robust VoIP phone package when
If you want to take the plunge, check out Broadvoice or Packet 8, who offers E911
service. They both offer robust feature sets, unlimited calling plans, inexpensive
virtual phone numbers, and have a good track record of reliability and service.
As for speaking and listening on any of these services, you have three basic options:
use a quality headset, purchase a phone adapter, or purchase an IP phone. A
headset, of course, is the most economical option. Buying a phone adapter is a
good choice if you love your phone and/or want to continue using your standard
phone service. Most, if not all, phone adapters also plug in to your phone line to
utilize the attached phone for both VoIP and regular phone calls. If you like the idea
of an IP phone and have a wireless network, we strongly suggest getting a WiFi
phone. It offers the most flexibility because it allows you to not only talk wirelessly
at home, but wherever there is a wireless Internet connection.
Whether you just want a new toy or are looking for a replacement phone system for
your home or office, the current crop of VoIP offerings present a wide array of
services and options. Review each company’s web site, read the fine print, and
search the web for service reviews and user experiences. You’re sure to find a
suitable solution with the ideal combination of cost, features, and quality that you’re