How to make phone calls over the internet (VoIP)

ByHelen Thomas

Lots of people in the UK are taking advantage of the benefits of 'Voice over Internet Protocol' (VoIP) technology. Our guide explains how to save money by making calls over the web instead of using a telephone...

In this guide:

What is VoIP, and how does it work?
What equipment do I need?
VoIP on smartphone
Will I get a new number or can I keep my old one?
How much does VoIP cost?
How does it compare to using a standard landline?
Potential drawbacks
VoIP in an emergency
Can I use my PC whilst making a VoIP call?
Should I get rid of my landline?
The future of VoIP

 

VoIP has become popular with British broadband users for many reasons, but one of its biggest strengths is its cost effectiveness, as phone calls - both local and international - are far cheaper than with a landline, and by some methods, are free of charge.

Here is everything you need to know before you start using VoIP:

What is VoIP, and how does it work?

Basically, VoIP means using the internet to make phone calls. You can often make very cheap - or even free - calls using a VoIP provider.

VoIP calls can be made over your existing broadband connection and do not require an old-fashioned "landline" meaning you may be able to do away with your traditional home phone service altogether - though bear in mind that many internet providers require you have a phone line with them in order to get broadband.

It works by taking voice signals and converting them to a digital signal that travels over the network before they are converted back to voice signals at the other end, allowing you to "phone" people using a broadband connection.

There are four ways you can use VoIP:

  1. Phone to phone: plug a traditional home phone into a VoIP adapter to make calls in the same way as a traditional landline. See VoIP provider Vonage, BT Broadband Voice for more information.
  2. Computer to computer: use an online voice/video calling platform - such as MSN Messenger, Skype or Apple's FaceTime - between two computers, tablets or smartphones. These calls are completely free.
  3. Computer to phone: use your computer and broadband to connect to someone else - they could be anywhere in the world - who is using a normal landline or mobile phone. By adding money to your Skype account you can call mobiles and landlines anywhere in the world from any computer.
  4. IP enabled phone to telephone network: using an IP enabled phone (no adapter required) to make calls to other telephones.
  5. VoIP app on smartphone: one in five of us now use VoIP via an app on our phones as an alternative to our mobile company's voice minutes. Apps like Skype, Google Talk and Viber allow users to make free voice and video calls to people using the same app, for free. 

What equipment do I need?

With a VoIP adapter, you can use any regular home phone. VoIP provider Vonage gives you a free adapter when you join. The adaptor allows you to make and receive calls in the same way as a regular home phone. You can also use you existing broadband and phone sockets to route the service throughout your house. VoIP phones look and behave exactly like traditional handsets and function in the same way as connecting your regular phone to a VoIP adapter.

If you're going for the computer option, all you really need are your PC speakers and a microphone. You may find a VoIP headset - a combination of headphones and microphone - offers a better overall experience, resolving the issue of echoes and feedback from speakers.

Headsets can be plugged into any computer and usually cost less than £10. You will also need an instant messenger, which can be downloaded for free from the internet. Popular examples include Skype and MSN Messenger for PCs and FaceTime for Mac computers.

VoIP on smartphone

A number of VoIP applications are now available to install on your smartphone including: Skype, Viber, fring and Google Talk. As with PC to PC internet calls, calls via these apps are only free when contacting another person with the same app.

BT (www.BT.com) have also launched a VoIP app called BT SmartTalk (available for iOS and Android) that gives its existing telephone customers access to their inclusive calls on their current landline plan...from their mobile phone.

This is the first app launched in the UK that links an iOS device directly with a customer's home phone calling plan so any calls you make, anywhere in the world where a Wi-Fi or 3G connection is available, will be billed as though you are calling from your landline. Be aware that Wi-Fi is your best bet if you are calling from abroad as you can still rack up huge bills exceeding your data limit on 3G.

Will I get a new number or can I keep my old one?

You can choose to keep your existing number, or receive a new number. You may even have the ability to choose the phone number you want - allowing you to opt for a local dialling code.

With Vonage you can choose to keep your existing number. It takes approximately 10 working days to transfer your old number over, until this time you can make and receive calls using the number you are provided with when you first sign up. Other people won't notice a thing - they'll still get through on your original number even before the old number is ported over.

How much does VoIP cost?

Once you've purchased a headset or phone, you need to decide which call plan is right for you. As VoIP becomes increasingly popular, there is a growing number of deals to choose from.

Vonage allows you to make unlimited calls, either to the UK or abroad, for nothing more than a low-cost, set monthly fee. Vonage has several packages to choose from - visit the provider's website for more information.

VoIP calls can also be completely free. If you know what time your friends will be online you can make calls between computers and you'll never have to pay a penny.

How does it compare to using a standard landline?

The main advantage of using VoIP is the cost saving. All calls to VoIP users are free, and landline calls are also usually free, if not lower than with traditional service providers.

In addition, you do not pay a monthly line rental which makes it the perfect option if you want to set up a second line for your kids or business. You can also make three-way calls, which is great if you have friends in more than one different part of the world.

Most VoIP providers also offer more sophisticated features, such as "call waiting" and "caller ID" so you don't lose the benefits of your old-fashioned telephone line.

Potential drawbacks

Early adopters of VoIP technology suffered with poor-quality connections, echoes and delays. However, most of these issues have since been resolved, not least because broadband technology has improved enormously over recent years.

The quality of your call may still be affected by low bandwidth, so if your connection is generally quite slow, your experience with VoIP might not be great during peak times, like weekday evenings when everyone's home from work and school.

In addition, your broadband needs to be switched on in order to make calls, increasing your electricity usage and the chance of your network being infiltrated. And remember that if you're experiencing broadband connection problems you may have difficulty making calls.

VoIP in an emergency

Following a consultation by Ofcom in July 2007, it was announced that as of September 2008, all VoIP services that allow users to make national calls must also provide access to emergency services numbers 999 in the UK and 112 in the EU.

In order to make VoIP calls you need electricity and your broadband connection must be functioning, this makes relying solely on VoIP risky as it will not work in a power cut or if your internet connection goes down. As a result it is advisable to keep your traditional landline phone too.

Can I use my PC whilst making a VoIP call?

Yes. You can surf the internet whilst talking with VoIP. You can even make calls with a VoIP phone when your computer is switched off, as the connection is live all the time.

Should I get rid of my landline?

Unfortunately, most people don't have the option, as you normally still need a landline in order to receive broadband. However, if you have cable, it's worth comparing the cost of the calls you make against the costs of a VoIP provider.

Even if you can't ditch your landline, VoIP is ideal as a second line - especially if your kids are always hogging the line or you run your own business from home and want a separate number.

Not only that, but international calls are predominantly cheaper if not free of charge with VoIP, so if you make regular calls abroad it could save you a lot of money.

The future of VoIP

VoIP apps that can be used on our computers and our smartphones are becoming increasingly popular and useful - especially with the dawn of apps that allow us to use our home phone plans to make free and cheap calls from abroad.

If you choose to opt for a VoIP package, you'll be joining a growing band of devotees. According to Ofcom, there are more than 500,000 active users of VoIP in the UK, and the number forecast to grow further in coming years.

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