what is voipWhile VoIP is an incredibly useful tool for both individuals and small businesses, a lot of people who could benefit from VoIP services aren’t using them because they still don’t know the answer to the basic question, “What is VoIP?” If you are one of these people, consider this your introduction. We’ve put together a quick run-down on what VoIP is, what you’ll need to get started with it and its major advantages and disadvantages.

What is VoIP?

VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol. Put simply, it’s a phone service over the Internet. While a traditional telephone translates voices into electrical signals, VoIP converts your conversation into a digital signal it can send and receive using an Internet connection. VoIP services can either be soft phone services, which let you make calls using software on a computer or smart device, or hard phone services, which allow you to make VoIP calls with an analog desk phone. You shouldn’t think of these different kinds of services as exclusive, but rather as complementary. In fact, many VoIP hard phone service providers, like Vonage, also have soft phone programs to give their customers more ways to make and receive calls.

What do I need to use VoIP?

First, you’ll need an Internet connection with a speed of at least 1 Mbps, as your bandwidth directly affects the sound quality of your VoIP calls and how many calls you can support at once. DSL and cable connections are usually fine, but dial-up and satellite Internet often cannot handle the bandwidth VoIP requires. You will also want to make sure your connection is relatively stable, as unreliable Internet service can lead to dropped calls.

Next, you’ll need the equipment to make VoIP calls. If you want to use a soft phone service, then all you need is a smart device or a computer with speakers and a microphone. For a hard phone service, you can either use an ATA or an IP phone. An ATA, or analog telephone adapter, lets you connect a traditional, analog phone to your router. You can buy your own ATA, but home VoIP providers will send you an ATA for free when you sign up with them. Meanwhile, IP phones are specifically made for VoIP, and plug directly into your router. They are an option for home VoIP users, but they are more commonly used by business VoIP users. An IP phone can cost you anywhere from $40 to $300, but they often come with special features that let you take full advantage of your VoIP service. Plus, some VoIP companies, such as Ooma, will give you special deals on IP phones when you sign up with them.

What are VoIP’s advantages?

VoIP services are often cheaper than a landline because they aren’t subject to the same taxes and regulations that telephone companies have to deal with. Also, since the Internet can deliver information more efficiently than phone lines, even the most basic domestic plans usually offer more coverage than traditional phone carriers. For example, VOIPo’s home plan offers unlimited nationwide calling in the United States and Canada. Additionally, these plans often come with a big bundle of features. All of 1-VoIP’s plans, for example, include 18 features, ranging from robocall blocking and hold music to voicemail and email forwarding.

Once you have your VoIP service set up, you can also take it with you when you travel. Bring your ATA or IP phone with you and you can use your VoIP service, with the same phone number and rates, at any Ethernet connection. If your VoIP provider has its own soft phone software, you can alternatively use a computer or smart device with an Internet connection to access your VoIP service. As a bonus, since your VoIP registration is associated with an address, any calls you make to your home country while traveling internationally will be treated as a domestic call (although on the flip side, calls you make within a foreign country you are currently visiting are considered international calls).

What are VoIP’s disadvantages?

VoIP is an incredibly helpful technology, but it does come with some drawbacks. In terms of reliability, VoIP just cannot compete with desktop phones. If your Internet connection isn’t good or has a lot of other activity on it, such as video streaming or multiple devices connected, then your call quality will degrade. Even worse, if your power goes out your VoIP service goes with it unless you have a backup power supply. 911 calls are also more difficult with VoIP since VoIP doesn’t let the 911 operator trace your location or number, meaning you’ll have to tell the operator where you are and how to contact you. If your VoIP service comes with E911 features — note that most home services do — your phone number and registered address are automatically sent to the emergency center closest to that address. However, if you’re traveling or you forgot to update the address after moving, E911 can’t send it accurate information, which means the emergency services may never arrive.

Another issue is security. Once you get computers involved with anything, you have to start thinking about cybersecurity, and VoIP is no exception. A vulnerability on your end or on the end of the person you’re calling may allow hackers to monitor your calls or jam up your phone system with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. Tying your phone into your Internet also means you’ll need to take extra care to keep your computer software updated and regularly scan for viruses. If security is of particular concern to you, you may also want to make sure you get a VoIP plan that includes encryption, like one Jive offers, and equip your network with a specially-configured VoIP firewall.

Is VoIP right for you?

Though there’s a bit to learn at first, using VoIP can lower your phone bills and improve your calls. While it does help to have some sort of technical skills, they’re not required for the average, home VoIP user. If you’d like to learn more about VoIP, we answered five of the most frequently asked questions we get about VoIP. Also, be sure to check out our VoIP reviews to see some of the top services and determine if VoIP is a good fit for your phone service needs.