What's the downside to VOIP?
April 2, 2009 10:07 PM   Subscribe

What is the current state of VOIP?

VOIP was never an option for us in the past, as it requires an internet connection, and we're on DSL, which until recently required a phone line.

But now AT&T is selling DSL without requiring phone service. Looking at it, I can get our current level of DSL service plus unlimited Vonage phone service (including call waiting/forwarding/id and voicemail) for what we're paying now for just basic phone service (no long distance, we've been using cards since getting burned by a crooked long distance company) + DSL.

But I'm thinking there's a catch. Like bittorrent will kill my phone service (or vice versa), for instance. What are the ugly trade-off realities of going to VOIP for your home phone line?
posted by middleclasstool to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I use a GAN/UMA phone in conjunction with my home office wireless internet over a cable modem. That means that for most of the day I'm using VOIP and the internet at the same time through the same cable.

I've never done anything like BitTorrent, but I've never seen any noticeable problem with either my phone service or my internet. I don't think you will, either. I don't know how similar my setup is to yours, though, and I'm no expert on VOIP.
posted by koeselitz at 10:29 PM on April 2, 2009

I bought a Sipura spa-1001 about three years ago, subscribed to Broadvoice and have used it as my main line for those three years.

I have had both DSL and Cable service, and both worked fine. I share totally legal linux distributions via bittorrent, and the only thing you have to worry about is throttling your upload speeds. If you don't want to do that, look into QoS or traffic shaping, which are capabilities that most consumer-grade routers have nowadays.

Beyond that? Well, if the network, as a whole, is busy when you're trying to call, you'll sometimes get weird artifacts in the sound, like 'tunneling'. Also, (again, according to traffic and the state of the phone that you're calling) you may experience voice delays (where you hear yourself talking to the person through their receiver). Finally, (and I've never been able to reliably pinpoint the reason for this) some truly old phone systems simply seem to be inaccessible to the voip phone - you'll call, they'll pick up, and then... nothing. No sound for either end. It's weird.

I'm not sure how much of this may be due to my particular POTS adapter, the spa-1001, or how much of it is due to my service, since I've never strayed from either one (mainly because, as annoying as these things are, the phone service is otherwise fine), but I have heard stories much like mine from users of other adapters and consumers of other services.

All the other caveats and addendums apply: you'll need a router, an adpter from your phone to the internet (a voip adapter) and since you don't have a deal with the phone company, you'll need to subscribe to some kind of service that will translate your packets over to the actual phone system (for this, I suggest you look at sites like Voxilla for better ideas on services and adapters.)

If the power goes down, you're screwed - your modem, router, and adapter go out. Also, if there are network snafus, you're equally screwed. If you have any routing problems: screwed; if you blow your bandwidth cap: screwed; if your network is totally fine but your servicer isn't: screwed. And the fun part about it? You have no phone during this screwage. In fact, I keep a prepaid cell just for emergencies, traveling*, and for when there are network outages.

So, with all these cons, what's the pros? For $19.95 a month, I can call anywhere on the freakin' planet except Africa and talk for as long as I want. I also have call waiting, call forwarding, special rings, voicemail, and a ton of other crap that I don't use - all on this one plan. Yeah, it's got it's issues, but I enthusiastically endorse voip.

*I've never been able to get my adapter to work outside my home network, but honestly, I haven't tried really hard. I have, however, heard of people that have taken adapters on business trips, and called home from hotels using the hotel's handset, through the adapter, to the hotel's network. YMMV.
posted by eclectist at 11:25 PM on April 2, 2009

A word on Vonage: Vonage is to VOIP what AOL was to internet access.

It's mindlessly easy to set up and basically works for most basic users, but it's hideously overpriced, involves a substantial amount of vendor lock-in, and is looked down upon for a lot of very good reasons by people who have examined the alternatives.

It's the sort of service I'd recommend to my grandmother (if she were in the market for telecommunications services not involving a Ouija board) if my primary concern was not having to provide technical support, but I would never recommend to anyone with a modicum of technical competence.

Anyway, I would not use it. I'd recommend buying your own ATA and then buying VOIP service from any one of the hundreds of available providers. I use Callcentric and wouldn't hesitate to recommend them. They have very good instructions on their site for setting up a wide variety of adaptors, and their support is first-rate if you ever need it. I've had no trouble with quality of service, either.

You're correct in thinking that Bittorrent + VOIP at the same time can be a bad combination, but it's not a deal-breaker, it just means you need to set up your network intelligently. Basically you need to apply QoS so that your VOIP packets always receive priority over the BitTorrent traffic. You can do this either by placing the VOIP ATA at the entrance to your home network, let it act as the gateway (many offer this feature), so that it can slow down other traffic while letting its own go down the wire, or you can use a router that has QoS features. The former option is easier, the latter option is more configurable but requires some networking knowledge and a good router (a "real" non-consumer router or one that will run an aftermarket firmware, I suspect, although maybe some consumer routers do QoS these days).

On my router, which runs DD-WRT, I can set packet priority by MAC address, so I just have all packets from the VOIP ATA set to 'ultimate' priority (which basically means don't QoS them at all) while everything else gets sorted by port/protocol and given best-effort. This seems to work okay, although I admit I'm not a heavy BT user.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:40 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

This isn't a direct answer to your question, because I don't live in the same market as you, but it might be informative.

Here in the Netherlands, the largest telco (KPN) has been switching customers to voip for a few years now. In the old days, they'd have a copper-pair entering their house, and a telephone would be hooked up to that. adsl was invented, and they'd give people a "splitter" they would hook up to the copper pair. One plug in the "splitter" would go to the phone, one would go the the adsl modem.

A few years ago, they introduced "internetplusbellen" (roughly translates to "internet plus phone calls"), and you would connect the phone to the adsl modem instead of to the splitter, and the splitter disappeared. That would be all that the customer would see, but technically they'd just switched to a voip solution - the adsl modem did the heavy lifting with SIP accounts and such, and (most) people were none the wiser.

This migration has gone so far that I expect KPN to be able to switch off the ancient way of telephony in 2011 or 2012 or so. That will probably not happen, but it should tell you voip is here to stay, and usually there's no downside you'd notice.
posted by DreamerFi at 2:01 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

We've been a VOIP-only household for over two years now. At the start, it wasn't a great fit, mostly due to teething troubles with our service provider. The calls dropped out, the quality ranged from fair to gibberish, and voice-mail wouldn't work.

However, two years on, we have a VOIP phone that gives good call quality (not perfect, but good enough for us), the horrible drop-out problem has vanished, the cost is minuscule compared to even the most ambition telco plan ($14/mo, 10c per call anywhere in the country, un-timed), the portability has been a god-send and the fact that the number is to all intents and purposes unlisted has meant that I haven't had a cold-call from anyone since we got it. I have a second number for my business that I use for the fax-line and I haven't had any problems sending or receiving faxes either, fwiw. Voicemail works well and there are a zillion other options that I can't be bothered going through.

As far as emergency back-up is concerned, both of us have mobiles (different carriers) and frankly - if both of those go out as well - we're going to have bigger problems than calling someone. I understand that even a non-active phoneline can be used to dial emergency numbers if you have an old-fashioned un-powered handset (might not work in your area - best to check) so there's that to consider as well.
posted by ninazer0 at 2:20 AM on April 3, 2009

Heh, I like the analogy of Vonage to AOL, mainly because I have Vonage. We started with them a really long time ago, and haven't bothered switching mainly due to inertia and not wanting to get a new phone number, so I suppose the AOL analogy is very, very strong.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned so far is 911 calling. Since VOIP isn't location specific, you typically have to register your physical location with your provider, and keep that up to date. I think there's one documented case where a VOIP subscriber totally forgot to update his location information and a 911 call sent ambulances to the other side of the state.

It's also not clear how much time you lose by going through some emergency call center your provider routes to, rather than going directly to your local 911 operator. If this is important to you, you may want to keep a very basic POTS service around, or have neighbors you can run screaming to. I did actually call 911 a few months ago to report a downed electrical cable in my backyard, and that wasn't a problem. On the other hand, this was not a time critical issue.

Cell phones may have a similar issue, though the provider does do some location services for the 911 operator.
posted by chengjih at 4:18 AM on April 3, 2009

I've used Vonage previously and was very satisfied with the service. It was effortless to install and very competitively priced, in my view, at £5.99 per month. I ran it on my cable broadband with Virgin Media with no phone package in my internet+tv bundle. I had no problems with the service when using it alongside regular internet access, watching tv online, downloads, etc. I only left Vonage when I moved to a new home with no cable installation.
posted by Lleyam at 5:30 AM on April 3, 2009

I use vonage and I'm happy with it.

I worry a little about the 911, both the extra time involved in going through their call centre, and the fact that there's no phone service if the power's out (you thought of that, right?).

I have never had a call dropped or anything of the sort. The sound quality is a non-issue. The only technical issue I've had is that if I don't pause torrents when making outgoing calls the person I'm speaking to tells me that my voice goes in and out. Incoming calls don't have this problem.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:48 AM on April 3, 2009

Yeah, Vonage doesn't seem overpriced to me. It's what, $25 a month for unlimited calls in the whole US of A? With free everything?

You can get cheaper SIP service, but then you have to buy and set up your own ATA or Asterisk machine, right?

Anyway, the above caveats are mostly correct. One thing about the real phone company is that their uptime is phenomenal- I can't ever think of a time when I never got a dialtone or a call was dropped from them. VOIP is not as reliable- more on the order of a very good cellular provider.

I have it, I love it (mostly) and I would recommend it. As long as people know what they are getting into.

The bandwidth issue is mostly cured with QOS. As others have stated, some of the ATA devices get installed inline with your router and does this automatically. (Which is also how "real" Cisco VOIP office systems are installed- the phone plugs into the wall, the computer plugs into the phone.) If your ATA doesn't do that, you have to set up QOS on the router. What worked for me was using both mac address filtering and physical port filtering. One or the other never worked, but both work just fine.

(I believe you can have Vonage set up to route directly to your local 911 center. You just have to find out what the "real" phone number is and have 911 routed to that.)
posted by gjc at 6:49 AM on April 3, 2009

I have ViaTalk and while it used to be a bit flaky and had a few oddities (such as sending you a voice mail notification if someone listened to your outgoing message but didn't actually leave a message) they have fixed all those recently. I stuck with them because the price and features are excellent and they allow you full admin access to your adapter, which few other providers do. I recommend them.
posted by kindall at 8:32 AM on April 3, 2009

Response by poster: We're aware of the power outage issue, yeah. I've got two work cell phones and two personal cell phones here, so I can't imagine a power outage would be that bad of a deal, honestly.

The 911 issue does bug me a bit. Hmm.
posted by middleclasstool at 10:53 AM on April 3, 2009

Response by poster: Awesome. Evidently my router does have QoS.
posted by middleclasstool at 11:00 AM on April 3, 2009

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