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Are digital phones required for a VoIP deployment?

Configuring VoIP phones can take a good deal of legwork. Network expert Carrie Higbie explains the options available to organizations, from digital phones to softphones.

Phones for voice over IP have several distinctions. Clearly, analog and digital phones differ. And some phones can pass packets -- as required for VoIP -- while some can't.

You can have digital phones that do not pass packets, and you can have cell phones that communicate over IP on the cellular or Wi-Fi network. But older digital phones that don't pass packets can still communicate over VoIP. You can install a gateway that will convert the digital conversation into data packets to transmit over an IP network.

The easiest way to tell what a phone is capable of delivering is to look at what the phone plugs into to get a dial tone. If the phone does not plug into a network switch, then it will require a gateway to communicate over the network.

A gateway will have one connection to the POTS network, an older key system or PBX, and another connection to a communications network that understands IP traffic. The gateway acts like a translator between the two. On a cellular or Wi-Fi network, the gateway is typically a software program that will encapsulate the IP packets for transmission over the network.

Picture yourself in a foreign country where you don't know the language. A translator can interpret the conversations for you and the person with whom you are having a conversation. The translator is equivalent to the gateway in this scenario.

Another type of phone for VoIP is a softphone. Skype, Avaya Communicator and other softphone clients take microphone voice input and turn it into IP packets for transmission over a network. Softphones have the advantage of routing calls to the device regardless of physical location, as long as it's on and visible to the network.

You don't necessarily need the right hardware phones for VoIP communication. In fact, you can have any of these phones in combination and they will work.

You could use a gateway to bridge an office that uses VoIP with an office that doesn't. You could add softphones to that environment, or pretty much any combination of phones. Of course, with freeware and any phone that uses public networks, the call quality will only be as good as the network.

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