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Consumer IP telephones: Tricks of the trade

VoIP is a getting pretty common in enterprises, but what about IP telephones for consumers? Ed takes a look at some of the pros and cons.

With an increasing number of companies like Vonage, Talk America, Rubicon IPNet, and others, offering IP-based telephone service to home and small business users, IP Telephony is opening itself up to a much broader audience than ever before. Although broadband connectivity (such as DSL or cable modem) is more or less required to make this technology palatable to those used to conventional telephone service, there are many issues to ponder and cost-benefit trade-offs to consider before junking conventional phone service in favor of an Internet alternative.

To get a sense of what the experience is like, I talked to old friend and co-author, Tim Catura-Houser, a self-proclaimed "training nomad" and a principal at Training Remembered. He abandoned his PSTN service in favor of a major IP phone service provider about six months ago, and shared his experiences with me to give would-be IP telephone users the opportunity to learn from his experiences:

  • During the first two days of operation, he had to manually restart his Motorola router each day because changes in underlying DHCP and DNS settings caused his dial tone to vanish (he says "nobody warned me this would happen, and I had to do some serious head-scratching before I figured this out").
  • Occasional communications difficulties do occur. These include rare dropped calls ("you have to redial once in a while" says Tim) and times when calls turn into one-way-only conversations ("I can either hear them, but they can't hear me, or vice-versa" he explains)—here again, the trick is to redial.
  • Sometimes, sound quality on the connection suffers. Common symptoms include excessive echo, tinny quality, or a "swooshing" background noise.
  • When the Internet is heavily congested or traffic volumes high, signal quality is more likely to suffer than when congestion is low. This applies to slow times on his local cable segment, all the way up to global, Internet-level jam-ups.
  • For $10 a month extra, Tim's IP phone provider offers access to a softphone (software that he can load on his laptop, and use for calling while away from his primary number). Tim has yet to take advantage of this service, but plans to do so soon, adding that he must use a separate number to make and receive calls when using a softphone.

All in all, Tim believes strongly that using a consumer IP phone today is like using an analog cellular phone in the mid-1980s. There are considerable advantages, to be sure (especially on cost, which was emphatically NOT the case for early cell adopters), but consumers must expect and tolerate occasional quality of service and usability issues if they sign up for IP phone service.

He and I both expect IP telephony to be adopted enthusiastically by home and small business users, and expect this technology to continue improving. As more IP-capable, high-function IP phones (which may include network switching and other goodies, taking Cisco's new-generation phones for example) become available, lots of interesting IP phone applications and enhanced capabilities should make the case for IP phone service more compelling than it is right now!


Ed Tittel is a regular contributor to numerous TechTarget Web sites, and the author of over 100 books on a wide range of computing subjects from markup languages to information security. He's also a contributing editor for Certification Magazine, and series editor for Que Publising's Exam Cram 2 series of cert prep books. E-mail Ed at etittel@techtarget.com.


This was last published in February 2004

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