Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
By Mike Gould
VoIP - sounds like the sound made by a dripping faucet in a cave, doesn't it? Or maybe a manufacturer of volleyballs. Nope, the capitals give it away; it is yet another technical acronym: Voice over Internet Protocol (or "Voice over IP" as we geeks refer to it). This is a way of performing acts of voice communication ("talking") using a simple-to-use computer instead of that complicated expensive obsolete thingy with the numbers on it ("telephone").
To explain this (which is insanely complex, has a lot of issues, and is no way going to completely fit into the 1000 words I am allotted), I am going to resort to the age-old mechanism of the Socratic dialog.
Because I can, and I haven't done so before - therefore this keeps things fresh and new.
Why would anyone want to do this?
Socratic Dialog? Well, I figured… oh, you mean VoIP? - Because it is free long distance calling.
Oh. Doesn't this alarm the phone companies?
What is this VoIP, then, exactly?
Well, Antiphon (as you are known in this particular dialog), VoIP is the practice of hooking a microphone into your computer and talking to people far away. Instead of using a telephone, the caller punches in a telephone number, plugs in a microphone, and chats with whomever, using the Internet instead of the telephone company. If the caller and the called both have the appropriate software, no telephones are involved. If the one called only has a regular phone, the call is routed through a gateway from the Internet to the phone system (usually for a small fee) and the one called takes the call the usual way.
This, then is a digital behavior, as opposed to the mostly analog nature of the telephone system?
Just so; your words go into the microphone, thence to the computer. The computer transforms your speech into digital information, which it then sends via the Internet to your respondent's computer, where it is . His or her response is sent back the same way; if from the gateway mentioned above, it handles the conversion to digital. This is not to say that a lot of the phone company network hardware isn't digital; it is. The difference is that telephone company-provided communications are carried by phone lines, and VoIP is carried by the Internet. And yes, this is a gross over-simplification.
And this is free?
Sorta. Mostly. There are many ways of doing this, and the one getting the most press is Skype. Skype is intended for individual users, not the business sector, although lots of small businesses are using it. Skype was recently bought by Ebay, which was viewed with alarm by many in the communications biz. Think about it: everybody using Skype = $0 for the phone companies.
What about VoIP that you pay for?
In the mainstream IT realm, many large businesses (including some units of the University of Michigan) are upgrading their in-house phone systems to VoIP. Users still use telephone handsets, but all the back-end hardware (geekspeak: those big black boxes in the communications closets) are digital doodads shipping conversations back and forth as ones and zeroes.
But this Skype, it is free?
Yup, but with a gotcha; by signing up you are agreeing to have your computer serve as a node in a global network. In other words, from time to time your computer may be involved in hosting hundreds of other people's conversations. This greatly increases your bandwidth (the amount of data flowing through your network connection) and can lead to all sorts of other problems. There are a lot of other, less problematic pieces of software out there that can do the same thing without the hub issues. Gizmo is one that I have seen recommended on the 'net (URLs are below for the items mentioned here). It has a flat fee for call out (calling someone who doesn't have Gizmo on their computer) of only $.018 per minute. Calls between Gizmo users are free, subsidized by their sales of the call out and call in services.
And this is businesslike?
Ah, jeez, Antiphon, I dunno. A lot of issues here. For starters, all the conversations are encrypted using proprietary encoding schemes. This means you don't know how secure your conversations are. But as this is way more secure than regular telephones (which you can tap with a piece of wire and a speaker), that is not that big a deal. But you also don't know what else might be riding the wires along with your communications. Most businesses go to great lengths to protect their networks, employing shields called firewalls to prevent malicious code from gaining access into and out of their systems. Anything piercing a company firewall should be viewed with alarm, so most security-conscious businesses don't allow independent VoIP on their networks. It should also be mentioned that you don't want to completely replace your landline or cell phones with VoIP; VoIP can't talk to some services such as 911.
But my business already uses VoIP!
That's not a question, Antiphon, but it means that your business has signed up with a company providing VoIP on an enterprise-wide scale. This means that you have a local (probably) vendor who has taken the time to address all the security and other issues involved with a business-scaled deployment. Good for you. You are probably paying less for your communications than those with POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service).
Me, I'm just a one-man business operating mostly by a cell phone. All my customers are in the same area code so I don't need free long distance (and my cell company offers it anyway if I need it). But if someone I work with moves to Katmandu, I'll probably sign up with Gizmo or whoever so we can stay in touch.
Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.