VoIP: Why

Taking control of your phone system by utilizing voice over Internet Protocol.

The old normal

Telephone service in the United States was controlled by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company for approximately a century following the patenting of the telephone and invention of the telephone switchboard, both in 1876. The invention of the telephone was incredibly liberating for those that could afford one (a luxury that became ever more common over the decades), but also constricting as AT&T used federal law to restrict what its customers could use—even to the point of suing a company for selling for a plastic cup that attached to a phone. Other countries similarly provided for either private or public monopolies—such as Deutsche Telekom (Germany) and the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (Japan).

By the time that the United States broke-up AT&T in 1984, most homes in the country had a home phone line, and large businesses would handle many employees through a private branch exchange. Many homes would have an answering machine to record calls while out.

What's Normal Now

Many homes no longer have traditional copper cables connecting them to the traditional plain old telephone system. Most adults have a mobile (cellular) phone, and in rich areas, sometimes children do as well. Some families find it convenient to have a singular home line as well, at which either parent or even older children can be reached. In these cases, the house line may be connected via traditional telecommunication companies—such as the successors to AT&T—or to one of the large companies formerly relegated to television service but since branched out to Internet and voice over IP.

The historical means of routing calls over the telephone network would occur by creating a dedicated, physical, circuit from one end to the other. Electric pulses would be transmitted over metal over this circuit, converted from audio on one end to electricity and back to audio on the other. A benefit of the historical configuration is that it does not require any additional electricity at the terminal parts, allowing the metal circuit to also carry power to the residence, and continuing to provide service even when power is otherwise lost such as in a storm.

Many users today are switching to one of several VoIP providers, often through their normal Internet or television providers, but occasionally through a separate company that utilizes an existing Internet service. These services obviously require the consumer's premise to maintain not only electrical power but also Internet service. Other telephone users are opting for mobile phones without any land lines, in effect creating a one-to-one mapping between their mobile phone numbers and themselves. VoIP providers are trying to provide reasons why consumers might purchase their service while some mobile carriers are integrating a VoIP experience on their networks in the form of femtocells, an Internet gateway to their mobile networks.

Often times, VoIP providers attempt to entice users looking for cheap international rates or an local phone number in a country foreign to the user (for instance to provide to family or business associates). Other offerings are often similar to what one would expect from a mobile (cellular) phone: often voicemail is included, possibly video calling or text messaging, often free calls to other users of the same service and per-minute charges when calling users on other services. Some VoIP providers provide services with a focus on integrating with other Internet technologies, such as eMailing voicemails when they arrive; others might provide programs to install on a smartphone to be able to use the service while travelling.

What's a business got?

During the twentieth century, businesses of significant size had the need to support multiple lines, and they did so using one of two methods. Smaller businesses would use a key system, in which each phone installed on the premise would be connected to multiple lines, and the phone's operator (rather than a remote switch operator) would manually select the desired line to answer or to use to place a call. If you think back to some old movies where one office worker (or a secretary) directs another that so-and-so is “on line 2”, they could very well be using a key system.

Larger companies that could warrant the expense of their own switchboard staff would have a private branch exchange (such as can be seen during Peggy Olson's introduction to the office staff in the pilot for Mad Men). This served both as a contained, miniature phone system as well as a gateway to the larger world's phone network. By the third millennium the expense of dedicated human operators was a distant memory, just as it was on the larger phone system. The further switch to predominantly VoIP telephony in offices meant that running a PBX was now significantly cheaper and the additional flexibility and scalability an VoIP-based PBX (IP-PBX) meant that they had begun to appear in ever smaller companies.

What you can do

Telephony saw huge democratizing advances at the turn of the millennium. There are several established and mature software solutions that are free for running your own PBX at home. Most VoIP systems are built around the session initiation protocol. Because companies targeting VoIP service to home users and enterprise customers have both decided to support this technology, telephones supporting the technology range in price and features from inexpensive (tens of dollars) to expensive conference-room set-ups with video and satellite microphone/speaker units.

What does this mean for you, wanting to take advantage of this technology? Like much of what we talk about at Quite Normal, that depends as much on you as it does on the technology. If you want to configure a full-fledged PBX connecting you with extended family, you could do this with either an old computer or running on your normal desktop. Rather than buy dedicated handsets you could run applications on your smartphones and you already have free calls between each other over the Internet. Some things you might want to consider:

These of course are on top of the probably cheaper per-minute rates to the plain old telephone system that are available. My personal favourite feature is the ability to ring several locations at once: if our neighbor calls the house line, not only does the phone ring in the house, but it also will ring my wife's mobile phone as well as mine. In effect, this is an evolution of dialing specific devices to dialing a person or group of people.

Even in the world of powerful, free software you have choices. GNU Bayonne may be one of the oldest, fully free, powerful telephony suites; while FreeSWITCH is a newer platform providing wide ranging feature support. Other software, such as SER (SIP Express Router) and Sipwitch focus more extensively on SIP-centric environments, and may prove less flexible when attempting to interact with the plain old telephone system. Feel free to compare and try any of these solutions, however when we delve deeper into configuring VoIP, we will be focussing on what is likely the most well known open-source PBX package: Asterisk PBX.

What will be Normal

The telephone system as we think of it is basically dead in the advanced world, having been replaced in most respects by the Internet; in the future this will see the existing numerically-addressed telephone system laid to rest. Until then, the trend towards mobile phones and various instant-messaging and Internet-based VoIP systems will continue.

Return Home