VoIP Advantages and Disadvantages

The pros and cons of IP technology by Daniel Kochmanski

DDK Telecommunications

Buffalo, New York

 

†††† VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is the ability to transmit and receive voice telephone calls over an Ethernet data connection. Ethernet data connections are used to connect computers inside an office building across a LAN (local Area Network) also known as intranet as well as connect computers to the world wide web (www) also known as a WAN (Wide Area Network) or internet.

 

†††† I must explain that VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is utilized in two different ways. The first method, and the first one created, is for inbound and outbound phone service via VoIP service providers. The service can be via SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) trunking or a VoIP adapter. The second method is utilizing VoIP signaling directly to a business multi-line telephone is known as an IP (Internet Protocol) based phone or IP phone for short. I shall explain the advantages and disadvantages of IP business phones later in this article. Iíll also explain why a Hybrid system may be your best solution in the final paragraph.

 

†††† VoIP service provider companies, such as net2phone (IDT Corp) and iConnectHere (DeltaThree Corp.), started selling VoIP phone service back in the 1990ís. My personal experience back then was that the quality was very poor mostly due to lack of sufficient bandwidth, internet speed and compression techniques. Today there are hundreds of VoIP phone service providers. Some of the more popular ones are Vonage, Skype, Broadvoice, Time Warner Phone, Lingo, Packet8, EarthCaller, Ooma, Oovoo and MagicJack. I feel that I should mention at this point that anyone could use VoIP service providing you have high-speed internet access. VoIP phone service will work with your existing telephones. It can be used in either a residence or a business. One will simply need a device called a VoIP adapter or ATA (Analog Terminal Adapter). This device has a WAN internet connection jack and a phone connection jack.

 

Advantages of VoIP phone service:

 

†††† One of the biggest advantages of VoIP phone service is the low cost. The basic monthly fee and the cost per minute is lower than traditional copper POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) as provided by the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). This is mostly due to the lack of government control and taxes for anything related to the internet. Unfortunately, lack of government regulation also equates to lack of quality as you shall come to understand later. Another advantage of VoIP phone service is free calling features. Whereas the traditional copper line phone companies charge for features like caller ID, call forwarding, voice mail, call waiting and distinctive ringing, VoIP service providers typically provide these features free of charge. Also since VoIP utilizes newer computer systems more advanced calling features are available which cannot be obtained via traditional copper POTS lines. An example is a videophone. A videophone provides 2-way video and audio over high-speed Ethernet connections. Currently Skype and Oovoo are two popular videophone service providers. Soon people all over the world will be using videophones. I vidi people all the time. Vidi is pronounced vid-ee.

 

Disadvantages of VoIP phone service:

 

1.       You must have high-speed internet access in order to obtain VoIP phone service. This may be via dsl (digital subscriber line), T1, cable modem via your local cable TV provider, FiOS (Fiber Optic Service) via Verizon or your local phone company, or some other method of high speed internet access.

2.       You must buy or obtain a device called a VoIP adapter, also known as an ATA (Analog Terminal Adapter) or obtain a VoIP card for your business phone system in order to use SIP trunks.

3.       If power is lost to the VoIP adapter or if your internet connection is lost due to a power outage, you will be without phone service. As opposed to copper POTS lines which by federal law are required to have 48 hour battery backup and generators in place in case of a long term power outage. Anyone having traditional phone service thatís experienced a power failure knows that when the lights go out, the hard-wired phone still works.

4.       Occasionally your high-speed internet modem, router or VoIP adapter may lock-up. When this occurs, one will have to unplug the power to the high-speed internet modem, the router and the VoIP adapter. Then power them up slowly in the aforementioned sequence in order to restore phone service. Power should be restored to the devices in the same sequence as the signal comes into your building. Also wait one minute between powering up each device.

5.       Potentially Inferior Customer Service: I say potentially because you're dealing with people at a company thatís located in another city, in another state and/or in another country that you've probably never met. If you have an issue with the VoIP phone service, there's only so much you can do over the phone and internet. This also means that you will be acting as your own troubleshooter with the aid of some technician via the phone or email. Being that VoIP phone service frequently has problems, undoubtedly you will experience this multiple times. One must realize that itís helpful to have the service providerís company and their technicians located in the same city as you so that theyíre available to stop by if you need them. Remember that time is money and if your VoIP phone service is down for hours or days, you must be able to bear the expense of an outage.

6.       It may not be possible to keep your old telephone number when you switch to a VoIP service provider. If the service provider offers local phone numbers in your area, there's a chance that you can keep your old phone number and port it over, but there is no guarantee. If this is important to you, check with both your current telephone company and the VoIP service provider to make sure you can keep your old number.

7.       Enhanced 911 emergency services may not be available. Therefore in the event of an emergency, if you are unable to speak, the operator will not be able to determine your location.

8.       Your fax machine may not work properly with VoIP phone service. Reliability varies per user and service provider and is, at best, about 85% which means 15% of the time your fax will not go through.

9.       Your alarm system may not work properly with VoIP phone service. Alarm companies typically mandate that you have a traditional copper POTS line for the alarm system to communicate to their central office.

10.   Your other single line analog devices such as credit card zon machines may not work properly with VoIP phone service. This is typically due to poor audio sampling and inband timing problems.

11.   Incomplete outbound calls: Occasionally on a VoIP line, when one places a call he or she may hear a ringback tone in their ear but the recipientís phone simply doesnít ring. Hence the caller will think the party is not there because they receive no answer.

12.   Occasionally one will place a call and simply hear nothing. Yet the recipientís phone is ringing. The called party walks over to answer the phone and the caller hangs up on them. The caller has to call back because they never heard any ringback tone. But at the same time the recipient is trying to contact the caller by using *69 or the phone number retrieved from caller ID.

13.   Incomplete Inbound calls: Occasionally on a VoIP line, when one receives a call he or she may hear the phone ring, answer it and no one will be there. This is typically due to a one-way audio problem.

14.   With VoIP service you will certainly experience a one-way audio problem at one time or another. When this occurs, you may be able to hear the caller but he or she will not be able to hear you or vice-versa. This can be due to NAT (Network Address Translation) settings or STUN server settings (STUN = Simple Traversal of User Datagram Protocol [UDP] through NATs).

15.   A dropped call is a common problem indicative of VoIP phone service and IP phones. This can occur anytime during the phone call and is where the phone will simply hang-up on both parties. ††

16.   Your QoS (Quality of Service) while using VoIP phone service will NOT be as good as it would be with traditional POTS lines. VoIP phone service is similar to the quality that one would get with a cellular phone. With a cellular phone, one would expect to have dropped calls, digital breakup in the audio, missed calls, incomplete calls, lost voice mails and the inability to place a call because all circuits are busy. These same problems and many others plague any type of VoIP call.

 

†††† With VoIP your voice is digitized into packets of data (ones and zeros). These packets are split up like pieces of a puzzle, sent over a data connection (for example, the internet), and then reassembled at the other end. The problem, in essence, is timing. The packets must arrive at the receiving end and be reassembled, in the exact same order, as they were disassembled. Unfortunately, packets may take multiple different routes to get from point A to point B hence there may be a delay of one packet over another. When this occurs, the recipient will hear a garbled voice like: Hi Paul, Thi Dan. Are sis we still go eet at 4 pm ing to today? Instead of hearing: Hi Paul, This is Dan. Are we still going to meet at 4 pm today? This is called jitter. It is the variation in the time between packets arriving, caused by network congestion, timing drift, or route changes. Another similar problem that plagues any type of VoIP phone service is latency. Latency or lag is the time between the moment a voice packet is transmitted and the moment it reaches its destination. It leads to delay and finally to echo. It is caused by slow network links, network congestion or improper bandwidth. Another problem faced by VoIP calls is packet loss. This occurs when a large amount of traffic on the network causes dropped packets. In other words, a few pieces of the puzzle or audio conversation are lost while being transmitted from the sender to the recipient. This results in dropped conversations, a delay in receiving the voice communication, or extraneous noise on the call. An example of a call with packet loss would be: Hi Chris, this is Dan Kochman --- need to order four--- model seventy-six --- phones BUZZ. Instead of correctly hearing: Hi Chris, this is Dan Kochmanski. I need to order fourteen model seventy-sixteen telephones. A feature known as QoS (Quality of Service) can be activated at the receiving router to help alleviate a few of these data problems but since the errors typically occur at the transmitting end or on route, QoS has only a minor effect.


Advantages and Disadvantages of IP based business phones


††††
As previously mentioned, one could order VoIP phone service and use it with your existing business phone system and/or one could switch to a new phone system using VoIP based phones also known as IP based phones. IP phones connect directly to a computer network via Ethernet data cable. The Ethernet cables are typically category 5e or category 6 and made of four-pair wire with RJ-45 modular plugs. The IP phones connect via a network to a main computer brain also known as a computer server or Asterisk box. The computer server emulates a KSU (Key Service Unit) or PBX (Public Branch Exchange). KSU and PBX are the names of the main brain used for traditional analog and digital TDM (Time Domain Multiplexed) type phones. KSUís and PBXís are almost always located on the customerís premises and are owned by the customer. Whereas with the computer server for IP based phones it may be located either on or off the customerís premises. If it is located on the customerís premises, the customerís IT (Information Technology) staff must be trained on how to program and perform maintenance on the computer server. If the computer server is off-site, it is called a Hosted VoIP solution. The computer server, known as a virtual IP PBX, may be anywhere in the world. This system will require constant maintenance, firmware & software updates. Theyíll be performed by technicians who will charge an annual fee for maintaining the system. Examples of IP based phones where the server is on-site are Vertical Wave, Vodavi Telenium, Panasonic, Nortel and Adtran. Hosted IP based phones is where the server is off-site. They are linked to the virtual IP PBX via the internet. These are 100% reliant on the customerís internet bandwidth, speed, latency, delay, and quality of connection. Some examples are Cisco, Polycom, Mitel, Vaspian, I-Evolve, Aastra, and Grandstream.

 

Advantages of IP based business phones

 

1.       There may be a lower cost per call or cost per minute for using IP based phones than traditional digital phones. Though itís worth noting, that one can simply order VoIP incoming lines to their existing digital phone system and reap the same low cost benefits without ordering any new equipment.

2.       There may be neat call tracking and call recording features built into the VoIP phone system. The disadvantage is that this allows anyone off-site with technical skills the ability to monitor your companyís calls and activity without the business ownerís knowledge.

3.       If your IP phone computer server is off-site, the up-front cost may be cheaper because the customer will only have to buy phones but not a KSU or PBX. Unfortunately though, IP phones typically cost $100 to $200 more per phone than digital phones.

4.       Soft phones, also known as software phones, and PC phones exist which allow oneís computer to emulate a real phone. Unfortunately the computer running the Soft phone or PC phone can crash and force you to miss calls.

5.       IP phones can be taken anywhere in the world and will work wherever there is an unfiltered internet connection. This means an individual can have an IP phone at home that is linked to their office. Though itís worth mentioning that newer Hybrid phone systems give the user the best of both worlds whereas they utilize traditional reliable digital phones within the customerís business office and still allow IP phones to be connected to the system via the internet. With a hybrid system, if the internet connection is lost, the customerís office phones stay working and only the few IP phones stop working.

 

Disadvantages of IP based business phones

 

1.       IP based phone manufacturers are typically companies which formally only made computer data equipment (e.g. Cisco, Linksys, Adtran, Polycom, Texas Instruments, Aastra and Grandstream). Therefore their phones may not have logical or intuitive features as a phone would have if it were made by a telephone manufacturer who had been in business making phones for 30 years. For example; The outside line dial tone and the intercom dial tone sounds may be reversed or zero may give you a fast busy signal instead of contacting the operator.

2.       IP based phones typically lack the one-touch buttons that are found on all digital business phones. These one-touch buttons allow the user to access another extension or a feature at the simple touch of a button. IP based phones may have a fancy looking display screen but use a complex menu accessed via up, down, left and right arrows buttons for the user to try and find the feature wanted.

3.       IP based phones are typically reported by customers as being too complicated, full of unnecessary features and a convoluted list of menu options. (e.g. On a Vertical-Vodavi digital phone system a conference call can be established by using just one button; Conference. On most VoIP based phone systems a user may need to press 6 or more buttons to conference calls together and many VoIP phones can only handle 2 calls at once.)

4.       Poor call quality is commonly reported on IP based phones being that theyíre plagued with the same issues exhibited by VoIP phone service (see pages 1 and 2 above).

5.       Features, buttons and lights occasionally may not function properly on IP based phones due to interruptions in the Ethernet data stream. This doesnít occur on digital phones because each phone has a dedicated pathway (cable) back to the main phone system KSU, as opposed to a shared connection found on IP based phones.

6.       Wiring for the IP based phone is a 4-pair category 5e or category 6 cable with an RJ45 modular plug. This means the wire is much larger than a standard thin 1 pair telephone line cord that is common in your home and used on traditional office phones. It also means that one may have to bear the expense of running all-new wiring throughout their office to accommodate the new VoIP phones in order to keep the phones on a separate network.

7.       All IP phones require a separate 48-volt DC power source. This power may be supplied via an expensive POE (Power Over Ethernet) switched hub or via a power pack. If power packs are used on each phone, the phones will have 2 cords running to them and need to be located next to electrical outlets.

8.       There is no battery backup on each of the VoIP phones. Since they are frequently connected to an AC wall adapter, if the power goes out, your phones go dead. On digital systems the power comes from the main KSU which typically has a battery backup for all phones.

9.       Lack of redundancy: When one has traditional digital phones, if the computer network goes down it has no effect on the phone system. However, on an IP based phone network, if the computer network crashes all the phones go dead. Conversely, if the IP phone network crashes the computers may crash as well.

10.   On a Hosted VoIP phone network where the main server is not on the customerís premises (i.e. off-site), if the internet connection is interrupted at your premise or anywhere between you and the site of the computer server, the IP phones go dead. This means the boss canít even call to his secretary 15 feet away. Digital phone systems, on the other hand, do not require internet access at all.

11.   On a VoIP phone network where the main server is off-site, your companyís office phones and many other companyís phones all share the same computer server so when the server crashes, a thousand phones may go down. In addition, these systems typically do not allow custom Auto-attendant greetings, just a generic voice mail greeting.

12.   On a VoIP phone network where the computer server is off-site, the customer loses control of the main box so anything that can go wrong will go wrong. (i.e. Server computer may crash, internet may go down, network may lock up, switched hub may fail, router may lock-up, VoIP company may go out of business, a rogue employee may simply turn your phones off from an alternate location, etc.) With digital phone systems, the customer owns the main box called a KSU (Key Service Unit) and it is in his building under his domain and control.

13.   On Hosted VoIP phone networks your telephone numbers are ported to another city in the US. Therefore, if you have a problem with the phones or service, your phone lines are no longer in your office building. Getting those lines ported back to your main office can take weeks or months of agony and a possible outage.

14.   Potentially Inferior Customer Service: I say potentially because, at the end of the day, you're dealing with people at a company thatís located in another city, in another state and/or in another country that you've probably never met. If your company has an issue with the virtual IP PBX system, there's only so much you can do over the phone. This also means that your company will be paying your employees while they try to rectify the problem with some technician via the phone. Being that VoIP phone service frequently has problems, undoubtedly your companyís staff will experience this multiple times. One must realize that itís sometimes helpful to meet a person from the company you're firmís partnering with. Itís also imperative that the company and their technicians be located in the same city as your company so that theyíre available to stop by if you need them. Remember that time is money and if your IP based phone system is down for hours or days, your company must be able to bear that expense.

15.   On Hosted VoIP phone networks one is relying on the VoIP provider to remain in business forever. If that VoIP provider shuts down their business, your phones go dead. With traditional phone system, the business buys the entire phone system, has it installed in their building and owns it. If their phone vender closes their doors a year later, it has no effect on their phone system. The system simply keeps working regardless of whether or not the original seller still exists.

16.   Buying Hosted VoIP phones is similar to renting an apartment, you donít own the main system, there are regulations on what you can and canít do, your rental price can change at any time, you can be tossed out at any time, and you have to continuously pay rental fees forever. On the other hand, as with a house that you own, you pay one price, you own all of it, you may chose to pay in one lump some or in payments, and once itís paid for you never have to make another payment.

17.   Theft of the customerís knowledge base or identity theft is possible on VoIP computer servers because a log of all the customerís information is kept on the computer. This includes but is not limited to: the customerís business name, employee names, address, phone numbers, speed dial numbers and monthly logs of all incoming and outgoing phone numbers including extensions and any extra digits that are dialed during calls such as credit card numbers. When this computer is accessed, the hacker, technician or law enforcement officer will have access to all this info without your knowledge.

18.   Being that a VoIP server is merely a computer, lack of security should be a main concern as it is with other Internet technologies. The most prominent security issues with VoIP are viruses, trojans, malware, denial or theft of service, spamming, call tampering and phishing attacks. These may occur because with VoIP a computer is used to generate, route and control your phone service. Unfortunately with VoIP there are a multitude of ways the digital signal can be hacked, monitored or exploited from anywhere on the internet. Therefore, if you need your call to be private, avoid VoIP. Digital systems on the other hand cannot be attacked with viruses, trojans, malware, etc.

19.   IP based phone systems use a computer which emulates a traditional phone system. Why buy a computer that emulates a phone system? Why not buy the real thing?

20.   IP based computer servers need constant updates and maintenance. This is an annual cost which when equated out over 5 years makes MOST IP based phone systems 2.5 times more expensive than simply buying an actual digital phone system.

21.   If you have Music-on-Hold or Message-on-Hold, the inbound caller may hear a hissss sound along with your outbound audio message.

22.   On a VoIP phone network where the computer server is off-site, many different businessís phones will be operating on the same main VoIP computer server. Therefore, the Music-on-Hold audio may be the same for every business. A business that currently has a customized Message-on-Hold that they paid for will not be able to use that message.

23.   Many IP based phone systems have no ability to connect an external paging system for shop or office speakers. Some IP systems require an expensive analog adapter and installation to accommodate the paging system.

24.   Many IP based phone systems have no ability to connect an intercom door box for your front or rear door.

25.   Some IP based systems are now offering wireless WiFi phones. Unfortunately due to bandwidth restrictions and interference these phones have not been very successful in any installation.

26.   The bottom line is that IT guys typically like IP based phone systems because it leads to job security. They will be required to do constant maintenance such as virus updates, computer repair and software and firmware updates for decades to come. However, itís worth noting, that this added workload is the same reason that many experienced IT staff members dislike VoIP phones. With IT people already too busy servicing their companyís computers and network they simply donít have the spare hundred man-hours needed to devote to IP based computer phone systems.

 

†††† If youíre still convinced that your business needs VoIP phones, ask your self the following questions;

1. Does your company have multiple locations?

2. Does your company have remote workers who need an off-site business phone?

If the answer to either of these is yes, youíre right, you should consider some type of VoIP solution. But keep in mind that you donít need to use a 100% IP based phone system nor a Hosted IP based phone system using a Virtual IP PBX. You should consider a Hybrid system. A hybrid phone system supports reliable traditional digital business phones and reliable traditional analog single line telephones via a thin 1 pair wire on a phone network that already exists in most businesses. The Hybrid system also supports IP based internet phones and VoIP links from one company site to another via the internet. This gives the business owner the best of all worlds. The company can use the reliable digital business phones and analog single line telephones within their offices, use an IP internet intercom link from office to office and also have IP phones at the employeeís home or on the road. If the internet connection goes down or the network fails due to a computer problem in any one of the offices, the phones within each office will still function perfectly. Hence, only the off-site IP phones and the intercom connection between offices will stop functioning. Multiple manufactures make Hybrid systems. A consumer merely needs to ask and specify that they want a Hybrid system with a PBX or KSU at each office site to be assured of quality, reliability and localized service.

 

Related Sources and Site References:

 

How VoIP works: http://www.fcc.gov/guides/voice-over-internet-protocol-voip

Explanation of codecs: http://en.voipforo.com/codec/codecs-g711-alaw.php

Jitter defined: http://searchunifiedcommunications.techtarget.com/definition/jitter

Latency defined: http://voip.about.com/od/glossary/g/latency.htm or

http://truvoipbuzz.com/2010/07/latency-voip-explained-troubleshooting-internet-improve-voip-quality-tutorial/#

Packet Loss explained: http://www.ewp.rpi.edu/hartford/~rhb/cs_seminar_2005/SessionB3/mehta.pdf

VoIP Timing explained: http://www.brillianttelecom.com/solutions/white_papers/

Faxing over VoIP: http://www.soft-switch.org/foip.html

 

About the Author:

Daniel Kochmanski has been working with telecommunications equipment since 1978. He has attended Erie Community College, the State University of New York at Buffalo and Buffalo State College for his Associate of Electrical Engineering Technology, Bachelors of Electrical Engineering and Masters of Science in IT degrees. He currently owns DDK Telecommunications in Buffalo, New York. See www.ddktele.com.

 

Rev. June 6, 2013