I did not follow this guide in exactly this order, but if I were to do it again, I most likely would. Most programs and providers allow for free Internet-only calls. We are interested in this article in calls terminating in regular phone numbers.
1. voip-cabulary or voip parlance
There are a few new words you need to know in order to follow not only what I write, but especially other guides.
VOIP is the “language” that enables your voice to travel over the web.
POTS is the old-style Bell telephone system, or the “copper wire”.
PSTN is macro POTS, or the combination of local, long-distance, and international carriers that make up the worldwide telephone network.
ATA is the device with (usually 2) phone jacks and one network jack. It translates the Internet signal into signals the phone can use.
CODEC is the process applied to signals before they’re let out of your device on the wide open Internet. Sending stuff by mail entails a similar compacting, stamping, tagging and wrapping; similarly, at destination, the packaging is removed and the receiver enjoys it.
IVR is the robot that answer the phone when you call a big corporation. It tells you silly stuff like “press 1 to go to a menu, press 2 to go to another menu, press 0 to go koo-koo”. With VOIP, you can drive other people nuts with IVRs as well!
PBX or PABX are automated operators – they route incoming and outgoing calls for various organizations. They are the brains & muscle behind the IVR.
POP is the equivalent of a local phone company's central office. The place your long distance carrier terminates your long distance lines just before those lines are connected to your local phone company's lines, or to your own direct hook-up. In an email context, POP means Post Office Protocol.
SIP v IAX – SIP is the VOIP language used by most end-user or consumer-grade devices; IAX is used by Asterisk and fewer devices. Asterisk is a VOIP PBX running on linux. Technically, the original IAX is no longer in use, having been superseded by IAX2.
DID – called DDI in Europe and Oceania, it’s a feature providing one or more trunk lines to the customer for connection to their PBX. Usually combined with DOD allowing PBX extensions direct outbound calling capability with identification of their DID number.
RBOCs, CLECS, and ILECs are the players, or the providers you will be buying your VOIP service from. RBOCs are the Baby Bells born out of the break-up of AT&T; they are also called ILECs, depending on your perspective. The newcomers are the CLECs.
FCC in USA and CRTC in Canada are the regulators, or governmental agencies tasked with building and overseeing a healthy, competitive environment where CLECs & ILECs play along.
For more, see the links at the end of this article.
2. choosing the right phone
I plan to eventually run an Asterisk server, but not just yet. For the moment, I simply want to give up using my landline and get power features at no extra cost. There are three main device options for venturing into VOIP-land: ATAs, VOIP (hard) phones and softphones. ATA is simply the adaptor that directs the voice data from the copper wire to the Internet, toward your provider’s server. A hardphone is an ATA and a traditional phone all-in-one. A softphone completely renounces the idea of a traditional copper wire phone and resides entirely on your computer, using your microphone and speakers as interface. I find softphones to be somewhat less reliable than a regular phone connected to ATA. I don’t like the idea of a hardphone any more than I like a router-voip combo or a VCR-DVD combo. However, for the sake of completeness, we’ll be looking at all our options.
Rather than a hardware solution, you might consider purchasing the service and running it only from your computer, using a microphone and headphones. As previously stated, such an application would be called “softphone”. It is like the Skype application, but it works with any VOIP provider. You install it like any other program and then you can set it up with a VOIP provider – you have to register with them first. Some of these have also mobile versions (iPhone, symbian, windows mobile).
Here are the best free softphones. To visit their websites, click the images.
2.1.1 CounterPath's X-Lite
- Open Standards and Session Initiated Protocol (SIP) based call signalling allows X-Lite to work with a wide number of networks
- Comprehensive Personal Address Book, including detailed calls lists and history
- Zero-Touch Configuration of your USB headset or other audio/video devices
- IM and Presence Management
- Multi-party Voice and Video Conferencing
This open source solution uses SIP and you might find it difficult to use it under Windows, unless you know what you’re doing. The interface is simple and easy to use, with buttons for common actions, a pull down list to choose which connection you want to use for a call, and a input field for typing in the number you would like to call.
- 2 call appearances (lines)
- Multiple active call identities
- Custom ring tones
- Call redirection on demand
- Call redirection unconditional
- Call redirection when busy
- Call redirection no answer
- Reject call redirection request
- Blind call transfer
2.1.3 PhonerLite Softphone
This German creation supports several SIP profiles, each configurable independently. Its better cousin is Phoner. All VoIP specific configurations are the same and can be exchanged between Phoner and PhonerLite without any transformations. PhonerLite uses only a different GUI than Phoner; the latter is supposedly prettier.
2.1.4 FireFly Softphone
Light on resources, fast to download and small, Firefly integrates a fully featured voice mail system. It also includes drag and drop contact management system, which makes it very user friendly. After installation you can create an online account for easy call record history in real time.
- Ability to place call on hold
- Works with any Windows compatible audio device including wireless headsets
- Built-in Audio Wizard for fast and easy Audio configuration
- Ability to have multiple calls in progress simultaneously
2.1.5 eyeP Media Softphone
Featuring a contact-centric interface, eyeP Communicator is intuitive, easy to use and allows to make calls or conference by simply selecting contacts in your Microsoft Outlook® or local address book.
- Easy and intuitive: contact-centric with “one click” for media selection (call, conference,)
- Fast market deployment with modular packages and quick rebranding
- Telecom robustness: verified on major SIP telecom equipments (including IMS platforms) and interoperability program
- Superior audio & video quality: state-of-the-art voice and video processing. Wide choice of audio & video Codecs and 3rd party Codec options
2.1.6 Ninja Lite
According to some reports, earlier versions featured voice recording, but this is now available only in the Pro versions. It supports both voice and video calls. Ninja Lite supports some advanced features like recent calls (Dialled, received and missed), address book, NAT/firewall support, skins, call timer, caller id, mute and much more. It also has built-in conferencing feature for multi-party talk.
From the makers of magicjack have designed this multiplatform application (Windows, Linux, MAC, Windows Mobile) and even customized versions for FreeWorldDialup. Users report that it’s not easy to get to know this app.
- Supports both SIP and H323
- free and paid versions of SJphone available.
- Supports Windows, Linux,Mac OS X,Windows CE or Pocket PC 2002/2003
2.1.8 Express Talk
Supporting configuration of up to 6 phone lines, call transfer, call recording and basic music on hold, this is one of the more advanced applications and deserves to be mentioned, even though the advanced (business) features are not free.
- Make voice and video calls free between computers
- Supports PC to phone via a VoIP SIP gateway provider
- Place callers on hold
- Basic on-hold music included
- Supports caller ID display and logging
- Includes a phone book with quick dial configuration
- Integrates with Microsoft Address Book.
- With the PocketPC version you can take your VoIP numbers wherever you go
- Data compression, echo cancellation, noise reduction and comfort noise
- Supports emergency numbers calling (e.g. 911, 999, 000)
NCH, its Australian maker, offers several other exceptional VOIP applications.
Formely known as GnomeMeeting, this is an open source SoftPhone, Video Conferencing and Instant Messenger application over the Internet. It supports HD sound quality and video up to DVD size and quality. It is interoperable with many other standard compliant softwares, hardwares and service providers as it uses both the major telephony standards (SIP and H.323).
- Free Instant Messaging through the internet with Presence support.
- Audio (and video) calls to landlines and cell phones with support to the cheapest service providers.
- High Definition Sound (wideband) and Video Quality up to DVD quality (high framerate, state of the art quality codec and frame size).
- SMS to cell phones if the service provider supports it (like the default provider).
- Standard Telephony features support like Call Hold, Call Transfer, Call Forwarding, DTMF.
- Remote and Local Address Book support: Remote Address Book support with authentication using the standard LDAP technology, Local Address support in Gnome (Evolution).
Other open source softphones include Blink, Empathy, KPhone, Minisip, QuoteCome, SFLphone, SIP Communicator. Proprietary clients include Nimbuzz, OfficeSIP Messenger, SightSpeed and Mercuro IMS Client. Wikipedia has an excellent comparison of all VOIP software.
- audio with the following codecs: speex (narrow band and wideband), G711 (ulaw,alaw), GSM, and iLBC (through an optional plugin)
- video with codecs: H263-1998, MPEG4, theora and H264 (thanks to a plugin based on x264), with resolutions from QCIF(176x144) to SVGA(800x600) provided that network bandwidth and cpu power are sufficient.
- Supports any webcam with V4L or V4L2 driver under linux
- Any webcam on windows
- text instant messaging and presence (using the SIMPLE standart)
- DTMF (telephone tones) support using SIP INFO or RFC2833
- understands SIP ENUMS (sip phone numbers using the naptr DNS service, without proxy)
- echo cancelation using the great speex echo canceler
- SIP proxy support: registrar, proxies, with digest authentication
- STUN support for traversal of UDP NATs (=firewall)
- sound backend using either ALSA (the most efficient), OSS, or arts (kde sound daemon)
- supports IPv6
- the bandwidth limitations are signaled using SDP (b=AS...), resulting in audio and video session established with bitrates that fits the user's network capabilities.
- can use plugins: to add new codecs, or new core functionalities, such as remote directory search of sip addresses for example.
- Register with multiple servers (ie enterprise server and iaxtel).
- Multiple call appearances.
- User selectable audio devices.
- User defined ringtones.
- Auto answer intercom calls (with password protection).
- Registration with an asterisk server prior to dialling is no longer required.
- Simplified Directory dialogs.
- Incoming callers automatically added to phone book.
2.1.11 skype, betamax, phoneline.ca
Though Skype can help getting started with reasonably inexpensive VOIP, it is a closed platform. If you want to provide phone service for more than 1 computer or for an entire house, you will run into problems or you might have to purchase proprietary hardware. I personally have a Skype account which I only use as a failover; I did not purchase any Skype hardware. Skype is believed to be using the iLBC codec. On the open market, you can easily find cheaper alternatives with similar or sometimes better voice quality.
We shall discuss these in the provider section as well.
2.1.12 VOIP on mobile platforms
Fring is an
iPhone application which can place calls over both SIP as well as the Skype network; it is free and I recommend it. You will used to only be able to place calls over wifi with Skype unless you jailbreak your phone. This limitation has been removed, but Skype remains more limited than its SIP / VOIP cousins. Fring enables users to talk and chat using Skype, ICQ, Google Talk, MSN Messenger / Windows Live Messenger, AIM, Yahoo Messenger and SIP providers.
Siphon is a less advanced open source client. Most VOIP / SIP applications on the iPhone suffer from an inability to alert the caller of incoming calls. Some manage to do so by preventing the screensaver from activating, but that uses up battery more quickly. Also, wifi or 3G could also go to sleep. A jailbroken iPhone might allow you to resolve these problems.
Though most of their users know these applications only on their own platforms, the applications are available on other mobile platforms as well and are constantly being improved. In December 2009, fring added videocalling to its iPhone version.