VoIP (Voice-over-Internet Protocol) systems allow users to make phone calls over the Internet. As the ever-increasing popularity of cell phones pushes land lines closer to obsolescence, VoIP service providers offer lucrative deals for individuals who still want a relatively committed line at home or flexible long-distance service. In fact, VoIP systems make long-distance calling cheaper than ever. Using just a computer and any of a handful of programs, a user could contact China, Russia and Australia and never see a an actual telephone bill--although most VoIP providers charge a fee for premium service. VoIP allows users to make calls from one distinct phone for one price (sometimes zeros) to anywhere, from anywhere. VoIP providers also offer special services, such as three-way calling or automatic redial, for far less than traditional telecommunications providers. One VoIP provider, Vonage, has even risen to the challenge of taking on the bigger communications providers. Of course, VoIP isn't perfect, with occasionally poor latency and reception, but if you already own a cell phone, using VoIP may be right for you.
Skype and Other Providers
* '''Skype''' is an Internet service that allows users to make traditional telephone calls via computer. Unlike most of its VoIP competitors, Skype uses a genuinely decentralized, peer-to-peer system. Skype also offers a paid service that allows subscribers to make calls to and receive calls from traditional phone users. The latest version of Skype (Skype 2) offers video-over-IP service as well.
* '''Gizmo''' is a similar, albeit less famous, program. However, unlike Skype, Gizmo automatically encrypts peer-to-peer calls and offers additional product services for a fee. Also, unlike Skype, calling regular phone users is free. Recently, Gizmo also announced that Gizmo-to-Gizmo calls anywhere in the world are completely free. Skype, Gizmo and other PC-to-PC services are free (or very cheap), but do require users purchase their means of communications.
* '''Bluetooth: '''For professionals who need to move around the office or busy bodies who won't sit still at home, a Bluetooth Headsets may be a wise investment. However, if you're just looking to relax and make some calls, consider a conventional wired headset instead. Unless you need to pace around the room, a regular headset will be cheaper and have better sound quality.
* '''Wired Headsets: '''Wired headsets are cheap and give an accurate representation of your connection's sound quality. Keep in mind that for any VoIP program, you need a PC headset, not one designed for cell phone use. The PC headsets have two plugs: one for a microphone and one for headphones.
* '''USB headsets''': These plug into your computer's USB port. For Mac users, the audio-in jack on your Mac is likely a line-in jack, not a microphone-level input, which can make using VoIP applications taxing. Consider getting a Griffin iMic adapter to solve the problem or simply purchase a USB headset.
Phones specifically made for VoIP software are available. They are fairly similar to regular phones in use today but are designed to connect with a computer with a broadband connection rather than a traditional phone jack.
Vonage and Other ISPs
In addition to software like Gizmo and Skype, there are a host of VoIP providers who operate under more traditional phone service models, but do so with a user's broadband connection. These services generally provide hardware that a user hooks up to their broadband router. The user can then treat that hardware like a traditional phone, with the added bonus of being able to move it to any other high-speed connection. Vonage is the biggest of these providers. Because of its aggressive campaign and available resources, Vonage has become a legitimate threat to telecommunications companies in Canada, the United State and Europe. CNet.com called Vonage "a suitable replacement for your primary phone line." Though Vonage provides a phone for its subscribers, there are plenty of exciting and interesting models for purchase.
* '''Vonage V-Phone''': The V-Phone is an extremely compact and easy-to-move USB Internet phone intended for use with Vonage's phone service. It comes attached to a keychain and includes a headset. It also has 200 MB of hard drive space, a feature becoming more common on IP phones.
* '''Vonage WiFi Phone''': The Wi-Fi Phone is a pocket-sized wireless Internet phone that connects to Vonage's phone network using access points anywhere in the world. This is a wonderful option for heavy travelers, but the $120 price tag might scare away some.
Vonage is not without competitors. Packet8 offers similar service for less. Packet8 service also allows for enhanced 911 support, something that has been a thorn in the side of VoIP providers looking to whisk users away from their traditional service. Unfortunately, most reviews claim that the sound quality is not on par with Vonage when Internet traffic gets heavy. BroadVoice is another well-known commercial VoIP provider. It won the2005 VoIP service award from ''Wired'' magazine.
* '''Emergency 911 Support''': The primary drawback to dropping your traditional phone service in favor of VoIP is a big one: VoIP providers, with the exception of Packet8, are yet to make significant strides with Emergency 911 calling. Currently, most providers send calls to off-site call centers. However, in order for the service to work, most VoIP providers require users to register their address. Another serious concern is in the case of emergencies during blackouts that could potentially knock out Internet service and thus, interrupt the ability of users to make calls at a time when having communications contact available is most important.
* '''Data Security:''' Data security is a more abstract, but very real, concern. Currently, most VoIP services are not sufficiently encrypted. However, there is software currently available on the market that enables providers to encrypt their users' calls. Whether providers take these companies up on their offer is still up in the air.
* '''Sound Quality:''' On a more practical level, VoIP service simply doesn't sound as good as POTS. It is prone to latency and interruption when Internet traffic is heavy and forget about uploading sizable content online while using the phone. Performance will likely improve over time, but for now, making a free call over your computer to Peru may prove a less manageable experience than over a dedicated line. Still, if you have a functional cell phone and are tired of paying too much for those calls to China, go with VoIP.