Voice over Internet Protocol, also called VoIP or internet phone, is a reliable and cost-effective way to call around town or across the world. Many cable companies that offer bundled phone with internet or television are using this technology, but there are independent companies that provide this service with extra features at reasonable rates.
Thanks to popular free services like Skype and FaceTime, people think of VoIP as over the computer only. However, this is just one aspect of VoIP. VoIP technology converts voice communications into digital data that transmits over the internet or a packet-switched network. In layman's terms, VoIP allows you to make telephone calls using a high-speed internet connection instead of a traditional analog phone line. Although you are using internet for the calls, you still use your existing phone equipment as you would with a regular telephone line. Your phone is connected to the internet using an adaptor you plug into to your home internet network. Most services give you the option of a softphone, which simply means using your computer as a phone. In addition, most companies offer an app for your mobile phone or smart tablet that lets you place calls using their service as long as the mobile device is connected to the Wi-Fi.
VoIP phone systems can provide significant cost savings over a conventional phone system, with lower monthly fees and cheaper long-distance and international rates. You can also take advantage of numerous call features, some of which cost extra with regular phone services. Since most VoIP services cater to businesses as well as residences, they work very well for home offices. Since you can use the phones you already have, setup costs are minimal.
If you are in the market for a VoIP system, we encourage you to read our articles about VoIP services, as well as our comprehensive reviews and side-by-side comparison of the best VoIP services, particularly our top three: Phone Power, VOIP.com and BroadVoice.
We know that as the world gets more interconnected, international calling has become very important. Each VoIP provider prices its plans according to greatly varying criteria – such as minutes, allowed countries, and whether or not you sign a long-term contract. Therefore, we chose the best world calling plans for under $25 a month for our comparison. Some companies did not have a global plan, so we rated their domestic plan. However, in most cases, the features for plans don't vary much, regardless of whether they are domestic or global. Usually, the difference is minutes and price.
VoIP service plans and charges are a major deciding factor when you choose a service. Many VoIP providers offer cheaper rates if you agree to an annual or two-year plan, but charge hefty cancellation fees if you stop service before your contract expires. Month-to-month plans are somewhat more expensive, but you can opt out of service at any time.
One advantage of VoIP is cheaper long-distance and international calling, so if that's important to you, look closely at the fine print on these features. Many services offer unlimited international minutes; others choose specific nations. Some have cheaper domestic plans that offer a limited number of free international minutes, an economical choice if you don't have many overseas calling to make. Some services let you choose your own area code, so that if you are away from family or friends, you can choose a number in their area so that their calls to you as well as yours to them are local.
Every Voice over IP service we reviewed has the following features:
• Enhanced 911
• *69 Call Return
• Call Blocking
• Call Forwarding
• Call Waiting
• Caller ID
• Free Calls In-Network (calls to others using the same service do not count toward your minutes)
• Keep Your Current Number
• Long Distance
• Online Account Management
Where our top ten stand out is in the extras. Speed dial lets you can quickly dial familiar numbers. Nearly all internet phone services offer 3-way calling, so we looked for those that offer conference calls to more than three people. Call transfer lets you send a call to a different phone, which means you need to assign the phones in your house extensions. Finally, some services offer community service lines, like 411 Directory Assistance.
A second free line lets you have two phone lines working off the same service. Although these share the same phone number, it lets you make or receive calls on one phone while someone else in the home is using another. If you have a home business, you might want a toll-free or virtual phone number. Most of the companies we reviewed charge extra for these, so if they are important to you, find services that include them.
The top providers have most of the same features in common; however, some charge for particular options, as either a monthly fee or a by-call charge. Also, several services have standout features that make a particular service unique.
Mobile apps let you use your VoIP service on your cell phone or tablet as long as it has internet connection. If you want to use your computer as your phone (called a softphone) or use the internet phone service for a home business as well, there are services in our reviews to accommodate that.
You might also find it handy to take your service with you if you go on a long vacation or "snowbird," living part of the year in a different location. Some services let you take the service with you and provide an adaptor small enough to fit conveniently in your carry-on. Finally, if you have your own adaptor, such as from a previous service, some of our services can support it.
Fax support allows calls to go to a fax line. Some services provide a second number for this, while others do fax-as-computer, meaning it sends it to your computer as a file you can print out.
Help & Support
One of the biggest concerns about VoIP calling is not being happy with the service, either because of the reliability of the calls, billing issues or inability to get good customer support. We've looked over customer ratings sites and complaint sites to determine the best and worst as far as support quality and customer satisfaction. We've also tested the products for ease of installation.
An easy setup doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t encounter issues or have questions when using your VoIP system. Thus, first-class help and support options are necessary. All services provide telephone support, but if you are depending on the VoIP service for calling, that might not be an option, so check for chat or email support. Of course, the best services have documentation online, such as FAQs and a knowledgebase, that you can reference as needed. Searchable support pages are a plus, because you can narrow in on your issue without wading through manuals or webpages.
Voice over IP offers a more affordable and feature-rich alternative to a traditional phone line. Whether you are looking to cut costs or get more from your phone service, VoIP presents a viable solution for your telecommunications needs.