You can get more from your internet service than just web access. Residential VoIP is available from your cable company and some ISPs, but there are independent providers that can offer better features and lower prices. Here’s what you need to know to pick the right one.
Voice over IP (VoIP) services usually aim their wares at business buyers. That’s partly because those customers have large corporate networks that can handle all that new traffic you’ll get by turning your voice calls into data. But since so many homes now have a broadband connection, that means they’re running a data network, too. Just a smaller and simpler one than you’d find at the office. If you’re careful about what you buy, you can take advantage of VoIP’s key benefits, which include far more features and a much lower price tag than an old-fashioned landline.
What Is Residential VoIP?
You’ve probably been offered a home VoIP solution several times already if you’ve got cable TV service or if you’re getting your Internet access from one of the larger Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Outfits like those love offering voice as the third leg of a “triple play” sales pitch: Internet, TV, and phone. When you see those offerings, what you’ll be buying is VoIP-based phone service, though generally one with slightly fewer features than you’ll get from a dedicated VoIP provider because the provider likely isn’t focused on their VoIP product, but one of the other two.
Fortunately, there are several dedicated residential VoIP providers who offer nationwide service, usually with worldwide calling plans. With one of these, you should be offered at least four core features. Those include caller ID, voicemail hosted by the provider (meaning you don’t need an answering machine), call waiting (essentially a one-line hold), 911 support (sometimes called “E911”), and three-way calling allowing you to reach out to a third participant in any phone conversation. There will likely be a variety of other features available, too, but they’ll differ across providers. The four listed here should be a baseline that any residential service should support. Most of these will work in a two-step process:
Sign up for the VoIP service on the provider’s website, and then
Receive some kind of bridge device in the mail that plugs into your wireless router on one side and your old phones on the other. How easy these devices are to set up can vary from vendor to vendor, but all provide some level of support to help you get started.
Other basic features to consider include the phone itself should your provider offer its own handsets. Many residential providers don’t since their bridge devices allow them to work with old-style landline phones, but some, especially the larger and more business-oriented players, do offer special VOIP business phone system Doha Qatar even to residential buyers. These look and work the same as a regular phone aside from the initial setup process, which will require making sure the phone is connected to your internet router in some way and then configured to access the VoIP provider’s service from there.
And before you think this all runs only across a wire, know that even on the residential VoIP side, wireless calling is completely mainstream. There wireless VoIP handsets available from well-known makers, like Yealink, and these are built to run over your wireless network. Additionally, some home VoIP providers will allow you to use your smartphone as an extension for their service in addition to your wireless calling provider. That means your smartphone will ring if someone calls your home phone number in addition to your cell number.
Cable companies and Internet providers will also provide a bridge device where your phones stay the same and the VoIPing simply happens on the back-end. That means if you purchased an analog wireless phone system it’ll work the same as it always did, it’ll just be plugged into a different port. Just remember that these devices dictate what kinds of features the provider can offer you, so be sure you know what these devices are capable of since there’ll likely be more than one model to choose from.
Whether it’s a dedicated bridge device or a special VoIP phone, you’ll need something on the hardware side compatible with VoIP in order to access the technology’s chief benefit: its software layer. It’s only at this layer that you’ll be able to access VoIP’s more valuable and advanced capabilities.
Whether it’s a phone or a bridge, if you’re worried about getting lost in technobabble when trying to set up your new phone service, remember that the best providers should be able to ship you pre-configured devices that shouldn’t require much, if any, intervention on your part. With these, you simply plug them into your router or connect them to your Wi-Fi network and they’ll go out and find the provider’s network on their own. Just power them up, connect to your network, and wait for the light to turn green.
Residential VoIP’s Advanced Features
That covers VoIP basics, but what about those more advanced options at the software layer? Why is VoIP able to offer more advanced features where a regular phone can’t? A VoIP system, whether home or business, can access a much richer software layer than a standard line from the plain old telephone service (POTS). On the business side, this flexibility has extended to integrating VoIP with other forms of communication often to such a degree that they all become a single platform, generally called Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS). You won’t find anything that sophisticated when you’re shopping for residential service, but then again you probably don’t want that much complexity at home anyway.
For home VoIP, much of that software is running on the provider’s servers, so you don’t need to worry about it. But parts will be running on your devices, whether that’s a PC, a mobile phone, or a VoIP phone. It’s this software layer that provides the rich feature fabric, which along with its lower price, is what’s drawing residential customers to the technology. Some of the more popular such features include:
An Always Reject List that allows you to place specific numbers into what’s essentially a blacklist that your VoIP account will always reject.
Smart call forwarding, which allows you to forward your number to not one but several phone numbers in a specific order of preference. An example might be routing calls to your home phone first, then perhaps your mobile phone, and then your spouse’s mobile phone.
Virtual phone numbers are an increasingly popular option. These are second numbers that are simply attached to your primary VoIP account but then managed separately. You can even purchase these through different services than your primary VoIP providers.
Voicemail routing can take multiple forms, but it basically refers to a set of rules you can apply to incoming calls that will automatically route them to voicemail without even causing a ring. For example, if calls come in with Caller ID blocked, those can be routed directly to voicemail. Or, if you’re simply not into talking to anyone, you can hang out a digital Do Not Disturb sign and route all calls to voicemail, perhaps until you’re feeling more social or every day between the hours of 9 PM and 7 AM, for example.
One important advanced feature that’s ubiquitous in the world of business VoIP services, and quickly growing in the residential market, is the softphone app. Imagine a piece of software that simply uses the network connection, speakers, and microphone of your computing device to turn it into a phone. If that softphone is attached to your VoIP account, that software will ring whenever your home phone does and when you place calls on it, those calls will register as coming from your home phone number. Just by installing the software you’ll be able to immediately place and receive voice calls over your home phone account on your PC, your Apple iPad, or even your smartphone. That last one is a gotcha, however.
There are two basic kinds of softphones: a “fat” phone that’s coded to run only on a full-fledged PC be that an Apple macOS, Linux, or Microsoft Windows 10 machine. This software needs a real desktop or laptop CPU and all the other accouterments associated with a full-on PC in order to perform its functions. The other kind of softphone is one designed for a mobile device.
Mobile VoIP clients are “slimmer” than a desktop softphone, which really just means they’re designed to look a little different and probably have fewer features since mobile devices aren’t as powerful as desktop machines. But if you’re looking to run your home phone off your mobile phone wherever you are, then a mobile softphone is definitely the ticket. When shopping for a provider, be sure to investigate whether the service offers a dedicated mobile client and whether that client will run on your mobile device. After that, see how much more it’ll add to your monthly service charge.