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.
If you’re wondering what you get with a softphone that you won’t with a standard phone handset, then that depends on the service. Business-class softphones offer all kinds of features related to online meeting collaboration, call routing, multi-line conference calling, and more. From a residential VoIP perspective, you’ll most often find video conferencing (though more and more this is becoming a separate product), a voicemail-to-text converter, detailed call records, and user controls for anyone other than yourself using the service. Some services also offer faxing, text chat, and call metering so you can see how much you’re spending.
The Pricing Question
Typically, price is one of the most important reasons people opt for residential VoIP. One of the most attractive is the “triple play” sales pitch we mentioned above made by almost every regional residential cable company and internet provider: Get your Internet, TV, and phone service all rolled into one monthly charge. Not only is that usually an attractive number, it also means a technician will hook everything up for you, including your phone. You’ll probably also be able to use the same phone you’re using now instead of having to migrate to a VoIP phone.