Mythbuster: Is VoIP Free?


Loads of people think making calls over VoIP is free because it’s over the internet and because services like Vonage charge a low monthly fee for unlimited calling. Well, is it?

VoIP stands for voice over internet protocol. It uses internet broadband instead of traditional analog phone lines. By converting your voice to a digital format, VoIP can send it over the internet, which is cheaper.

In the opinion of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), VoIP is a game-changer, “a replacement technology for the existing wireline PSTN.”

The PSTN is the public switched telephone network—the old-school system that grew out of the very first telephone exchanges, actually borrowing its structure from even older telegraph networks.

(The little irony in that is that the TIA used call quality on the PSTN as the standard recommended for IP telephony. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Using broadband has its advantages. The thing is a freighter when it comes to carrying large amounts of data. But it’s not so much VoIP’s load-carrying ability as the way it packs its cargo.

When you talk on a traditional phone over the PSTN, your voice and the voice of the person you’re talking to carries over the wires in a continuous stream of data.

Unfortunately, it’s like leaving the water running while brushing your teeth—you’re not using the water that’s running down the drain, but you’re still paying for it.

When talking on the PSTN, you’d have to be yammering on at full volume, both of you at the same time, to get your money’s worth. (I’m sure we all know a couple jabberwockies who could maybe pull that off.)

In a nutshell, VoIP turns the water off when you’re not using it. Instead of a constant stream, VoIP bundles your digital voice data into packets that take up way less space over the wires (broadband).

If you turn the water off when you brush your teeth, you pay less on your water bill every month. You shorten the stream on the PSTN, you pay less on your phone bill every month.

Except the analog PSTN can’t bundle data like VoIP can to shorten its stream, which makes VoIP far cheaper than the PSTN.

However—and here we’re getting to it—VoIP can’t always eliminate the PSTN from the equation.

Not when one end of the line is still using the traditional network (which, at this point in the semi-early stages of VoIP’s development, is still most of the time). In that case, someone still has to pay for the PSTN service handling that end of the call.

So, aside from your internet bill, are calls over VoIP free? Actually, no.

About Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith has written about technology and life for almost 20 years, as a reporter, technical writer and blogger. He currently foists his ideas onto the world as the Marketing Communications Director for Plum Voice, an IVR-industry leader, through Plum's IVR Deconstructed blog. Charlie has a B.A. from James Madison University


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