Monday, January 28, 2008

VoIP - What's It All About

VoIP - Same Bat-Time, but it's not the Same-Bat Channel!

Unless you've been living in a cave for the last few years, you've probably at least heard the word "VoIP" even if you didn't understand what all the excitement is about.

VoIP stands for "Voice over Internet Protocol" and it's going to change the way you think about making long distance phone calls.

Basically, VoIP technology turns analog audio signals (like the sounds you hear when talking on your regular telephone) into a digital signal (which is then transmitted over the Internet.)

So why is VoIP revolutionizing the industry? Because it means that by getting your hands on some of the free software that's available right now, you can totally bypass your telephone company, and start making long distance phone calls for free!

Here's what's got the bats buzzing in the belfry: This revolutionary technology has the ability to totally change the phone system of the entire world! Maybe you've seen television commercials for one of the pioneers of VoIP - Vonage. Vonage brands itself as the "broadband telephone company", and offers enticing perks to customers who switch to its service, like low-cost 800 numbers, very cheap international rates (fees are waived from the U.S. to Canada, and how about .03 cents a minute to call Paris?)

But Vonage isn't the only company who is interested. AT&T is setting up VoIP calling in several areas of the U.S. and there are other major players on the scene as well, such as Skype, who is relying on viral advertising to get the word out.

One of the really interesting thing about VoIP is that there's not just one way to make a call. There are actually three:

ATA - is the most commonly used VoIP method right now. Using the ATA (analog telephone adaptor), you connect your regular telephone to your computer or Internet connection. The ATA is an analog-to-digital converter and it takes the analog signal from your phone and converts it into digital data and transmits it over the Internet.

This is how Vonage does it, and AT&T 's CallVantage will be doing it. The ATA is free with their services. And using an ATA is so simple that anyone can do it. Open the box, plug the cable from your phone into the ATA instead of the wall socket, and you're set. Depending on your computer, and where you live, and what type of Internet connection you have, you might have to also install the software onto your computer, but even my grandmother knows how to do that these days.

IP Phones - They look just like the phones we're used to. They have a handset, cradles and buttons. But an IP phones use an RJ-45 Ethernet connector instead of the standard RJ-11 phone connectors. They connect directly to your router and all the hardware and software is already built inside to handle your IP calls. Look for Wi-Fi IP phones to be available in the near future, which will allow you to make VoIP calls from any Wi-Fi spot. (Can you see the power of that? Just take your IP phone with you when you travel, and stop in at any Internet café, hotel or other location where you can use your Wi-Fi laptop, and you can "phone home" wherever home happens to be!

Computer-to-Computer. This is arguably the easiest way to use VoIP. Not only do you not have to pay for long distance calls, there are several companies that are offering free or low-cost software right now for you to make use of the VoIP technology. All you need is the software, a microphone, speakers a sound card and a broadband or cable DSL Internet connection, and your loved ones sound as if they're in the next room. And, except for your normal monthly ISP fee, there is no charge for any computer-to-computer call…no matter how far. Holy ET, Batman!

And guess what? Chances are, you've already been using the VoIP technology without even being aware of it, any time you've made a long distance telephone call recently. Many of the major phone companies are already using VoIP technology to reduce their own bandwidth . It's a simple matter of routing thousands of phone calls through a circuit switch and into an IP gateway. Once received on the other side of the gateway, the calls are decompressed, reassembled and routed back to a local circuit switch.

IP telephony is the wave of the future. It makes sense in terms of ROI, from both an economic and infrastructure point of view. It may take some time, but eventually all of the current circuit-switched networks that are in use today will be replaced by packet-switching technology. More and more businesses are already installing VoIP systems. And as the technology makes our way into our everyday language our lives, and our homes, it will continue to grow in popularity.

According to Forrester Research, they predict that nearly 5 million U.S. households will have VoIP phone service by the end of 2006. The two biggest advantages for home users so far are price and flexibility.

Currently, most VoIP phone companies offer plans similar to that of cell-phone companies - what are commonly called "minute-rate" plans for as little as $30 a month. And as with cell-phone plans, you can also get unlimited plans for around $79 a month. With the elimination of long-distances charges, unregulated charges, and all the freebies that come standard with your VoIP service, it can actually amount to a significant savings for you. For example, you may be paying extra for features like:
· Call waiting
· Three way calling
· Call forwarding
· Caller I.D.
· Repeat dial
· Last call return

With VoIP, they come standard. And then there are some advanced features that make VoIP something worth looking into. With some carriers, you can set up call-filtering options, and actually have some control over how calls from certain numbers are handled. For example, you can:
· Forward the call to a particular number
· Send the call directly to voicemail
· Give the caller a busy signal
· Play a "not in service" message
· Send the caller to a funny rejection hotline

With most VoIP services, you can also check your voice mail on the Internet, or attach messages to an email that is sent directly to your computer or handheld. (By the way, if you're interested in any of these features, not all VoIP companies are created equal, so do a little shopping around first, because prices and services do vary).

The second benefit that makes VoIP so attractive for home and small business users is the flexibility. With VoIP you can make a call anywhere you can get broadband connectivity. Since the IP phones or ATAs broadcast information over the Internet, they can be administered by any provider. For business travelers, this means they can take their phone or ATA with them on the road, and never miss a home phone call!

By using a softphone, (which is client software that loads your VoIP service onto your desktop or laptop), you can make calls from your laptop anywhere in the broadband-connected world, with just a headset and microphone.

In a way, VoIP is just a "better mousetrap." But it looks like it's one mousetrap that's here to stay.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

4 Easy Steps to Choosing the Right Cell Phone Plan

There’s a mind-boggling amount of cell phone plans and services available these days. Cell phone ads promising bigger, bolder and better features blare at us every day. The question then becomes, “Which plan is right for me?” In this article, I’ll give you tips on what to look for in a plan, what to ask your service provider and how to avoid common mistakes that new subscribers often make!

First, ask yourself “What do I want in a plan?” Finding the right cellular plan is just a matter of deciding what, when, where and how you plan to use your phone:

- Will you be using it only for emergencies, or to chat with friends or family often?

- Will you make most of your calls during the day, evening, or on weekends?

- Will your calls be coming from your local area, or will you phone while traveling?

- What is your monthly budget for telephone services?

Getting the Most Minutes for your Money

Cell phone plans often come with a pre-allotted set of minutes per month (which may or may not correspond with an actual “minute” of time depending on factors such as where you are when you make the call, calling a long distance number and so on).

When you use up your minutes, you may be faced with paying an overage fee or paying a higher amount for the extra minutes. With many plans, the minutes you don’t use do not automatically roll over to the next month. So if you only used 30 minutes out of your 90 minute monthly allotment, you don’t get to keep the 60 minutes you didn’t use that month. You simply start over at 90 again.

Some other important differences to note in cell phone plans (as versus traditional telephone service) that you’ll want to keep in mind when comparison shopping include:

- You may find that your minutes are used up for both incoming and outgoing calls

- Calling a toll free number can cost you minutes

- The actual amount of time you’ve spent on a call is usually rounded up. So if you spent 3 minutes and 5 seconds on a call, you may find that 4 minutes have been used.

- The clock starts ticking on your minute usage the minute you press the “Call” or “Send” button, not the moment the other person picks up.

Most cellular service providers have a special phone number or web site address where you can login to check the number of minutes you have remaining each month. Keep in mind though, depending on how often the accounts or web site is updated, the numbers may not always be current.

Long Distance, Dropped Calls and Roaming – Oh My!

When choosing a wireless plan, keep in mind where you’ll be using your phone most often. Some service providers have nationwide coverage, while others target a specific “home area”. If you make or receive a call outside of this area, you’re “Roaming”, and your minutes may run out faster or you may face an extra charge. Know the boundaries of your calling area – you could be charged for long distance and roaming on top of the minutes that are spent during the call!

If you have a set of numbers that you dial frequently (such as friends, family, doctors and so on), ask the wireless provider if the cell phone plan you’re interested in will work in those locations without accruing long distance or roaming charges.

What To Ask Your Service Provider

If you’ve got a handful of good plans you’re considering, these questions may help narrow down the field of choices:

- Can I use my minutes anytime? Can they be used during “peak times” or am I charged more during those hours? (peak times usually occur on weekends). When do “peak hours” start and end?

- How much extra am I charged if I go over my monthly allotment of minutes?

- How much will I be charged for long distance and/or roaming? (Some nationwide carriers do not charge for these services unless you call out of the country)

- What is your cancellation policy? What happens if I cancel early? Will I be charged a cancellation fee after my plan has been activated?

- Can I make any changes to my plan (such as increasing or decreasing the number of minutes) after my service has been activated?

- What other features are included on my plan? (such as voice mail, caller ID) and if not included, how much would they cost to add to my service?

Remember, get all of these answers in writing. That way, if you suddenly find a $100 Early Cancellation charge on your bill, and you have a written document that states that there is no early cancellation fee, you’ll have an easier time of disputing the charge.

If you have several plans you’d like to try out, ask the service provider if there is a grace period where you can cancel your service without being charged (or being charged only a small amount) if the service doesn’t meet your expectations. Chances are, many wireless providers will be eager and happy to help you compare plans. Just remember to read the fine print before you sign!