The landline isn’t quite dead yet, although it may be heading for the intensive care unit. Yet many homes and certainly most businesses still have some form of voice phone service. In most cases, this is Voice over IP. Scott Bartley looks at the technology and some of the products service providers are offering customers

In a nutshell, Voice over Internet Protocol simply means making voice calls using the internet, as opposed to the old (and we mean old, as in first-used-in-1876-old in New Zealand) copper phone network.

VoIP can take many different forms – think Skype, Google Hangouts or Facebook Messenger for a start. But in addition to these free, app-based methods of making voice calls, VoIP services provided by ISPs and dedicated vendors allow anyone with a broadband internet connection to make calls using real phone numbers and handsets just like Nana used to make. Since all voice calls will eventually be made using VoIP (whether we realise it or not) thanks to the phasing out of the traditional PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) and the endless march of fibre, let's take a look at the options available right now and get ahead of the curve.

VOIP Through an app

Skype (www.skype.com) became the de facto standard for free voice and video calls over the internet for a while, although its star has faded over the years thanks to increased competition from all manner of freebie upstarts like Facebook and Google. However, when it came to making free calls over the internet, the widespread use of Skype made it fairly easy to talk to people (with or without video) using the internet, and it’s still a major player.

If you’re willing to stump up a few bucks, Skype lets you make and receive calls from landlines and mobiles. For New Zealanders, (we’re annoyingly billed in US dollars) there are two plans – US$4.59 per month gets you 100 minutes of calls to New Zealand landlines and mobiles, or US$8.04 gets you 300 minutes. You also get a local New Zealand landline number that people can use to call you. These calls will come in via your Skype app either on your smartphone, tablet, PC, games console or from anywhere else that has the Skype app available.

Other app-based VoIP options include such familiar names as Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Viber.

VOIP through an ISP

A step further up the VoIP ladder lands you in the world of ISP-based internet calling. These services from your local internet provider are more akin to the traditional landline we all grew up with – featuring handsets and phone numbers – the difference is these calls aren’t routed through the old phone network, they are funnelled through the internet instead.

To pick one example out of the bunch, Orcon Genius brings VoIP to the home-user as a bundled internet and voice calling package. While Orcon also offers a traditional landline, anyone signing up for the Orcon Genius service will be using VoIP. It’s about as seamless as it gets – plug your old phone into the back of the Orcon modem (instead of the old wall jack, which will no longer work) and start calling.  

Orcon lets customers bring their old landline number with them and offers all the usual landline services and calling plans, and is usually a bit cheaper overall compared with old-school phone lines.

One caveat virtually all VoIP services have in common is that older-style monitored alarm systems or emergency medical communications no longer work with them. People using such services will need to seek out a newer, internet-enabled system instead. This is hardly news though – anyone who has ever signed up for a naked broadband connection will be familiar with this very situation.

It’s worth checking with your ISP to see if VoIP calling is available. Most of those services will be broadly similar to Orcon’s offering and a few will even show off a few interesting extras – Stuff Fibre’s Voice App (stuff-fibre.co.nz/home-phone) for example. The $10 per month add-on lets you answer calls coming into your home landline using an app on your smartphone, just as if you were at home.

If the offerings from your ISP don’t chop your parsley, take a look at one of the third-party VoIP providers. Typing ‘VoIP provider NZ’ into Google will yield plenty of hits. However, they tend to be mostly aimed at businesses, but never fear, because a few offer plans for the home user too.

Dedicated hardware

Business VoIP set-ups can get pretty serious, with dedicated hardware installed on-site being designed to support multiple lines and users. However, home offerings tend toward the hosted variety. In short, all you will need is a VoIP-supporting DECT (digitally enhanced cordless telecommunications) phone that plugs into your home router.

DECT phones have been around for years, and if your luck is in your cordless phone may already support VoIP. If not, don’t fret, they’re not overly expensive (see below for a brief run-down on phones).

From here, it’s a case of finding a VoIP provider – we’ll use a company called 2Talk as an example.

2Talk is an offshoot of Vocus (the company’s other brands include Slingshot, Orcon and Flip) and is a cloud-based VoIP host. In theory, so long as your DECT handset is configured with the correct settings, a 2Talk log-in and password, it should be good to go. 2Talk does all the hard work of connecting your incoming and outgoing calls to the rest of the world.

Plans for home users range from free to $30 per month with various amounts of local, national and international calling minutes included. In fact, 2Talk makes it very easy for VoIP newcomers to try it out using its free plan (it has 15 minutes of national calling included) and its softphone – this is an app that doesn’t require a DECT handset. If you do decide it’s for you it might be time to spring for a handset and a paid plan.

One pitfall, however, is that, along with certain monitored alarms and emergency medical communications, 2Talk doesn’t support making 111 calls.

Other providers that will likely pop up in your search results will be Kiwi VoIP (www.kiwivoip.co.nz), Vodafone-owned WorldxChange (www.wxc.co.nz) and Conversant (www.conversanthq.com/nz/). Conversant only offers business plans and is owned by Voyager.

dect phones

There are dozens of VoIP phones available in New Zealand, some of these will be designed for use in business settings only and likely won’t be suitable (that is, compatible) with cloud services like 2Talk. However, that still leaves plenty to choose from.

It pays to check with your VoIP provider before buying a handset, but generally you’ll be looking for a ‘SIP’ compliant (SIP stands for Session Initiation Protocol) phone that supports the same audio codecs (coder/decoder) used by your VoIP host. As well as turning voice calls into digital data (see story on page 20), codecs also compress data and there is more than one type, so you need to check.

To get you started, here’s one phone example: the Yealink SIP-W52P DECT cordless phone. This is available from Nicegear, costs around $230 and comes loaded with features. The base station lets up to five handsets connect to it (extra handsets cost around $160) and supports a broad range of VoIP services, making it a great home phone or even a starting point for a small business.

Other VoIP phone-makers include brands like Panasonic, Siemens, Grandstream and Polycom, and can be found in any number of retailers, including PB Tech and Nicegear.