When people mention voice over IP (VoIP), most are thinking about a business phone service rather than a home phone. After all, businesses run data networks and that’s what VoIP needs to operate. But now that the majority of homes have a broadband internet connection, they’re also running a data network. 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 a 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 setup 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 phones 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 setup 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.
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 softphone: 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 a few less 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.
The caveat there is the proverbial fine print, usually located just below the really attractive dollar figure. This small print generally details exactly how many months that nice number will remain in effect before the bloom comes off the rose and you start getting billed at a much higher number that represents the service’s actual cost. Many providers don’t even print this higher number on their websites, so be sure to ask the sales guy on the phone before you sign up. The nice number that pulled you in can often double or more once the introductory period wears off. Some providers even attach a minimum length of time that you’ll need to suffer these higher costs before you can change or modify the service without getting hit with an additional early-termination charge.
The service’s we detail below, however, aren’t triple play providers. Every service detailed here is an independent residential VoIP provider that you can use over any broadband internet connection. But while that means their pricing is probably somewhat more transparent than in a triple play scenario, some of them do still obscure the real number you’ll wind up paying. This can happen in several ways.
First, there might be a very low cost or even free “basic” or “introductory” tier that’s just so feature poor that the vast majority of customers will opt for the next level up. That’ll be the full-priced tier. Another common practice is a one- or two-year contract, each with a slightly lower price offered next to a significantly higher-priced month-to-month tier. Additionally, while most residential VoIP services offer unlimited calling, some vary their pricing on call restrictions. Those will come either in the form of minutes (with higher pricing attached to monthly overages) or geographic regions. The latter usually start with nationwide calling and then tack on another charge for worldwide calling or even separate charges for different countries.
Should You Jump?
While it doesn’t offer as many features as its business-class version, residential VoIP is still overwhelmingly attractive when compared to standard phone service. Firstly because of its much lower overall price tag and second because it simply offers more features than an old fashioned landline. With a little research, you can keep your current number, suffer zero restrictions when it comes to 911 or long-distance calling, drop your monthly price to a low, fixed number, and take advantage of VoIP-only features, like smart call routing, virtual numbers, and more.
The only area where a landline offers something VoIP phones can’t is that they’re more disaster resistant. Lose power to your house and your landline phone will keep on working. But if the power drops to your home’s internet router, your VoIP phone goes dark, too. However, this limitation is less crippling these days as most people have a smartphone of some kind backing up their home phone. That phone will keep working in the event of a power outage, which means you can still make emergency calls. And if you’ve opted for a mobile client on your home VoIP account, you can even make those calls using your home phone number rather than your mobile number if you prefer.
Overall, VoIP is simply the better option for the vast majority of customers. Dropping your landline means no more hidden fees or metered long distance calling charges. Everything is charged at one low rate by most providers and your ability to customize your phone service to exactly what you need is far greater. Unless you’ve got some highly unique circumstances that somehow mandate a landline, VoIP is simply the better choice.