Guide to VoIP in Australia

Making phone calls over the Internet isn't just for the tech savvy anymore. Using Voice over Internet Protocol is easier than ever before, with several services out there that can help drastically reduce your phone bill. Here's everything you need to know about VoIP in Australia.

Making phone calls over the Internet isn't just for the tech savvy anymore. Using VoIP (or Voice over Internet Protocol) is easier than ever before, with several services out there that can help drastically reduce your phone bill.

Here's everything you need to know about VoIP in Australia.

VoIP explained
Simply put, VoIP (or Voice over Internet Protocol) is telephony using your broadband Internet connection. A normal telephone service turns voices into electronic signals which are then converted into sound by your telephone. VoIP, on the other hand, treats voice like any other piece of information being sent over the Internet -- by digitising it into packets of data.

These packets usually have to be encoded into data and decoded back into sound by a computer or another stand-alone device (such as an analog telephone adaptor). And since you're only charged by how much data is transferred regardless of distance traveled (local, interstate or overseas) as opposed to how long you're on the line, it is significantly cheaper than normal voice calls. In the past, technological constraints and slow Internet speeds made the voice quality on VoIP calls rather patchy, but new systems and the prevalence of broadband has made it a much more attractive proposition.

VoIP strengths
For most people, the biggest plus when it comes to VoIP is cost -- VoIP services are much cheaper than traditional landline phones, and in some cases are even free. Some of the most popular VoIP services in Australia charge as little as 10c untimed for national calls, while international rates can be as low as under 5c a minute.

Apart from cheaper voice calls, VoIP has some great value adds available, depending on the type of service you sign up to. Since it's all electronic, services like call logs, call screening, forwarding, multiple phone numbers and more are easily handled. Australian VoIP carrier engin, for example, offers a voice mail service which sends any messages as WAV files via e-mail, meaning a customer will be able to check their messages from anywhere they have access to the Internet.

Another major VoIP strength is the fact that it's portable -- since it's on the Internet, you're not tied to any one physical location to make and receive calls. As long as you have a computer, broadband connection and an analog telephone adaptor (if it's part of your service) you can make calls using your VoIP account.

VoIP weaknesses
Cheap calls and portability are great, but there are other issues you need to consider before you decide whether it's for you. The most important thing to keep in mind is that VoIP won't be as stable or reliable as your normal phone line purely because more components need to be working for the service to be up. Depending on the type of service you have, you'll need some/all of the following to make calls:

  • A broadband Internet connection
  • The electricity running
  • Your computer on
  • Your analog telephone adaptor working (if it's part of your service).

With a normal phone line, all you need is the phone connected.

And despite the ability to make and receive all of your phone calls through VoIP, in most cases you'll still need to have a normal landline phone connected. Since you need a broadband service for VoIP, and since the most widely available type of broadband in Australia is some form of DSL (which no telco in Australia can currently offer without an active phone line), you'll still have an analog phone connection alongside your VoIP phone. At this stage, this also means two numbers -- one for your normal line, and one that your VoIP provider gives you.

The exception is if your house can access cable, satellite or wireless broadband Internet services, in which case you can dump your normal landline. But be aware that you won't have a phone if your broadband connection or electricity goes down -- which is an important thing to consider in case of emergencies.

While the quality of VoIP is improving all the time, bear in mind that if your broadband speed isn't up to scratch it won't stack up to a normal phone line. If your Internet speed falls below a minimum level then you will probably experience choppy sound and delays. And since you're using the Internet to make calls, most VoIP calls won't have any location information attached to it. So, for example, if you make an emergency call using VoIP, the emergency operator may not know exactly where you're calling from. The same goes for other location-based services such as calling for a pizza or a taxi. Some VoIP providers, however, have systems in place to get around this -- check with your VoIP provider to see whether they do.

Finally, like any thing you do over the Internet, VoIP will chew up bandwidth. If you have a broadband connection with a low monthly download cap, you may need to keep a close eye on your limit -- roughly 10-minutes of conversation using VoIP equals a 1MB download.

Types of VoIP services
In simplest terms, there are two types of VoIP services available. The first is a 'netphone' option (often called a softphone), which is essentially a piece of software that turns your computer into a phone. The second needs a piece of hardware, such as an analog phone adapter or an IP phone, and usually requires some sort of paid subscription to a service provider.

Netphone
The netphone option is probably the easiest, but it can also be the most restrictive in terms of who can make calls to you and who you can contact. All a user needs to do is download the appropriate netphone software onto your PC, install it and, providing you have a headset connected to your PC, you can make calls immediately (you can also just use your PC's speaker and built-in microphone if it has one, but you may experience some echo).

In many cases, using a netphone is free, but restricts you to making and receiving calls only from other people who have downloaded that same piece of software -- in other words, it's only PC to PC. For example, if you've downloaded Skype VoIP software, you can only make and receive calls from other people who have Skype. Some netphones, however, do offer more comprehensive features -- providing you pony up a little cash. Once again using Skype as an example, users can buy Skype Out credit which allows them to use their Skype account to call normal landline phones or mobiles.

Netphones are a great option for those wanting to try out VoIP and, providing you have enough family and friends using the same software, can be an extremely cost-effective solution. Its main drawback is that you're tied to your computer to make and receive calls. But even that is slowly being overcome, with some new telephones coming out that are specifically designed to use netphone services (such as DUALphone's 2-in-1 Skype Internet phone, Plantronics' .Audio 70 headset for Yahoo! Messenger and Doro's USB telephone 212 IPC for Skype). These phones connect to your computer and can be used just like a normal phone, except that it's using your netphone program for its connection.

Hardware-based VoIP
Hardware-based VoIP services are handier because they try to mimic the traditional phone experience -- that means having a handset that you use like any other phone, except it's tied to your broadband service. Hardware solutions include VoIP phones (telephones with built-in VoIP capabilities) and Analog Telephone Adaptors (or ATAs, which turn your existing phone into a VoIP-capable one). ATAs are the most widely used with consumer services (such as the ones provided by companies like engin, Freshtel and more), while VoIP phones tend to be tied with enterprise-level services.

ATAs are small devices which connect to a user's home network/modem, with the other end being plugged into your existing handset (analog, cordless or DECT phones). Unlike softphones, you don't need your computer to be on to be able to make and receive calls, resulting in a service that almost has the same "always-on" feel of a normal phone service. That's almost, since you still need a broadband connection running, as well as power to the ATA for the phone to be working. You'll need to sign up to a service to be able to use an ATA, with different brands of ATAs usually aligned with different service providers.

And unlike some softphone solutions, an ATA allows you to call any other number, usually at much reduced call rates than normal. Phone calls to people on the same service provider as you are also often free -- check with your intended provider to see exactly what their call rates are. Unfortunately, you won't be able to assign your existing phone number to an ATA-driven service -- when you sign up, you will receive a dedicated number for that VoIP line, which means you'll have two phone numbers. Phone number portability is something that VoIP providers are hoping to have in the near future.

What you'll need for VoIP
The requirements will obviously differ depending on what type of VoIP you're using (netphone or hardware), but the main common denominator is a broadband internet service -- for consistent quality, dial-up will simply not do.

As to the speed of broadband you'll need, different providers will state different requirements, but a connection of 256kbps download/64kbps upload is generally regarded as the minimum. If you're consistently getting 256/64kbps with your connection (and aren't subject to things like speed throttling during peak hours) then you should be able to run a fairly high quality VoIP connection.

If you're going the netphone route, you'll need a PC and a headset as minimum. If you're going with an ATA, you'll obviously need the ATA, an account with a VoIP service provider and a telephone you can plug in.

Don't forget...
We mentioned it earlier, but remember that using VoIP does take up your bandwidth. The generally accepted equation is 1MB download per 10 minutes of conversation -- take into account roughly how much time you spend on the phone a month and see whether it will affect any download restrictions that may be on your broadband service.

Doing other Internet related activities while making a VoIP call can also affect quality, depending on your connection speeds. If you have a fairly slow broadband connection, try not to make downloads while on the phone.

And finally, don't throw away your existing phone. Using a VoIP service requires at least the electricity on and your Internet connection running -- if either of these two are out during an emergency, you won't be able to make calls, whereas you'll still be able to with the normal landline. Some Australian VoIP services, however, provide an automatic forwarding service to your analog phone should the power or the Internet connection ever be down.

VoIP Netphones
Netphones are easy to install and in many instances free to use -- as long as you get your friends and family to install and use the same netphone software you're using. It's simply a matter of downloading and installing the appropriate software, creating an account, putting your friends and family on your contact list and voila -- you're ready to make a call. If you want to do more with your netphone -- such as the ability to call any phone or have any phone be able to call you -- you'll probably have to pay for the privilege.

One of the most well known netphones is Skype, which boasts more than 146 million downloads so far. Such is its popularity that several phone manufacturers are releasing phones that can be used to directly interact with Skype, freeing you from your computer (although it still needs to be on). New products include DUALphone's 2-in-1 Skype Internet phone and Doro's USB telephone 212 IPC for Skype. Skype also has SkypeOut, a paid service which allows you to call landlines and mobiles, and SkypeIn, which gives your Skype account a physical phone number that anyone can call (although this service isn't available for Australian customers yet). You can download Skype here.

Other popular netphones include BuddyTalk and Glophone, both of which are free to use between other subscribers but do offer advanced services for a fee.

But it's not only international companies getting in on the act. Melbourne-based Freshtel has developed Firefly, a free netphone that, like Skype, allows you to talk for free to other Firefly users (and charges for calls to landlines and mobiles).

Another option is to use your favourite instant messenger application, many of which now have features which allow you to make VoIP calls. The latest versions of MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger, for example, now incorporate voice chat capabilities.

VoIP options


Service About
Skype What's not to like about Skype 1.1? It's free and ad-free, and it offers clear calls to other Skype users anywhere in the world.
Yahoo Messenger Free voice calls and voicemail, built-in Web searches, and drag-and-drop photo sharing make Yahoo's new instant messenger a fun, powerful IM tool.
MSN Messenger Smooth videoconferencing and customisation add appeal to this IM client for any aficionado of multimedia messaging.
Firefly Local company Freshtel has created Firefly, a free to download software application which allows you to make and receive VoIP calls from your computer.
BuddyTalk BuddyTalk is Internet voice-communication software that offers four ways of communicating with anyone in the world.
GloPhone Download GloPhone Blue and you'll be able to make calls to and receive calls from any other GloPhone anywhere in the world for free.
Australian VoIP providers
There's a growing number of carriers in Australia providing VoIP services, with the majority selling analog telephone adaptor (ATA)-based solutions -- that is, solutions that turn your normal phone into a VoIP one. Consumers can either go directly to the VoIP carrier and select a piece of hardware, or they can buy branded gear from major manufacturers such as Netgear, Netcomm, Linksys and others, which are tied to a particular VoIP service provider. Prices for the ATAs vary depending on its capabilities, but should set you back anywhere between AU$100 to AU$250. You'll then need to sign up to a service, which is where it becomes a little more complicated.

The most apt comparison is with mobile phone plans -- while in most cases there's no lock-in contracts, VoIP carriers take a leaf out of the mobile book by presenting consumers with a range of different plans with varying levels of benefits. A plan with no monthly fee, for example, may only give you a bare bones service, while a AU$10 a month plan will get you your own dedicated VoIP phone number that people can call. More expensive plans usually bundle in some call minutes, as well as other value adds like cheaper call rates.

Just as with a mobile phone plan, you'll need to do some serious shopping around between the various VoIP carriers to see which plan suits you best. The table below outlines the basic plans (two-way plans, which means you're assigned a VoIP number that people can call) of the major VoIP players in Australia, but make sure to visit each carrier's Web site for the most up to date information. And remember that the below figures don't include the cost of the ATA device!

Australian VoIP service providers*

What you need to know
engin
engin


MyNetFone
MyNetFone


Ace Communications
Ace Communications


Freshtel
Freshtel

Minimum monthly fee AU$9.95 AU$0 AU$9.95 AU$0
Local calls 10c untimed 10c untimed 10c untimed 6.9c per minute
National calls 10c untimed 10c per minute (AU$1.50 cap) 10c untimed 6.9c per minute
Calls to mobiles 29c per minute 29c per minute 29c per minute 30c per minute
Free calls Free engin to engin calls Free MyNetFone to MyNetFone calls Free Ace to Ace calls Free Firefly to Firefly

*Rates for basic service with assigned call in VoIP phone number. Check individual provider Web sites for the latest information. Different terms and conditions may apply.