WiFi VoIP Phones

By Brian Boguhn
Updated: February 21, 2011

Voice over IP (VoIP) phone service has grown in popularity in the last few years as the technology has matured. By using the Internet to make phone calls instead of the traditional Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), businesses can take advantage of lower rates or even free calls, especially in the realm of long distance and international calls. The only limitation to VoIP is that an Internet connection is required. Until recently, that meant that the phone had to be physically plugged into a network or a router with an Ethernet cable. The explosion of wireless (WiFi) networks has changed this. New VoIP phones have been developed to allow people to place VoIP phone calls without being leashed to a physical connection.

How Wi-Fi VoIP Phones Work

802.11 networking is also known as WiFi. This is what a computer uses to communicate with a wireless router to communicate with the Internet. Smartphones like the iPhone also use WiFi to transmit data. VoIP can take advantage of this technology and also go wireless.

WiFi Phones

There are two types of phones that you can use to communicate with VoIP through wireless. The first is a special WiFi phone. These are manufactured and distributed from companies like Cisco and Skype. Signals are sent as radio waves over different frequencies than those used by cellphones. WiFi phones that use the 802.11b or 802.11g standards transmit at 2.4 GHz. Those using the 802.11a standard transmit at 5 GHz. These standards are the same used by computers when communicating wirelessly.

The WiFi phone looks almost exactly like the traditional cellphone. When making a call, you dial the number of the person you’re trying to reach. If you’re attempting to reach another VoIP user, you can enter a VoIP address instead of a phone number, if the service provider allows this. Once the call is initiated, it is handled like any other data transfer. The phone translates the dialed number into packets of data, and uses radio waves to transmit these packets to a wireless receiver. The receiver passes the information over the Internet to the call processor like an ordinary VoIP call. Once the conversation begins, your voice is transmitted in packets of data.

Many WiFi phones work only with a specific WiFi service or network. For example, some phones are manufactured specifically for use with Skype and Vonage. You’ll need an account from the service provider in order to use the phone. Other WiFi phones work with specific protocols, such as the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). This is an open protocol that can be used by anyone, and anyone with a SIP address can contact any other SIP user for free.

Smartphones

The second type of phone that can be used to communicate via VoIP is a smartphone. An example would be Apple’s iPhone. The iPhone has wireless capability built into it. There are apps available in the Apple App store that allows the iPhone to be used as a VoIP phone. Like the WiFi phones described above, you’ll need an account with a provider in order to use the service. Google Voice is an example of a provider that can be configured to be used in some of the apps offered.

Pros and Cons

  • VoIP callers can dial 911, but the system can’t always transmit the caller’s location to the 911 dispatcher. The same holds true for WiFi VoIP. The precise location of a caller cannot be determined as easily through a wireless network.
  • If you live in an area where there is little to no WiFi availability, a WiFi phone would be of no use to you. However, as more municipalities develop city wide WiFi networks, WiFi phones will become more useful.
  • Keep in mind that when you’re using wireless VoIP, you’re sharing bandwidth with a lot of other traffic. VoIP doesn’t use much bandwidth, but other data can. This could result in poor quality and even dropped calls. Expect this to improve as the technology improves.

WiFi VoIP has a lot of promise, and will surely explode in the next few years. The technology is still new, however. WiFi networks don’t exist everywhere. The WiFi phone is more of a novelty right now than an actual tool. Users are becoming savvy to it, however, and increased demand will result in a better product. If you’re considering WiFi VoIP right now, be sure to do your homework and make sure you’re spending your dollars wisely.
 

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