VoIP: Bringing The World Closer
Calling is ‘the’ go-to technology we use to stay connected. It is a ritual for us cousins to get together over videocall and chat for long on Sundays. Me and my best friend can spend hours talking to each other – exchanging juicy gossip, brainstorming ideas or debating about geopolitics and makeup! Not only the Gen Z, but our parents and their friends, siblings, relatives, etc. spend a lot of time catching up with each other. Surely, had Alexander Graham Bell known that his invention would be used by the neighbouring aunties to gossip about the entire neighbourhood, he would have gladly let his invention die in obscurity!!
Humour aside, calling or speaking over the phone has become the communication lifeline in the past few decades. Yet, until a years ago, telephony was reserved for delivering the most important messages or news only, and not for long chats. The exorbitantly high prices of calling, that was charged per minute of use, was the restricting factor. That is not so, anymore. The reason we can choose to talk with our favourite person for hours, without getting anxious about the rising bills is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). That is the technology used for calling over the internet, which is practically free as we only need to pay for Wi-Fi (or mobile data), which is a lot cheaper than making traditional calls over mobile or landline phone. So when you use Skype to talk to your sibling in the US, WhatsApp call for a virtual friends’ hang-out or FaceTime to check-on your parents, you are making use of VoIP. So, let us understand more about this technology.
VoIP – The Workings of It
As the name suggests, Voice-over Internet Protocol utilizes internet to send data such as voice and/or video signals and instant messages. This technique of data transmission is different from a normal landline telephone that uses a dedicated copper wire circuitry between the two telephone devices in order to achieve voice reception and transmission. These phones make use of a technique of data transmission that is known as Circuit Switching. In case of a conventional call, the telephone device converts your voice signal into an electric one and transmits it over the wire to your friend’s phone. Then, for you to hear your friend, the process is reversed by first receiving the electric signal and then reconverting it into voice, so as to complete the process.
Similarly, a mobile phone too makes use of Radio Frequency (RF) waves to make calls and follows the process similar to a landline that has been explained above. But in case of VoIP, internet, which is a network of computers connected all over the globe, is used to send the data. This is technique is known as Packet Switching. Let us delve deeper into Packet Switch Networks.
Packet Switching: A network that makes use of Packet Switching Technique is employed for sending and receiving data (voice, video, text, multimedia) over the internet.
In this method, there is no establishment of a dedicated channel between the two communicating nodes (the transmitting and receiving device), like in case of Circuit Switched Networks. Instead, the transmission data, for example, your voice, is first converted into a digital signal (i.e. the binary form of ones and zeroes) and chopped into small chunks of data. These chunks, technically called packets, are then transmitted over the internet. Each packet contains an address of the destination, a serial number and other data that is required by the application for which the VoIP call is being used. Each of these packets then take a different route to reach the destination. Thence, the receiver is responsible for taking in the packets, assembling them serially, decoding the digital data and converting it into voice signal so that you can hear it. Though all this seems highly complicated and time-consuming, remember that this process takes place in almost real-time, in order to provide you with a live-chatting experience. Isn’t technology mind-blowing?!
The biggest advantage of using Packet Switching is that multiple types of data can be transmitted simultaneously. Thus, you might recall that during a videocall on zoom or WhatsApp, you can see, hear, talk as well as text or send a video to your friend. This flexibility is absent in circuit-switched networks because of a single channel that carries a single type of data – either voice or text or multimedia.
Essential Components of VoIP
It is possible to use internet for calling either on a computer, a mobile phone or a traditional fixed-line phone. Let us take a look at the components necessary to make a VoIP call –
1) Internet – This is obviously the most important component, without which IP telephony wouldn’t be possible. A high-speed and stable internet connection can elevate your VoIP calling experience to the next level.
2) A VoIP Facilitator – This can be a mobile application like WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype, etc. or a software on the computer. For a landline phone, a VoIP adaptor with a capability for internet connectivity is a prerequisite to make or receive internet calls.
Thus, with only 2 components required, communicating through VoIP is not complex at all. That is one of the reasons for the tech’s popularity in recent years.
VoIP over Traditional Calling – Pros and Cons
Though the VoIP technology has been around since 1960s, its widespread commercial use began only in the last decade of the 20th century. Since 2000s, it has been catching on due to a few benefits over traditional telephony. Let us take a look at the advantages –
1) Cost Effective – Because you only need to pay for a broadband, Wi-Fi or mobile data connection and not a fixed-line, costs of usage for VoIP are drastically reduced. Another reason is that you are not charged on a per-minute basis but according to the utilization of data units, which is cheaper. Hence calling over VoIP saves costs than the earlier telephones.
2) Flexibility – You can send voice, video, text or multimedia data over VoIP, while also getting the flexibility of sending and receiving all of the data simultaneously. It is also possible to use it on any device with an internet connection and a VoIP facilitator, with no restrictions on location of the device. This is a huge advantage over the landline phones. Hence, international and roaming calls are also possible at a fraction of cost of the traditional calling.
3) Additional Features – Many VoIP applications mentioned above provide additional features such as voicemail, virtual numbers and auto attendants, which are missing in the circuit-switched telephony.
1) Internet Connectivity – Areas with poor connectivity can face the problems of low voice quality, call dropping, etc. It is also prone to internet congestion, thus leading to poor connection and lag in transmission of voice/video.
2) Unreliability and Privacy Issues – Due to packet switching over internet, which is a publicly shared resource, VoIP is susceptible to eavesdropping, hacking or phone tapping. Hence, privacy concerns cloud the usage of IP calling. Also, lack of a dedicated connection between the caller and receiver means that the call is unreliable. Packets lost due to poor connectivity can hardly be retrieved, thus leading to a permanent loss of data.
5G and VoIP
With the advent of 5G with its ultra-high speeds, extended bandwidth and extremely low latency, VoIP telephony is projected to capture the market in the coming years (click here to read my previous article on 5G). Currently applications of VoIP telephony are no longer limited to the occasional international calls to relatives but have extended to businesses as well as for customer support. Cumulative impact of all these factors has led to Persistent Market Research forecasting an exponential growth in global VoIP revenue to 194.5 billion USD by 2024.
With the many initiatives launched by governments as well as private tech companies to improve internet’s reach and quality, it is evident that VoIP customer-base shall expand.
Legal Issues & Hurdles in Law Enforcement
It is easier to track calls made on circuit-switched network due to the presence of a dedicated channel. But this is not so with VoIP. Also, deployment of end-to-end encryption for calling through apps like WhatsApp, poses further challenge in crime investigation (you can read more about encryption here – part 1 and part 2). That and the loss to traditional calling service providers are the primary reasons for crackdown on VoIP telephony by multiple governments across the world. Indian government does not permit VoIP calling from computer or mobile to a landline number. There also have been instances when VoIP was used by terrorist organizations in planning attacks. Hence, VoIP is subjected to greater scrutiny and regulation by the governments.
Despite of issues, it cannot be denied that VoIP is a useful technology. It allows a sister to virtually tie Rakhi to her brother on Rakshabandhan whilst both of them are on different continents. It has truly brought, not only the world, but also families closer. And that is, essentially the aim of any technology.
Vishvali Deo is an E&TC (Electronics and Telecommunication) Engineer by education and Software Engineer by Profession. She believes that 'Technology is a Great Democratising and Equalising Force' and hence is on a mission to make the general public understand seemingly complex technologies in a simple manner.
She is convinced that the root of today's world problems lie in the past, hence she has also pursued post-graduation in History. She has a keen interest and a good grip over Economics, Political Science and Environmental Engineering. She has a penchant for working with Women and spreading Digital Literacy amongst them, with the aim of their empowerment. She also strives to provide Free Quality Education to children and counsels young adults. Besides, she is also skilled at Public Speaking, having won many awards in Elocution & Debate Competitions and Technical Paper Presentations.