What Is an IP Phone?

IP (or VoIP) telephony is old as the internet itself. In 1973, a demonstration over ARPANET gave birth to this technology.

It would take two more decades for the first VoIP application called Speak Freely to arrive for the public. And, in 2003 Skype would become the popular face for peer-to-peer internet calling. Today, WhatsApp or Viber is the app for all your free VoIP calls. But however popular these new calling apps are, they are just a small part of the IP telephony story.

The bigger story that should grab your attention is this – The global VoIP services market will touch $140 billion by 2021. IP phones would be a big chunk of this.

But let’s not time travel to the future just yet. Let’s dial back and understand the technology that allows you to pick up an IP telephone and make a call over the internet.


What Is an IP Phone?

A VoIP phone or an IP phone is a communication device that uses the internet to make and receive calls. In simpler words, the voice signals ride on the same packets of data which is helping you read this article. Voice Over Internet Protocol uses the same set of rules (i.e. the protocols) as the internet. If you are already paying for an internet connection, you can make internet calls for free.

IP telephony and IP phones are used in different ways. A single individual can simply use his computer or mobile to make a computer to computer call while a large organization must set up a sophisticated VoIP service to manage the calls. The result is same – VoIP telephony cuts costs and boosts productivity.

How Are IP Phones Different from Traditional Phones?

Our regular phones use a system called Circuit Switching. When two people talk over a regular phone, the connection (or circuit) is kept open for the duration of the call. These tried and tested landlines are run over a public switch telephone network (PSTN). Or, less technically called a POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service).

The costs to set up a PSTN network aren’t plain – from the miles of copper cables on the ground to communication satellites in space. Even then, when a circuit goes down it takes your call with you.

Traditional phone systems have existed since the 19th Century. They remain as reliable as cast iron skillets. And, just as unbendable.

This is where an IP phone that uses VoIP offers a business a few more advantages. VoIP has grown up fast thanks to better internet connectivity and today, it offers an alternative to the plain old telephone sitting at your desk. But what does an IP phone bring to the table and what exactly does it leave out?

The Pluses of Digital vs. Analog. An IP phone makes a call over the internet with VoIP. The signals are digital and go via wired or wireless networks. Regular phones use analog signals which travel over dedicated cables.

Use More Phone Features. VoIP systems offer other built-in features that many standard phone companies often charge extra for. For instance, voice mail and conference calling.

Get Portability. IP Phones are portable even when they are not wireless. As they are plug-and-play, you can shift them easily from one location to another where bandwidth is available. Analog phones need expensive re-wiring and time.

Find Huge Cost Savings. In a multi-locale business environment, IP phones are more affordable as it allows unlimited calls almost free of charge.

Design a Streamlined Office. You can streamline your entire office communication around the single internet backbone and the service provider.

Extend and Enhance Anytime. An IP Phone runs on software. So, you can in theory write software for an IP Phone that helps your business productivity.

What Does an IP Phone Look Like?

A basic IP phone isn’t a drastic makeover from a normal phone. Like normal phones, they have a handset, cradle and buttons. The difference is in the way they connect.

The standard RJ-11 phone connectors give way to an RJ-45 Ethernet connector. IP phones connect to a router or the company LAN and have all the hardware and software nuts and bolts in-built for IP calls. Wi-Fi phones are more portable and can tap into any Wi-Fi hot spot. Some IP phones have a hub, which can be used to connect other internet enabled devices over the network.

A VoIP phone connects a call to to a regular analog phone with address translation. It is the handshake between an IP address and a phone number. This match and connect can be compared to the way an IP address is mated to a website URL.

Do note that some analog phones can be connected to the internet with ATAs (analog telephone adaptor). This device allows a regular phone to make calls over the internet and reduce monthly bills. But these devices are typical for home use and not for large-scale businesses which prefer pure IP phones.

Some Disadvantages of IP Phones You Should Be Aware of Too

  1. IP phones need an external power supply. Some IP Phones use PoE (Power over Ethernet). You can expect a small rise in electricity bills with enterprise use. Regular phones are more reliable as they source their power from the telephone exchange.
  2. Call quality on IP phones can be affected by packet drops (latency) and network congestion. Voice quality on regular phones can be better on long distance calls.
  3. IP phones can be targeted by hackers with methods like denial-of-service attacks and viruses. Though, IP phone calls can be digitally encrypted, it is not a default feature.
  4. IP phones are usually more expensive than analog phones but that is eased with lower cost of infrastructure and a lifetime of “free” calls.
  5. Emergency 911 calls from IP phones cannot be traced instantly because they use IP addresses and not area codes.

Will IP Phones Take Over the World?

In 2014, telecom powerhouses AT&T and Verizon Communications lobbied a few U.S states to do away with landlines. The same Wall Street Journal article said that more than 38% of adults and 45.5% of children live in households without a landline telephone.

Three years on, it can be said that the future is closer. A recent rumble in Illinois could lead to the phase out of the “plain old telephone service”. The landlines will soon go the way of phone booths and pay phones.

We live with our cell phones anyway. But are big businesses burying their old PBX systems in the technology graveyard?

Businesses are far more cautious than individuals. A communication system needs to be unified while placing the customer first. IP phones give businesses a lot of customer service value too.

Business applications and CRM tools can be integrated with an IP Phone system. For example, you can turn Microsoft Outlook into a communication hub with features like contact dialing and calendar sync.

The latest phones can video-enable your entire organization. A Cisco Intelligent Proximity feature can connect your mobile device to an advanced IP phone and enable sharing of rich content.

Enterprise-wide customer tools can run on Cloud Hosted PBX systems which can help you scale up your communication anytime.

By now, this article should have forced you to think about IP telephony. Take your future needs into account when making the decision. Match the gaps in your productivity with the litheness of an IP phone. The future is just a call away.

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