(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

When does Internet Telephony Make Sense?

VoIP stands for Voice Over IP. Technically speaking, it is a way of carrying real time voice conversations, that is standard phone calls, through the same equipment and lines which transport files and emails, with the same rules, called Internet Protocol (IP), and inside the same kind of data packets.

In practice, VoIP means two very different things. Phone companies, Internet service providers or any corporation can use it to sensibly cut the hardware and management costs of their phone calls, that is the ones that they transport on their internal networks for themselves or their customers. This kind of usage, that is strictly controlled operations inside completely locked networks, doesn’t present serious limitations or risks if done competently. The opposite, that is direct calls between end users, with or without the assistance of a VoIP provider, are an entirely different story.

The main risk of VoIP

Even if the sound quality is not always the same, VoIP conversations are free, or at least much cheaper than traditional phone calls. Most turn-key contracts for residential customers, for example, give the possibility to make and receive calls at the same flat, low rate paid from home even when the customer’s “phone” is actually running inside his or her laptop in a Fiji resort. VoIP also has several downsides, however.

If you have ever surfed the Internet, you may have noticed how unbearably slow it can be some times, for example when many people are visiting the same news website in the same moment. Imagine that happening to your phone call. Not just the chat with your aunt, but also your emergency calls.

Normally, when somebody dials the emergency number from a standard land line, the call is automatically routed to a special, reserved network which also knows the address of each fixed phone or the cell, that is the local area, from which a cell phone is calling. Without extra machinery, however, the origin of a VoIP call is always the same for all the customers of a VoIP operator: the computer room to which the modems of those customers are connected.

Things could get worst if somebody used the VoIP subscription originally registered for his or her home from a different location, using a laptop computer: if that customer, for example, called the hospital while stopping at a highway motel, the ambulance would still be sent to his or her home, because that is the place to which that VoIP “phone” is associated.

This is not an hypothetical scenario. The amount of emergency calls from VoIP lines is expected to raise to 20 per cent by the end of 2007 in the United States alone, but in September 2004, 911 was still a joke for VoIP customers: when a reporter called 911 one recent evening to report a mugging, he reached a Police Department employee who explicitly told him: “If you were to fall unconscious, I wouldn’t have your address. This isn’t good.” Lawsuits over the unavailability of 911 services for VoIP customers have already happened.

Other VoIP risks

Right now all is working nicely and without too many attacks only because VoIP is still a very low part of the total amount of phone calls and many critical VoIP calls still take place in very controlled environments.

If not managed properly, however, VoIP may create problems even when you are not in an emergency situation. Some service guarantees, like the maximum disconnection time for network maintenance, may be deeply different from those of traditional services. Some VoIP phone adapters may not be compatible with home alarms systems.

Security and privacy are other causes of concern in an unrestricted VoIP environment. Call interception from anybody, not just law enforcement officials, can be much easier. The same applies to voice spam, that is sending the same recorded message simultaneously to hundreds or thousands of VoIP users: there is definitely a need for authentication and voice encryption in VoIP phone conversations.

Another issue is the fact some software programs can place VoIP calls making any number their user wants appear on the caller ID display of the receiving phone, making some frauds easier. These threats are only beginning to emerge, but over time they’re likely to proliferate as soon as more people use it regularly. Last but not least, the quality of service of self-managed, totally free, direct VoIP calls from a personal computer to another is very likely to decrease when the volume of these calls approach the one of traditional conversations. Net Neutrality may or may not help in these specific cases.

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