Has your business answered the call of the internet?

Phone and Computer

Voice over IP got off to a crackly start, but these days using VoIP to save money doesn’t have to leave you sounding cheap and nasty.

An oppressive communications bill might seem like a necessary evil for a small business, but it’s one overhead that you can actually wrestle under control. Rather than using your traditional phone service, VoIP calls travel over data connections such as the internet. You can keep using your old desktop phone, but plug it into a VoIP adaptor rather than the wall socket. Otherwise you can upgrade to a VoIP handset equipped with Ethernet or Wi-Fi.

Switching to VoIP can be a money saver, especially if you make a lot of interstate and international calls or you’re paying for internal calls between offices. But sending your voice calls across the internet can leave your call quality at the mercy of other internet traffic, just like a car struggling to make it across town in the peak hour rush. So it pays to do a little research to ensure that your VoIP service keeps you sounding professional.

Some of the biggest factors influencing the quality of your VoIP calls are the quality of your internet connection and whether you can give your voice calls priority over your other internet activities.

The faster your internet connection, the better your VoIP calls can sound. The absolute minimum internet speed you’d want for a VoIP call is a 256 kilobit-per-second broadband link with 64 kbps upload speeds. It’s actually the upload speed which is the bottleneck, because you’re sending sound as well as receiving it. Of course a 256/64 kbps connection doesn’t leave much overhead for using the internet for other things while you’re making a call. Thankfully most broadband plans now offer at least 1500/256 kbps, which is enough to support decent VoIP calls while allowing room for other internet activities.

Along with speed you also need to consider latency — basically the lag on your internet connection. You can measure your connection speed and latency using websites such as SpeedTest.net. Your calls can get choppy if your latency blows out beyond 150 milliseconds, which is why satellite and wireless connections can offer disappointing VoIP quality even if they support fast download speeds.

At this point it also pays to think about something called “Quality of Service” or QoS. It gives your voice calls priority over your other internet traffic, a little like giving that car a police escort as it weaves through the peak hour rush. If your VoIP adaptor is built into your broadband modem then it should be able to prioritise your VoIP traffic automatically over your other internet activities. If your VoIP adaptor is a separate box which plugs into your broadband modem then you might need to tweak the modem’s settings to give VoIP calls priority. Depending on your VoIP service provider, you might even be able to ensure Quality of Service all the way back to your ISP, which will help further improve your call quality.

You should also give some thought to the VoIP “codec” you use. The codec determines how your voice is squeezed and stretched across the internet, a little like how your choice of audio format and bit rate determines the quality of your music when you rip your CDs to your computer.

Most consumer-grade VoIP services use the G.729 codec by default, which tends to sound like a crackly mobile call. If your VoIP provider and hardware support it, try switching to G.711. It chews through more bandwidth but can sound as good as a traditional phone call.


Adam Turner – Freelance Technology Journalist