My editor here at the State Port Pilot suggested that many people are reading about Internet telephone, but don't understand much about it. She thought I might be able to make it easy to understand. I appreciate her trust in me, but that might be a tall order. Well, let's try…
There are many ways to send information over wires or through the air via radio waves. The most probably reason for having so many methods is they evolved over time. If we had it all to do over again, you would probably see many less information sending techniques. In a way, the Internet is actually a way of achieving that goal - of starting over from scratch. More on that later.
The single thing that is important in all this is that the sender of information and the receiver of the information understand each other. How it is being sent is less important. For example, you can have voice data and FAX data using the same kind of phone lines (although not at the same time). A FAX machine receiving a voice call would not know what to make of it. If somebody dials your phone number and you hear a FAX machine beeping and booping on the other end, you can't understand it either. But people on both ends understand a voice call, and if there were FAX machines on both ends, they would understand each other. If you could understand the FAX tones in your head, you too could receive FAXes without a machine!
Internet telephony is an example of this. Using special hardware, your voice is transmitted to the other end of the call via a different technique (the Internet, or IP - Internet Protocol) than the traditional phone company uses. But when it gets to the other end and is reproduced as sound, you understand it perfectly.
Even if one end is on the 'net and the other end is a traditional phone, it still works, provided that your ISP or Internet phone service provider has what is called a "gateway" from the IP network to the traditional phone network.
So, how does it work? There are a few different companies out there, but what they give you is special hardware that plugs into your local home network or cable/DSL modem. The special hardware then allows you to plug in your regular telephones and the telephone wiring in your house.
Time Warner Cable is currently providing such a service in the Raleigh area, and soon to be offered here. If you subscribe to the service (and you also have to have Road Runner cable Internet), they give you a different cable modem, which has an additional jack on the back. This jack connects to your home telephone wires. Outside at the telephone entry box, they disconnect the phone company lines so that there is no interference. You can even keep your old number because of recent legislation to allow cell phone users to change carrier but keep their number. Once the setup is completed, you can pick up your old phones and dial and receive calls just as normal.
Other services give you a new box that plugs into your Internet network (or router) and provides the traditional phone connection from that.
What differences will you see? First of all, since the signals are all digital they actually might be clearer and better than your old analog phones. But there are a couple of negatives: first of all, the Internet as we know it today was never designed to handle voice traffic - it was designed for data, where instantaneous response is not required. This may introduce what is called "latency" into the call - in other words, there is a delay between the time you speak and the time your party hears your words. This delay is fairly small, but it can get worse if the IP network is heavily loaded.
Secondly, there is a perception that the cable network is not as reliable as the traditional telephone network. In a bad storm, your power and cable might go out, but the phone rarely does unless the lines in the street themselves are actually cut. Most people I talk to about this are not too concerned, and often comment that their cell phones are a backup in case of a problem.
In the future, there will be a convergence of many signal types onto the Internet. I already get my FAXes through the Internet, and telephone is not far away. And one day you will get your TV and film feeds via the Internet, instead of the specialized cable service. And, this is good.
Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport - Oak Island area. You can visit his Website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail questions or column ideas to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For specific inquiries, please call Bob Seidel Consulting, LLC at 278-1007.