The question, then, is why does VoIP “make” conference calls free? How are these VoIP providers taking advantage of the internet to offer this awesome – albeit, mysterious – service? These questions tickled my inner investigator. So, donning my finest fedora and trenchcoat, I went out to get some answers.
After spending many hours in research, I’ve put together some information that I hope will give you a clearer picture of VoIP providers and their services.
VoIP became relevant a little more than a decade ago. And it’s been instrumental in changing business communications.
So what exactly is VoIP in layman’s terms? When you have a VoIP conversation, your computer or phone passes what you say (voice data) along to software programs (audio codecs) that convert your voice into bits of information. That information passes over the internet on networks that use protocols to relay the message to the right phone number or computer IP address. Software on the receiving side then converts the bits of information back into voice. Put all of the pieces together, and you have everything needed for a VoIP transmission.
Let’s compare VoIP to a special toll road (to simplify things). You’re trying to get from Point A (Denver) to Point B (Paris). You pick up a pass at the toll booth in Denver and then hop on the highway. Our special highway transforms your car into a bit of light, making it possible to get from A to B in seconds. When you arrive in Paris, there’s another toll booth awaiting you, which registers the pass and converts you back into a car. (The combination of the toll booths, the pass, the highway, and the information about your car, are all necessary for a VoIP transmission.)
VoIP suddenly made possible an entirely new form of communication. People could call each other over the internet. Pair VoIP with video codecs and you get the basics for Skype and FaceTime.
Of course, communications over VoIP aren’t faultless. There are three key quality issues:
The most common issue with VoIP, Jitter occur when packets of voice information are sent on different paths and wind up arriving in the wrong order. For example, there are instances in which a statement “A,” made chronologically before statement “B,” arrives after B during a VoIP call. Makes things a bit confusing.
Latency, or the delay in audio transmission, is an inevitability of all remote communications. The bigger issue is that VoIP creates particular issues: Handling and Queuing delays.
Handling delays result when large amounts of information are grouped into packets by VoIP protocols and an error occurs, slowing the transmission. The ultimate handling delay occurs when the information packet never arrives. (Your “pass” came with bad a faulty GPS.)
Queuing delays occur when an interface is overwhelmed with incoming packets and fails to deliver them timely. (Imagine that the second toll booth is congested with traffic.)
There’s no escaping it. VoIP will always be dependent upon bandwidth. Consequently, if your internet provider’s a little spotty, you may wind up with callers who cut out over and over again. Or vice versa – listeners may never be able to hear you!
Fortunately, these ailments are curable. Jitters can be cured by using jitter buffers. VoIP routers help to resolve latency.
Those VoIP providers offering free conference calls enter the game when a transfer between digital VoIP and analog telephones is required.
VoIP providers use systems to migrate a VoIP call back onto a Public Switch Telephone Network (PSTN) by converting IP addresses into phone numbers. Basically, it’s a translation of digital information into analog signals.
The conversion makes it possible to host hundreds of participants – if not thousands – on calls using both VoIP and traditional telephony.
There’s an adage I’ve always appreciated: There are no free lunches.
The same is true when it comes to providers offering free conference calls. They make their money by getting a cut from larger telecom carriers like CenturyLink, Verizon, AT&T, and so on. How does it work? Well, VoIP providers route calls through toll lines to connect with telephony users. The toll costs that would normally be incurred by the hosting business during a call, are passed off to everyone else on the call – all the participants.
There’s the catch. You may reap the benefits of a free call, but your participants may be annoyed they’re covering the charges. Worse still, most calls are recognized as long distance, which will up the bill for those who join your calls. (Imagine how bad this gets for international individuals and teams who may wind up paying several dollars per minute per person!)
When you have important calls that help close deals, it may not be in your interest to have a prospective client foot the bill…. Can you imagine taking a potential customer out for a nice dinner, wine and dine ‘em a bit, and then leave the table when the waiter comes with the check? Not a good look.
The simple fact is that despite their claim, free conference call services don’t provide free calls. They just redistribute the costs. Taking the burden off a business hosting the call misconstrues the fact that these calls can wind up being quite expensive in the end.
Quality issues will also remain in question with VoIP. No matter how providers improve VoIP, the quality will always be susceptible to problems with bandwidth. A bad internet connection will make for a glitchy, staticky conversation.
There are other, more important factors that can fundamentally impact the quality. See them below.
As mentioned above, audio codecs are needed to convert voice into digital information (and back into voice). The codecs used by providers can vary. And the audio quality will differ based on the codec.
Certain codecs process and compress information more quickly. Others consume less bandwidth. These differing codecs have received grades (Mean Opinion Scores – MOSs) for the quality of the voice transmission. If you decide to go with a VoIP provider, make sure you know which codec they use. (Check out the link here for an overview of audio codecs.)
The simplest way to manage quality issues is to fully invest in VoIP technologies. Though you don’t necessarily need to purchase a full VoIP phone system, there are some necessities.
VoIP routers help eliminate latency and jitters by prioritizing VoIP over your network. The costs for such routers can range widely, anywhere between $200 to $3,000.
The quality of your VoIP will always be dependent upon your bandwidth and internet speed. Therefore, having the highest speed business-class internet really is a necessity.
If you have an existing PSTN (traditional) phone system, you will need an Analog Telephone Adaptor to connect with a VoIP network.
Factoring in all of these things reinforces the fact that free conference calling via VoIP…isn’t actually free. The costs just wind up being picked up elsewhere. (Sorry to disappoint.)
While free conference calling may not actually be free, it does remain a viable option for businesses that are just starting up or those that make few conference calls.
Businesses that go the free conference call route just need to keep in mind that costs will be put on participants. If that cost exchange won’t impact your business deals, then choosing amongst VoIP providers may be the right option to help your company keep costs down.
There are certainly instances where VoIP may be the best option for your business. But it’s very important to consider all your options. There are other factors that can weigh into the equation.
To help you better understand your conference calling options, review the below use case considerations:
One of the challenges you face going with a VoIP provider is the lack of ensured services. Many providers simply facilitate calls. Some providers do not offer:
If your organization makes thousands of calls each year, you may be better off going with a traditional audio conferencing provider. Such companies often provide advanced conferencing tools, like visual interfaces, that generally help in the management of calls. They can also provide detailed reporting on the back end. Perhaps of even more importance, these organizations have readily available support teams to assist.
Having the right support team is no small thing. Support teams can help on many fronts:
What’s easily forgotten about traditional conferencing services is the fact their cost-per-minute can be mere pennies. Yeah, it’s not free. But when you consider all an audio conferencing provider brings to the game, it makes those pennies a worthy cost.
Support offerings should always factor in when choosing a provider. I’ve been on enough iffy calls to know the right support can make a huge difference.
Your conference calls don’t have to be an either/or situation – either VoIP or telephony. There is a solution that gives you the best of both. We’re talking about PSTN Toll Bypass.
PSTN Toll Bypass is a clever technology that provides VoIP callers an enhanced audio conferencing experience by supporting high definition codecs. Interestingly enough, these high definition codecs also use less bandwidth than other codecs. The functionality serves many business needs, including:
PSTN Toll ByPass serves as a desirable middle ground. You get the high-quality audio you’d expect from telephony. The cost is incredibly low. And you’re not putting that expense on unexpecting call participants.
In doing so, we can offer our customers access to one of the best PSTN Toll Bypass options.
There are options available to help businesses facilitate successful conference calls. Maybe it’s VoIP. Maybe it’s traditional audio conferencing. Each business has to evaluate their business use-case to make such a determination.
If you want a provider that will work with you to create a customized solution, look no further.