The Amazing Telephone

The Western Electric model 500 rotary dial telephone was a pulse-dialing  instrument. Would your kids even recognize this as a telephone?

The days of growing up in a home that has an actual central house phone – landline or otherwise – have all but disappeared.  Plain old telephone service has given way to the use of cell phones for just about all personal use in the Unites States.

Cell phone features have improved from really lousy text based web browsers that operated at less than modem speeds to ultra-high definition color touchscreens that can help you navigate the highways, and help you plan your next social gathering, while you browse the internet.

But in all that – cell phone voice telephone calls have remained largely rooted in the same technology they started with. To be brutally honest – voice call quality is just about terrible in almost all cases. [1]

Yes they connect us, make it possible to be reached away from home, or the office.  But how much of a struggle do you really want to put your friends and clients through just to speak to you?  

Can You Hear Me Now?

There’s a good reason everyone knows the phrase “Can you hear me now?”   Because everyone has the same experience with cell phones –

No client wants to talk to you – their service provider – while you are on a cell phone.  They may not say it to your face, but they really wish they could hear and understand you better. Think about it – you have heard the distain in the voice at the other end of the call when you are being overcome by noise, or experiencing audio drop out; that magical moment when the cell phone system decides there are a few words or parts of words that you just don’t need to hear.

Because of these standard cell-phone issues, the use of cell phones in business often get relegated to “I will call you when I get to the office” exchanges. Businesses really do want to understand, and communicate clearly and as effortlessly as possible with their clients.

So where do we go to make a clear phone call without blasts of noise and audio corruption?  Very often, right back to 1963 when the Bell System officially introduced dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) technology under the name Touch-Tone.

The Western Electric Model 2500 DTMF Telephone was the standard desk phone of the touch-tone era.

If the phone on your desk looks anything like this – then your “go-to” telephone for business use is probably using the vestiges of the phone system that was “current” in 1963 - because it has better sound quality than your $500 cellular telephone.  Really?

Yes, Really. Well, OK – but if it works, don’t fix it – RIGHT??

Mostly right.  Analog phone service has some significant limitations – like limited bandwidth available for call quality.  And of course, other than being able to be plugged into any phone jack in the house, they aren’t portable in the least.  If you take your analog phone to your neighbor’s house, and plug it into his analog phone jack (if he has analog phone service!), it’s connected as his phone to his phone number.  Your calls just don’t ring there – his do.  Yeah – not portable at all.

For technical reasons, our old analog phones operate with about 3.5kHz of bandwidth; A narrow frequency range of 300 to 3300 Hz, called the voiceband, which is much less than the human hearing range of 20 - 20,000 Hz.

 It is the analog telephones’ inability to carry sounds outside this narrow range that will forever relegate it to having what we tend to think of as ‘tinny sound’.   Because the sounds we hear coming through the phone don’t have the full range of frequency and harmonics that we are accustomed to hearing – our ear recognizes them as somehow incomplete.

But what analog phones lacked in dynamic audio range, they made up for in consistency.  Under normal operating conditions (properly functioning telephone, and central office equipment, no wet lines, and etc), and very unlike cell phones, there is no drop out, and no intermittent signal loss. Background noise – so often outside the 3.5 Khz range – couldn’t even be carried to the other end of a phone call.

So – what is a business to do?  Give up having business phone calls unless you’re sitting at a desk with a touch tone analog telephone based on technology that was new and exciting in 1964?  Do we give up having traveling employees that you can actually talk to when they are traveling?   Obviously “that duck aint gonna fly”.

Early "hand held" Cell Phones were bigger than the cordless phones of their day - and were analog instead of digital as todays cell phones are.

Cell phones will eventually improve as actual instruments of voice communication – once the craze for pocket computers with digital secretaries has been sated. They function well enough now for the ‘quick and dirty’ calls that take 5 minutes and solve big issues.  But business needs more, and we as the poor souls who have to try and hold intelligible conversations by some sort of telephone – deserve more.

There is at least one product on the market designed to make it easy for you to hang your cellphone on your head like a headset.  Their advertising materials even say it works for household cordless phones.  My cell phone weighs in at 185 grams, or .40 of a pound.  My admittedly older cordless house phone a chunky 446 grams, or .86 of a pound.  My cell phone also gets hot if I leave it pressed against my ear for any amount of time that is more than less. 

This may just be old fashioned, but the idea of strapping ½ a pound of hot, radiation producing, lithium battery holding technology against someone's face during a day’s work seems like a recipe for disaster.   Who wants to spend the day working with a cell phone strapped on their head, and then spend the night walking like a stunt double for Quasimodo .  I have a feeling most employees and managers alike would agree.

Ok, so here we are.  It’s time to upgrade/replace/augment the current business phone system.  So far, from what we have discussed, it seems we may only choose between analog phone technology ‘perfected’ in 1964 with such narrow frequency response it can never be capable of making our calls sound particularly good, and so tied to hard-wire that it will never be portable, or Current Cell Phone technology that we CAN carry with us, but that sounds worse, and is less reliable than the 1964 technology. 

Well – those are not really our only choices.  While the analog phone system has been incrementally upgraded over the years to include digital advancements like data compression to expand its capacity, other technologies have emerged which emulate its abilities, and vastly improve on its sound quality and portability limitations.  The most prevalent among them is a technology called Voice over IP, or VoIP.

Let’s Talk about Voice over IP (VoIP) Telephony

If you have not been living under a ‘technology-shield’ of some kind, you have probably heard of Voice over IP, often called VoIP.  Voice over IP is a group of technologies that allow telephone calls to travel over traditional TCP/IP based networks (like the internet, and your home/office network) instead of making the entire trip between the calling parties on the telephone company’s private proprietary network, the way traditional analog calls do.  This technology became widely available around 2001, and has been growing in users and abilities ever since.

Like most technologies, VoIP has matured over the years as the standards evolved. The overall performance of VoIP service now easily challenges that of cell phones, and analog service in terms of quality and reliability.

But it didn’t necessarily start out that way.  The pioneers and early adopters “took some for the team” by way of quirky service behaviors; Quirky call-quality, and some quirky differences in basic functions like putting a call on hold for another user.  But as with all new tech, these little bumps in the VoIP road were resolved, and by 2003 25%, of all voice calls utilized VoIP on at least one end of the call.[2]


How it Works

This is not a deeply technical article, so well keep things mostly on a conceptual basis. A little background can help us all start out on the same page. 

In any telephone call, Analog, cellular, or VoIP, there’s a few common components involved.  First we have microphone and speakers at each end, with a way to dial the destination.  We call this ‘a telephone’. J   (In old phone speak, this was called a deskset). 

The basic job of the telephone is to turn electrical impulses into sound (speaker), and sound into electrical impulses (microphone), convert those impulses into a format suitable for the transmission medium, and then transmit that data via the medium to the caller at the other end. 

In the case of the analog telephone system, the transition medium is the copper wires and proprietary infrastructure of the phone company.

In the case of the cell phone, the transmission medium is wireless (radio frequencies), and the proprietary protocols and licensed frequency ranges of the airwaves, the infrastructure of the cellular antennas and connecting backbone of the cellular phone companies make up the rest of the transmission medium.

Of course, when a cell phone talks to an analog phone, both infrastructures are used. 

In the case of Voice over IP, the transmission medium is the standard data network found in offices, and of course, the internet itself, and a very non-proprietary protocol we all use every day called TCP/IP, a collection of protocols we rely upon for internet, and local area networks every day.

So, it can be said that while analog and cellular telephones rely heavily on proprietary protocols and methods, Voice over IP telephony is rooted in public standards, the public internet, and basic networking technology available to everyone.

Today’s analog phone network uses a remarkable collection of analog and digital hybrid technologies to connect your calls, across a collection of privately owned equipment.  An analog to analog call need never leave this collection of interconnected private delivery systems.

Cell phones rely on radio for mobility, PLUS many of the very same technologies that traditional phone companies rely upon to get calls routed between two cell phones.

Voip calls rely solely upon a standard tcp/IP data network to connect calls.  VoIP to VoIP calls never leave the data network, never require proprietary networks or protocols, and work the same weather you are in Bangor, or Bangladesh. 

Think about it.  When you travel worldwide, you quickly realize you always need plug adapters for wall power. Unless you have a special cell phone, you can forget using yours in a foreign country because the standards for cell phones may not be the same.  Even if they are, the roaming charges are often so incredibly outrageous even a Rockefeller would think twice before using it. 

You obviously can’t pick up your old Ma Bell analog phone, pack it off to a foreign country on vacation, and expect it to work when you arrive.

But your technology – your laptop and other devices that plug into the data networks – always fit.  There is but one common standard worldwide. No adapters.  No fussing.  Snap.  The network cable is plugged in. And that my friends, is what makes VoIP so travel friendly.


Call Systems Interactions

When calls are placed from a user of one technology to users of another, such as analog to cell, or voip to analog, the systems interact in such a way that all devices, analog, cellular, and VoIP that have been properly assigned a valid telephone number are able to intercommunicate seamlessly. In other words, calling with voip is as transparent as calling with cell phones, or analog.  You just dial the number, and listen to it ring until somebody answers. 

VoIP telephones are usually assigned regular telephone numbers much like any other telephone. A VoIP telephone company is involved - they provide the telephone number, and a way to connect your telephone to the system just like any other phone. For these roles in delivering VoIP they earn fees – just like any other phone company.  It’s the size of the fees that is much different – often as much as 2/3 less than traditional analog service fees.

Once the telephone number is assigned, and your phone is plugged into just about any internet connected network – you are ready to make and receive VoIP calls.

Totally Free Calling – Virtually anywhere in the world – VoIP to VoIP
Most Voip telephones are capable of making direct calls between devices without the use of a traditional telephone number, or a Voip Telephone company. This type of call is known as a direct IP call.  Direct IP calls cannot be made to or from non-VoIP telephones.  Use of direct IP calls is usually restricted to intra-office, or intercom style communications within a single organization. But it can also be used as part of a wider, point to point communications system.

Call Quality

Where Analog phones were never designed to provide full rich audio range and quality, most VoIP phones were designed with excellence in call quality as a principle goal. 

In almost all modern phone systems (modern analog, cellular and VoIP), the voice content of our calls is translated from analog to digital and back again at some point. In analog systems, this happens when phone companies transition your call from one type of delivery equipment to another, and then it’s transitioned again to analog just before the call is sent to your telephone.

The original cell phone system in the United States was analog, but now virtually all carriers use a digital backbone for greater capacity, and what they claim to be clearer voice calls. But, by the time someone is hearing your voice out of a speaker, its analog again.

No matter how you slice it, the overall call quality between parties can be no better than that of the lowest quality “side” of the conversation. Thus, VoIP to VoIP has the best opportunity to be a high quality call.

Codecs

Sound is changed from analog to digital and back again by processes called encoding and decoding, which is performed by a codec.  Audio CD’s are essentially a digital storage format (called PCM, or pulse code modulation) for music that was most often created with analog instruments (guitars, drums, horns).  The audio must be turned into a digital representation because the internet and other data networks can only transmit digital data, and optical storage like CD’s/DVD’s/BluRay can only store data digitally. (Tapes, for example, are an example of an analog storage medium.)

There are many codecs available, and each has its own fan boys.  VoIP telephony generally uses about 5 mutually agreed upon codes to encode/decode the audio steam.

Some codecs are best suited for very fast networks with good consistent throughput, some are designed for use in situations where network bandwidth or speed could be an issue (satellite, or rural networks for example).  The good news is that VoIP endpoints (Telephones, and softphones) try to self-negotiate the best codec combination for every call while the user is completely unaware, and uninvolved in all that technical blither-blather. 

Now here is the cool part.  Because VoIP is digital, VoIP telephones can use a much wider frequency range than is possible for either analog or cellular.

As you may remember from a few paragraphs back, wider frequency response makes for a richer, fuller and more vibrant sound quality.  Where the best analog call could use a 3.5 KHz frequency rage of 300 to 3300 Hz,  VoIP phones can have extended range,  sampling between 150 Hz and 8,000 Hz.  That means that a HD VoIP phone can reproduce more of the sounds that are made by human speech – which our ears like a lot better.  Extended frequency range makes it easier to understand the caller – especially if they tend to speak quietly, have a particularly low or high pitched voice, or have an accent that’s difficult to understand.

The Telephones

The Grand Sstream 2130 VoIP phone is a typical feaute phone that supports multiple lines, and many special features.

Desk telephones (sometimes called endpoints, or desksets), are available in a wide variety of styles and configurations, from many manufacturers.  From single line models designed to save space, to multiline business models designed to stand up to the rigors of constant use. VoIP telephone equipment exist in all categories from “to cheap to use” all the way to “to expensive to consider” – just like anything else.

Get your phone, configure it with its phone number and registration information to the VoIP provider. All that’s left to do then is plug it into your internet connected network, and you have a VoIP phone. This phone will look like, work like, and sound better than your average analog phone, and be less expensive to operate.

Softphones are computer programs that do the job of emulating a VoIP phone.  They are configured the same way a hardware VoIP phone is.  They can be run on desktop computers – where you might use a headset with microphone plugged into your computer sound board to do the job of a telephone handset.  When run on tablets, or smartphones, VoIP softphones use the built in microphones and speakers. 

While softphones seem to offer much promise, many users have expressed dissatisfaction.  Typically the problem comes down to uninterrupted processing power.  During the act of encoding and decoding the audio stream the codec can require very large amounts of processor time.  Softphones are often competing with other programs running on the computer / tablet for processor time – which means there may not be enough processor power available to produce a smooth, continuous flow of data under these circumstances. This leads to poor sound quality, and can unfortunately give VoIP a reputation for poor sound quality, when none is merited.

Video Phones for VoIP add a real time video component to your calls to and from other parties with similar equipment.  Video support in VoIP is somewhat varied, and not all vendors can interoperate successfully, but the technology is with exploring if you enjoy the idea of video calls between parties.  Of course, video enabled phones can make non video calls too.  And the video can always be shut off on a per call basis, cause heaven knows, nobody wants to see me before I have had coffee in the morning.

The Potential Down Side

While VoIP brings much to the table in the way of reliability, features, functions, cost benefit and flexibility – every silver lining has it’s clouds.  VoIP is no different.

When considering the use of Voice over IP, it’s important to understand what is behind those stories you remember hearing about…. “The horror of VoIP!”  (Cue spooky sounding music!  Boo!!!)

First, and foremost – you must have decent internet throughput. If your still one of the folks who are using dial up internet – I’m sorry but you really can’t join the VoIP club.  L  But have no fear – if you’re ready and waiting to leave the stone ages, and move into the late 90’s, CSG may have a deal on DSL you can’t beat with a stick.  There’s no contract required, so you can sign up for a single quarter if that’s what you want. Great way to test the waters of VoIP and maybe even decide the old modem belongs in the back of the closet with your old Almond Brothers posters. If you already have DSL, or faster internet – you have the basics of what you need to begin. 

Decent internet throughput isn’t only about a fast connection to the outside, but its also about competition for that bandwidth from your other devices.  If you are a file downloader who leaves that process wide open all the time, VoIP might prove a bit challenging on some of the lower end DSL circuits available today – even those from CSG.  I mention file downloading because it is a relentless series of packets forever awaiting their turn in and out of your router. VoIP also is a relentless series of packets, but in their case – they are time sensitive.  If a few packets of a file transfer are slowed down, or have to be repeated, no one is the wiser.  If that happens to your VoIP packets….. The results negatively impact your VoIP experience.

That being said – plenty of people out there with better than average high speed internet connections can file transfer, stream content, and hold VoIP conversations without any impact whatsoever.

If your network is overloaded, or otherwise performance challenged, these situations should be corrected before you have a reasonable expectation of good VoIP calling.

Second – don’t try a VoIP softphone to test the sound quality of VoIP.  There’s frankly too much that could go wrong with a single test of that nature, and you could be led to making am incorrect assessment. If I haven’t talked you out of it, then be sure that you use a good quality speaker and microphone during your softphone tests.  If you are using a built in microphone/speakers, consider how they sound and perform in other circumstances while performing your evaluation.

Third – don’t use a VoIP Analog Telephone Adapter    VoIP was originally introduced to the masses by companies like Vonage and others, who made a business model out of prepackaged VoIP service – including the use of Analog Telephone Adapters, or ATA’s.

Simply, and ATA is a device that allows you to take your old Ma Bell analog telephone, and turn it into a sort of a Frankenstein of a VoIP telephone. Just plug your old house phone into the preconfigured ATA device, and viola’ – your old-dog analog phone learns a new trick – it can be used on the VoIP network.

ATA’s range in quality from very good to so bad you wouldn’t even believe it. But what they all share is that they are not “feature phones”.  VoIP service inherently has special abilities like HOLD, call transfers, conference calling, contact management, intercom, and a host of other really valuable features that are virtually unavailable, unreachable, and unusable by an analog phone connected to an ATA.  Many of VoIP nicest features become hard if not impossible to use – and you still have a telephone designed for very narrow frequency responses – I.E., tinny calls.

Get a real VoIP phone, and not the $20 special from manufacturers unknown. If you really want to evaluate VoIP – start with a decent desk telephone.  You can find both new and used online ranging in prices from $40 bucks or so to as high as you care to imagine. If you HATE it, sell it off.  A $60-$100 investment is a good range to begin with, depending on your feature needs.

Lastly - Governments

As you can imagine, the idea of having free and low cost internet based calling available to the masses scares the hell out of some people. Traditional phone companies, for example.

From time to time, various technical hurdles are inserted to the system.  Some ISP’s have sometimes been accused of delaying VoIP traffic within their network unless it’s for VoIP service that they themselves sell. Comcast is famous for having defended that practice as managing their network resources for the benefit of all users, although try as I might, I can’t find that quote online anywhere attributed with sources.  LOL.

Also, from time to time various countries have seen fit to block standard VoIP ports on the parts of the internet they control. Sometimes done as protectionism for their local phone industries, sometimes for purposes of control and censor.

Most often, these technical hurdles are no more than that exactly: minor hurdles, and VoIP providers have ways around these attempts to circumvent free use of the internet. But, it’s still a potential issue for the worldwide traveler depending upon VoIP for communication.


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