Terms of Use:

What is voice over internet protocol (VoIP)?

Voice over internet protocol (VoIP), also known as IP telephony, allows you to make telephone calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular phone line. Instead of relying on an analog line like traditional telephones, VoIP uses digital technology and requires a high-speed broadband connection such as DSL or cable. There are a variety of providers who offer VoIP, and they offer different services.

While VoIP may offer less expensive calling, consumers need to educate themselves before replacing their traditional telephone service with VoIP. There are many important differences between VoIP and traditional telephone services, including some that are less than obvious.

The most common application of VoIP for personal or home use is internet-based phone services that rely on a telephone switch. With this application, you will still have a phone number, will still dial phone numbers, and will likely have an adapter that allows you to use a regular telephone. The person you are calling will not likely notice a difference from a traditional phone call. Some service providers also offer the ability to use your VoIP adapter any place you have a high-speed internet connection, allowing you to take it with you when you travel.

What about accessing 9-1-1 using VoIP?

One of the most important differences, because it may be the difference between life and death, is that not all VoIP services provide emergency 9-1-1 service. Some VoIP services do not provide access to emergency 9-1-1 at all. If the advertising, brochure, or other VoIP marketing materials are silent on this issue, it is likely that 9-1-1 is NOT being provided.

When 9-1-1 service is provided, it may not be the full service that consumers are used to and expect. When a person calls 9-1-1 from a wireline telephone, emergency service providers automatically know the caller's location and can direct emergency personnel to that location even if the caller is not able to provide an address. This is not always true for 9-1-1 calls placed from an Internet-based phone, and the 9-1-1 operator may not have access to the caller's phone number or location if the call is disconnected. In addition, the call may arrive on a general access line that is not always answered in the call center, instead of through emergency phone lines.

Even when the VoIP service includes traditional 9-1-1 access, it may not be automatically activated. Instead, the customer first has to take pro-active steps to activate the 9-1-1 dialing feature. If the 9-1-1 dialing feature is not activated, the VoIP user may not place a 9-1-1 emergency call.

If you are a VoIP subscriber:

  • Verify that you can access 9-1-1 with your phone by checking your VoIP provider's Web site. DO NOT dial 9-1-1 to test your access to the emergency response network.  
  • If the power is out, your VoIP service may be out too. Consider purchasing a backup power supply.  
  • Inform children, babysitters, and visitors about your VoIP service and relevant limitations.  
  • Consider keeping a land line phone to access 9-1-1 emergency services.

What are the security implications of VoIP?

Because VoIP relies on your internet connection, it may be vulnerable to any threats and problems that face your computer. The technology is still new, so there is some controversy about the potential for attack, but VoIP could make your telephone vulnerable to viruses and other malicious code. Attackers may be able to perform activities such as intercepting your communications, eavesdropping, conducting effective phishing attacks by manipulating your caller ID, and causing your service to crash. Activities that consume a large amount of network resources, like large file downloads, online gaming, and streaming multimedia, will also affect your VoIP service.

There are also inherent problems to routing your telephone over your broadband connection. Unlike traditional telephone lines, which operate despite an electrical outage, if you lose power, your VoIP may be unavailable. There are also concerns that home security systems or emergency numbers such as 911 may not work properly.

How can you protect yourself?

  • Keep software up to date - If the vendor releases patches for the software operating your device, install them as soon as possible. These patches may be called firmware updates. Installing them will prevent attackers from being able to take advantage of known problems or vulnerabilities.

  • Use and maintain anti-virus software - Anti-virus software recognizes and protects your computer against most known viruses. However, attackers are continually writing new viruses, so it is important to keep your anti-virus software current.

  • Take advantage of security options - Some service providers may offer encryption as one of their services. If you are concerned about privacy and confidentiality, you may want to consider this and other available options.

  • Install or enable a firewall - Firewalls may be able to prevent some types of infection by blocking malicious traffic before it can enter your computer. Some operating systems actually include a firewall, but you need to make sure it is enabled.

  • Evaluate your security settings - Both your computer and your VoIP equipment/software offer a variety of features that you can tailor to meet your needs and requirements, so examine your settings, particularly the security settings, and select options that meet your needs without putting you at increased risk.