Survey: What Do People Really Know About VoIP?August 7, 2014 by Daniel Harris
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a technology approaching its twentieth birthday, but what do average consumers know about it in 2014?
It may seem that what the average consumer knows and doesn’t know about VoIP isn’t very relevant to the technology’s business uses. But Dennis Peng, vice president of product at Ooma (a provider of residential and business VoIP service), argues otherwise.
“Small-business owners really act a lot like consumers in many regards,” Peng says. “They shop in many of the same channels, they purchase the same technology and use consumer-type solutions for their businesses.” Thus, if the average consumer isn’t very informed about VoIP, then many small businesses may also lack the necessary information to deploy VoIP solutions for their telephony needs.
So, we surveyed consumers to find out what they know and don’t know about VoIP. We then turned to experts to clear up some of the most common misconceptions regarding VoIP technology.
Most Consumers Still Can’t Define VoIP
The following chart displays what we found when we asked consumers to select the correct definition of “VoIP” out of several options we provided for them. The most striking result? Including both wrong answers and respondents who selected “I don’t know,” nearly 71 percent of the people we surveyed couldn’t define what VoIP was without contextual cues.
Consumers’ Definitions of VoIP
Respondents who did answer the question, however, overwhelmingly got it right. Twenty-nine percent answered that VoIP is “a technology to send calls over the Internet,” and 9 percent offered the near-miss that VoIP is “a computer program for making phone calls.” Given the complexity and diversity of VoIP software and hardware options, it might be wiser to regard this group as “partially informed” rather than “misinformed.”
Surprisingly, demographics mattered little in this survey: 55 percent of respondents between 25 and 34 years of age answered that they didn’t know what VoIP was, and 10 percent defined the term incorrectly—which isn’t a significant deviation from the overall results displayed above.
Consumers’ Definitions of VoIP by Age
While they might be savvy about social media and mobile apps, younger users, as a demographic, aren’t any more informed about VoIP than their older counterparts. Despite the fact that this technology has dramatically changed the architecture of business communications, it still remains obscure to many people.
Usability in Power Outage is Top Consumer Concern
After our initial survey showed that many consumers can’t define what VoIP is, we conducted a follow-up survey to determine what concerns still persist about VoIP. We also altered our methodology from the initial survey by providing a definition of VoIP in the survey question itself (“VoIP is a technology for making calls over the Internet”). This step ensured that our respondents wouldn’t be selecting answers about the topic in the dark.
As it turns out, even though consumers are a bit hazy on the definition of VoIP, they’re also very confident about its reliability. Only 32 percent of respondents thought that the concerns with which we presented them were real (we allowed respondents to select multiple answers).
Consumers’ Concerns About VoIP
Those who did express concerns about VoIP service worried that it is not usable in a power outage (11 percent), has poor call quality (10 percent) or requires specialized equipment (9 percent).
While one of the responses we listed here is entirely a red herring (VoIP is most certainly usable on cell phones), the other answers we provided do have some validity. So, we turned to VoIP specialists to address the top concerns and explain how businesses can avoid problems in these areas.
Concern #1: Maintaining Dial Tone in a Power Outage
The largest group of consumers (11 percent) expressed concerns about losing VoIP service during a power outage. We’ve explained how to maintain dial tone when the Internet goes down in the past, but protecting against power outages can involve different tactics.
Business owners will need to invest in additional gear if they use an Internet Protocol private branch exchange or IP-PBX, a system that routes inbound and outbound calls to a business’s extensions over the Internet. In order to keep an IP-PBX up and running, you’ll need to acquire a UPS, or uninterruptible power supply, which stores energy to ensure power in emergency scenarios.
Bernard Gutnick, senior director of marketing at ShoreTel (a provider of software and hardware PBX and unified communications solutions), explains that businesses “would use [a] standard, centralized UPS supply to ethernet infrastructure, which provides power over ethernet [lines] to phones.”
Traditional phones retain power during an outage, because landlines transmit audio signals as voltage. The UPS that Gutnick mentions works in a similar fashion, transforming ethernet lines into carriers of voltage as well as digital information.
Hosted PBXs can also provide users with landlines to ensure dial tone during an outage, or can forward calls to mobile devices. Tim Basa, executive vice president of sales and marketing at BullsEye Telecom (a hosted PBX service), explains that setting up a temporary office can be surprisingly easy.
“If a hurricane beats up your insurance office, go get a block of rooms at a motel, and we’ll forward all of your calls there,” he says.
Concern #2: Call Quality
Peng explains that “the single largest cause of dissatisfaction with Voice over IP services is poor or inconsistent voice quality.” Surprisingly, few of our consumers selected this answer as a top concern. But call quality has been a persistent issue with VoIP technology.
Daniel Lonstein, chief operating officer at AireSpring (a company that provides hosted PBX and SIP trunking services; more on the latter topic below), observes that even though the codecs that handle voice traffic work fine, users can still run into problems with the connections to their Internet service providers (ISPs). He explains that this is because minute variations in Internet speed—which wouldn’t normally be noticeable while browsing the Internet—can end up corrupting real-time streams of voice data.
Developers of on-premise IP-PBXs and providers of hosted PBX services have done a lot of work to help customers avoid this problem.
Basa explains that “we monitor every call in real time, and automatically score those calls. If clients are having an issue with their LAN [local area network], in many cases, we proactively reach out to them.”
In certain cases, however, problems on clients’ LANs can become insurmountable when they’re using normal Internet connections for VoIP traffic.
Lonstein notes that “as a business gets bigger, [it uses] more bandwidth and also become[s] more sensitive to call-quality issues.”
At this point, he explains, a SIP trunk may become necessary. SIP trunks are direct connections to an ITSP (Internet telephony service provider) that the ITSP manages in order to prioritize voice over data traffic. Businesses that rely heavily on their phone systems can employ SIP trunks that exclusively carry voice traffic. For more information on how SIP trunking works, see our detailed explanation.
Concern #3: The Need for Specialized Hardware
In the past, office phone systems consisted of highly specialized analog equipment. According to our results, some consumers remain concerned that VoIP telephony places similar demands on the user.
However, they needn’t be. Most of the VoIP technologies with which people are familiar infamously cut hardware—and even traditional service providers—out of the equation. Skype, for instance, enables video conferencing with nothing more than a laptop webcam, an item which most users already have access to.
There are a number of hardware options available for setting up an IP-PBX that offer certain benefits, as we’ve explained before. On the other hand, many users would prefer not to invest in additional gear if it isn’t an absolute necessity—and with VoIP, it certainly isn’t.
Kevin Peyton, vice president of sales at VirtualPBX (a hosted PBX), explains that “if we are just routing inbound calls, they can be sent to existing cell phones or analog desk phones, and [users] do not need any additional hardware.”
VoIP allows you to set up a fully featured office phone system with little more than a laptop and a few IP or SIP phones; the rest of your PBX can be hosted in the cloud.
“While most of the users whom we encounter are not softphone-ready, [setup] could be as simple as plugging an [IP phone] into your local area network,” Basa explains. “We believe in the hosted PBX world that setup should be very easy, especially in the small-to-medium business space, since these businesses don’t have an IT staff.”
Concern #4: VoIP Security and Privacy
Concerns about VoIP’s limitations were remarkably uniform across a number of age groups. The only exception to the trend was 18- to 24-year-olds. This group of respondents tended to be especially preoccupied with VoIP security. Moreover, the security and privacy of voice traffic have become significant concerns as businesses and households transition away from the copper lines of the public switched telephone network (PSTN) to Internet connections.
Lonstein explains that privacy worries have a solid basis in the technological foundations of VoIP communications.
“There are no carriers that I know of that generally encrypt voice traffic. It’s in a format that goes out clearly over the public Internet … You don’t know, as a customer, if your traffic is secure between your end and the provider to which you’re routing it. Even if your call was encrypted to the carrier, they could be sending it [in an unencrypted format] to another party downstream … so it’s almost impossible to know that a call is encrypted all the way down,” he says.
So what can you do? Lonstein notes that one solution is to use a new, encrypted format for voice traffic known as “secure real-time transfer protocol” (SRTP), which Airespring supports for businesses using SIP trunking. If you’re really worried about security, however, you’ll also need to invest in some hardware.
“Companies that are very concerned about corporate espionage (and that’s not really the small-business space) will have gear on each end that encrypts the conversation,” he says.
A more mundane—but legitimate—concern is protecting your PBX from hackers who want to hijack it to run up huge phone bills on an international scale. With a hosted PBX, you can simply outsource security to the cloud.
Basa explains that Bullseye “monitors all traffic in real-time. If someone’s calling pattern changes—i.e., they used to make two calls per day to China and BullsEye detects 4 calls in 10 minutes—the account is alerted, and if usage is excessively abnormal, the account automatically gets blocked to protect the customer.”
Bianca Allery, marketing operations manager at 3CX (a developer of PBX software), adds that “VoIP is arguably more prone [than analog telephony] to breaches through human error.”
One area in which users could be more proactive is password security, she continues: “Give each phone extension present on the IP-PBX a unique and strong password. A common and classic mistake that jeopardizes VoIP security on PBX systems is to use [the extension name as the password]. For example, extension 100 would have ‘100’ as a password … Attackers have long known about this behavior, and this will be one of the first targets that they will try to exploit.”
Concern #5: Mobile Compatibility With VoIP
The one red herring we offered here is that VoIP can’t be used on mobile devices. This was also the answer that respondents selected least. In addition to offering call forwarding to mobile, most hosted PBXs and IP-PBXs enable you to use mobile devices as business phones.
Users in 2014 have a number of options when it comes to utilizing mobile devices with VoIP. We’re going to focus here on hosted PBX compatibility with mobile devices, since we covered IP-PBX compatibility in another recent feature.
Peyton explains that “VirtualPBX works on mobile phones through the VirtualPBX Softphone, a third-party softphone or by routing calls to your cell phone. The desktop VirtualPBX Softphone as well as the tablet and cell-phone versions have the same features, and a unified user interface to make it easy to switch back and forth.”
VoIP technology allows for lots of flexibility in the service options available for your phone.
As Lonstein notes, AireSpring’s mobile app (which is known as Accession) “works on iOS and Android, and you can use it not only over any 3G or 4G connection but also over Wi-Fi … It allows you to seamlessly transfer calls between multiple IP endpoints or phones. You can take a call from your desk and transfer it mid-stream to your cell phone, and then transfer it back.”
In other words: VoIP extends call routing and transferring capabilities in ways that were unthinkable during the golden age of analog telephony.
So while some of our respondents expressed concerns about VoIP technology, the vast majority answered that the problems we allowed them to choose from weren’t all that significant after all—and our conversations with VoIP specialists have confirmed that their instincts are correct.
Instead of worrying about potential hiccups with VoIP, the only real concern for consumers is narrowing down the extensive range of features and services to find a solution that works for their specific needs.