Dialing Up VoIP Myth-Busters

If a new technology comes our way that brings with it the promise of reducing or eliminating tremendous monthly costs, it can be expected that supporters and stakeholders of the status quo are going to be concerned. VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) is disrupting the hugely profitable telecommunications industry, and it has had to overcome many criticisms. Here's a look at a few of the more prevalent myths about VoIP.

VoIP runs only on the Internet

The most obvious myth about VoIP is that it runs only on the Internet. What can we expect? The term Internet is built into VoIP. However, VoIP requires and runs on the Internet protocol, but not necessarily on the Internet itself.

Internet protocol isn't synonymous with the Internet. The Internet can be accessed from all types of networks. The Internet isn't a network type unto itself; it's a network other networks access, and it provides access to other networks.

VoIP runs on any network that can run the Internet protocol. But just because VoIP can run the same protocols over any network type, this doesn't mean that that VoIP runs the same way on all network types. The protocols take care of packetizing the telephony voice signals, but the network type takes care of transporting those packets.

VoIP calls can be intercepted

Can VoIP telephony packets on a computer network be intercepted? Yes, they can. What does it take to intercept VoIP packets? The same equipment and access that it takes to intercept computer data packets. How feasible is it? Not very.

After spending millions of dollars, the FBI developed a system called Carnivore that is essentially built on earlier network management technology known as a protocol analyzer. Basically, the device (a souped-up computer) plugs into a network much like any other network addressable device. It sits there and collects packets as they race by at the speed of light. The packets can then be analyzed for threats and other information, or so the theory goes.

If you're worried about such a device, keep the following in mind:

  • A government agency at least as powerful as the FBI is required to gain access to a given network (excluding a trusted person doing it).
  • Access must be physical. The person must have a key to the telecommunications closet or access to an office where they can plug into the network.
  • Access is achieved through the network operating system, so the person must have a network access account.
  • Network managers today have a variety of techniques to protect their packetized network traffic.

After all this, if you're still concerned about VoIP packet interception and security, consider the fact that anyone on the street can tap a POTS telephone line with a simple analog handset and a few wires. All they need is physical access to your line. They don't have to be inside your company; they can access the line from the street or in tunnels where the public access lines run.

A solid argument can be made that a packetized network has more security than the older circuit-switched network, particularly because you can also implement data encryption for VoIP.

911 calls may not work

Remember that the 911 network was designed to be supported by and make full use of the circuit-switched network. VoIP uses packet-switched networks. This is a colossal difference that needs to be clearly understood.

At the same time, understand that most 911 calls are local calls to local emergency centers and law enforcement agencies. The major cost benefits associated with VoIP aren't realized with local calls. Until the PSTN adopts VoIP and packet-switching, you have to maintain local POTS telephony service for local calls. Such lines can easily be used to make 911 calls directly. You don't have to lose your ability to make 911 calls just because you're converting to VoIP for all your toll calling.

On the consumer side, some low-end VoIP providers offer workarounds to enable their customers to let go of their POTS services and be fully VoIP. This is crazy. If you have an emergency, you want the fastest connection possible to 911. Why would you want a service that routes your emergency call out to the Internet, then to your VoIP provider, then back down to a POTS line, and finally to the local 911 center? Consider using DSL or cable modem for your Internet services; you can't get VoIP otherwise. Use the VoIP connection for all your toll calls and videoconferencing services. Plug a POTS telephone into your broadband VoIP adapter box and maintain at least one POTS line for local service.

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