If VoIP is one of those words you have heard thrown around and maybe even repeated in your head a couple of times (because it sounds funny), but you have no idea what it means, then keep reading.  You should also read this if you are a cowboy.  Internet phone calls will change your life if they haven't already.  If you are reading this on a screen, then you should already be using VoIP.  And if you are reading this on a print-out, it could be that your sister is trying to tell you something.

What is VoIP?

VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol.  It is a mouthful, which is why people simply say "voip".  In the simplest terms, VoIP is an update on the technology that allows you to communicate over the telephone.  Essentially, it turns an internet connection into a phone.  The terrific thing about this technology is that unlike cell phones which tend to cost people more than landline calls, VoIP services are much, much cheaper.  So whether you are running a business, keeping in touch with family or your teenager can't stop prank calling people in China, using VoIP will save you money.

How does VoIP work?What is VoIPCredit: anitapatterson @ morgueFile

Voice over Internet Protocol converts analogue audio (such as your old telephone that you only use to tell salesmen you are not interested) into digital audio signals to send via your internet service.  Or the internet at the coffee shop on the corner if you haven't made the leap from 1995 yet.

There are a couple of ways that you can make VoIP work in your home (if you are in the present day and not watching Clueless on the big screen).  If you want to make calls through your computer and you have a solid internet provider already, then you probably don't need to buy anything to get set up.  If your computer works for everything else you do, but it doesn't have a microphone or speakers, you will need to get a handset that plugs into the computer.  Alternatively, if you prefer to use a VoIP service to replace the landline in your home, you can get an internet ready handset that plugs directly into your network router.  By plugging either one of these options in, you are ready to go.  

How VoIP works is a complicated world of data packets and ISP switches.  But think of it the same as the television-transmitted chocolate when Gene Wilder was Willy Wonka.  The chocolate gets broken up into millions of little pieces and is sent through the air to its destination and then is put back together again.  The audio waves may have shrunk a little, but that is what volume control is all about.  If you want a more serious answer and you understand what packet-switched network means, then check out Wikipedia.  They are much more serious over there. 

Who Should Use It?

Everyone who has reasonably priced internet access should be using VoIP to communicate.  All expats, regardless of the stability of the internet connection in their new home should also be using it.  Grandparents who live far away from their grandchildren should be using VoIP, regardless of who moved away from who (it isn't the grandkids fault afterall).  In addition anyone who did see Clueless in a movie theatre and anyone who believes their pet is part of their family should have a VoIP service.  Unemployed cowboys, retired salesmen and twitter addicts should also be using it.  

Rather have a look at this list to see if you shouldn't  be using a VoIP service at home.  This list includes: employed cowboys, pirates, and anyone who doesn't believe in the internet.  Homeless people are also exempt provided they have no one to call.

Where Can You Get VoIP Services?

If you already have a computer with a microphone and internet service in your home, you can be VoIP ready in a matter of minutes.  You just need to download a program that enables it.  The most commonly used program is Skype (www.skype.com).  Once you have downloaded and installed it, you can make computer to computer calls for free straight away.  This means you can call your son who has it installed on his computer, as long as he has the same program and both your computers are on.  You can also make computer to landline or cell phone calls from Skype, though you will be charged for this.

If you want to replace your traditional landline with a VoIP phone, you will need to find a service provider in your country.  If you are in the United States a good place to start is www.voip.com.  If you live anywhere else in the world, you will need to search for these providers.  Keep in mind that governments in developing countries often make a good bit of money off of the telecommunications sector.  They use this money to pay for their mansions, so they do everything they can to make sure you are paying too much, either for your phone or your internet services.  So the best place to find a VoIP service provider in a developing country is to make friends with anyone involved in computers or government.  They tend to know the loopholes.

How Much Does It Cost?Unemployed Cowboys Should Be Using VoIPCredit: taliesin @ morgueFile

VoIP plans vary from country to country and are determined on the type of package you need.  It is always cheaper to make an international call from a VoIP phone, but how much is dependent on whether you are calling another VoIP phone (or computer) or if you are calling a landline or cell phone.  The reasoning behind this is that the conversation needs to be converted from digital back to analogue.  However calling from computer to computer is almost always free.  And as an added benefit, by calling this way, you can make video calls to your grandchild, unless he is employed as a cowboy.  Then you will have to make an expensive call to his cell phone.

And by the way, there is such a thing as the internet...