Voice over IP – How Free and How Safe is It?

Voice over IP – make your phone calls over the Internet for free, what could be better? It’s true that in many cases, there is no marginal cost for using VoIP. If you already have an Internet connection, a PC with a microphone and speakers, and the appropriate software (also downloadable for free), then making a VoIP call need not cost you a penny more. But as the saying goes, there is no free lunch. Somebody has to pay for all those networking nodes and links, and your subscription for Internet service in general may well be calculated with a fraction going to fund VoIP – whether you use it or not.

Safety First – But How Much is that Possible with VoIP?

Understanding that telecoms operators and Internet service providers will recoup their costs one way or another is one thing. VoIP can be very cost-effective (even if it’s not absolutely free); and it can also do things that traditional telephony cannot. However, there are possible limitations of VoIP in terms of safety and security to be aware of. In emergency situations, old-fashioned phone connections still have a major advantage: the caller can be localized so that the fire service, ambulance or police know exactly where to go. Even mobile phones can be located using GPS assistance. For VoIP phones however, localization is typically more difficult and less reliable – or simply impossible.

If They Can Hack Your Email, Your Website, Why Not Your VoIP?

Even if phone-tapping for traditional phone connections has been going on for decades, the situation may not be any better with VoIP. Just like any entity connected to the web, your softphone or VoIP device can become a target too. Unprotected or unencrypted use of VoIP (which is often the case) could leave you exposed to eavesdropping, breach of data confidentiality and compromised voicemail. A denial of service attack could stop you from getting through anywhere. A hacker accessing your account information could in theory use your account to pay for any chargeable service available via VoIP, such as any international calls not covered by your subscription to your VoIP or Internet provider.

Not Free – and Maybe Not Even Legal

Some phone companies see VoIP as a major threat to their revenues. POTS or ‘plain old telephone service’ is still a major contributor to phone company business in certain countries. VoIP does not offer the same levels of income as traditional fixed line subscriptions. In South Korea for instance, VoIP providers must be registered with the government and VoIP calls may be charged for according to the level of use. In India, VoIP gateways are not permitted inside the country. If your VoIP call ends up on a normal telephone, the converting gateway must be outside India. In the Middle East, both the United Arab Emirates and Oman currently forbid the use of VoIP, and so does Ethiopia with punishment of up to 15 years in prison.

The Moral of this Story

Check on any rules about using VoIP before you start. If your national phone provider is offering VoIP for example as part of a package Internet deal, then there should be no particular restrictions about using it within your country or to other countries with similar policies. But if you’re traveling abroad with your VoIP phone, then check with people who know to see if there are any in-country laws about VoIP to be observed for the places you visit.