Voice over internet protocol (VoIP), a technology that allows you to make calls through the internet, has been a popular business communications solution for a couple decades now. But as our relationships with our home phones have changed over the years — anyone else old enough to remember curly-corded landlines? — the market for residential VoIP services has grown considerably. (Especially now that so many people are working from home.)
Not sure which one is right for you? Read on to learn more about residential VoIPs and how to pick the best one for your needs.
How does a VoIP work?
In simplest terms, VoIP converts an analog voice signal into a digital “packet” that can be sent across the web (as opposed to a traditional phone network, which involves copper wires and switchboards). The VoIP provider takes that packet and changes it back into an analog signal before getting it to its destination. This all happens instantaneously, meaning there’s no lag between the two ends of the conversation.
What’s the point of using a VoIP?
Making calls using VoIP is typically far more reliable than using a landline. Conversations transmitted over the internet tend to be crisper and clearer, so you can spend less time asking the person on the other end to repeat what they just said. You’ll also (usually) wind up paying less for a VoIP service than you would a standard phone system, especially if you’re making a lot of long-distance or international calls. Most VoIP providers don’t charge extra for those, since everything’s just happening over the internet.
A VoIP will also get you access to features like hosted voicemail, call waiting, caller ID, and conferencing. It’s basically a calling system for the modern age.
What’s the difference between a residential VoIP and a business VoIP?
Trick question. There really isn’t one — not anymore, at least. Consumers used to be limited to apps like FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Skype, while businesses got the meatier services (also known as “unified communication” systems) that came with advanced features like call recording, call queueing, and automatic attendants that direct callers to different extensions. But nowadays “the line between the two [is] starting to blur,” according to former Mashable tech fellow Haidee Chu.
“Ever since the coronavirus pandemic forced people to stay at home, business products like Zoom have been gaining traction from everyday consumers,” Haidee wrote. “Overnight, it’s become a host for college lectures, blind dates, workout sessions, church services — even an inspiration for memes.”
Tapping into the demand, many VoIP providers now offer lower-cost, pared-down residential plans that meet consumers somewhere in the middle. For example, Zoom’s free Basic plan will let you host meetings up to 40 minutes long with up to 100 participants, automated captions, three editable boards, and a team chat — just right for the average family or friend group. Compare that to its $199/year Business plan, which unlocks unlimited meetings for up to 300 participants, 5GB of cloud storage, unlimited boards, managed domains, and company branding. Total overkill.
How to choose a residential VoIP provider
Think about what you want most out of your phone service. Do you simply want cheap calls with high quality? Are things like voicemail and call recording must-haves? Do you need a bunch of lines, or just one or two? Would a mobile app be useful, or do you prefer a desktop-based service? Keep this wish list in mind when you compare plans: Your No. 1 goal here is to avoid spending too much on features you won’t actually use on a daily basis.
What about those free VoIP services?
Free messaging and video call apps like the ones mentioned earlier (FaceTime, Messenger, etc.) can serve a valuable purpose if you’re only occasionally making calls. Anyone can download and sign up for them, and most can accommodate group calls for family gatherings at this point.
The catch there is that such apps lack the robust customer support you’ll get with a residential VoIP service, as well as the ability to dial regular phone numbers for free. Instead, you’re restricted to calling people using the same app as you. They can be good backup options to VoIPs, to be sure, but we wouldn’t count them as a comparable landline replacement.
Below, you’ll find our guide to the best residential VoIPs of 2022.