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How to Set Up and Use VoIP on Your Mac

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With the advent of faster broadband, the viability of using your data connection for voice communications has become increasingly reliable. VoIP has lower startup and ongoing costs than traditional, fixed-line telephones and has a wealth of flexible features that are often additional cost options from your dinosaur-era fixed-line phone network. If you are a freelancer, a business owner, or even just home user who requires a separate telephone from your home number, then VoIP is for you.


What is VoIP?

VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol and is used to refer to communications protocols and technologies involved in the delivery of voice communications over IP networks.

Other names for VoIP include IP telephony, broadband telephony, IP Communications, Internet telephony and broadband phone. Perhaps the best known consumer VoIP product is Skype (although Skype runs on proprietary technologies).

In basic terms, VoIP sends your voice over a broadband Internet connection as opposed to the traditional, fixed-line, copper wire PSTN telephone networks.

In order to use VoIP, you will need to sign up with an SIP provider. SIP stands for Session Initiation Protocol, which is a protocol widely used for controlling voice communication sessions over the Internet.

Don’t worry too much about the acronyms, all you need to know is that you get your VoIP account from a SIP service provider.


So, What is So Good About VoIP?

For individuals, freelancers and businesses, the main advantages of VoIP are the low startup costs, ongoing rental costs, call costs, and portability.

Unlike traditional fixed-line copper telephone networks, VoIP users are not tied to a specific location. Wherever you have a reliable Internet connection, as a VoIP user, you can make and receive calls on a landline number that you take with you wherever you go, even to other countries.

It is also possible with SIP service providers to choose a geographic number that is different than the telephone dialing code for where you live or work. For instance, I can choose a London dialing code even though I live and work 50 miles (80km) from London. To my customers, it appears that I have an office in London even when I'm working at a remote location.

Choosing a landline telephone number
Choosing a Geographic Landline Telephone Number for London, even though I don't live or work there.

A VoIP user with a London telephone number can be contacted whether they are in London (UK) or London (Ontario). They can make and receive calls from Paris (France) or Paris (Texas), or anywhere else with a reliable Internet connection, for that matter.

Another advantage is that users of VoIP telephony can often call each other at no cost. There are even agreements in place between some SIP service providers to enable free calls. Furthermore, the per-second or per-minute VoIP call charge is often cheaper than traditional telephone networks and, often, there is no call setup charge with VoIP telephony.


What’s the Catch?

To deny that there are issues with VoIP telephony would be a mistake. The main issues related to an IP telephone are quality of service, susceptibility to power failure, lack of redundancy and problems in determining your location in the event of making an emergency call.

VoIP Telephones Should Not Be Relied Upon For Emergency Calls
VoIP Telephones Should Not Be Relied Upon For Making Emergency Calls.

For these reasons VoIP telephony cannot be relied upon as your only telephone connection in the event of an emergency. It is useful, however, in being able to set up a separate telephone number for different purposes (for example, a freelancer with a separate landline number to their home telephone number).


How to setup a landline number on your Mac.

It is possible to set up a land line number on your Mac, to use anywhere in the world with a reliable broadband connection, with just a simple lightweight application downloadable from the Mac App Store and an account with a VoIP service provider of your choice.

Step 1: Choose an SIP Service Provider

In order to set up a VoIP account, you will need to choose an SIP service provider. If this is all new to you, you may not know the most appropriate provider for your needs or for your location. If this is the case, head over to Alexei’s Telephone App website and have a look through the SIP providers listed there.

If you want to test the VoIP service before committing, it is possible to find SIP providers that will set up an account with a landline number and no initial costs, and some without line rental costs. Essentially, this means that you can configure your Mac to receive calls to a standard telephone number. However, you won’t be up to make outgoing calls unless you pay for them.

This can be a good way of testing out whether VoIP works for you. If it does, then you can look at other SIP service providers, or your existing provider, to see which offers the best service and the best value for money for your particular requirements.

Since I am based in United Kingdom, I have chosen Sipgate by way of example. Sipgate allows me to set up the landline telephone number at no cost, there are no ongoing monthly rental charges, I can receive telephone calls to this number and if I was to make outgoing calls then I can charge my account with some credit.

A SIP Service Provider
An Example of One of Many SIP Service Providers.

If you plan on using your VoIP account as a freelancer or business, you may wish to look into a number of SIP providers, since different companies offer different mixes of pricing.

For example, Sipgate charges for calls by the minute, whereas other SIP service providers, who charge a monthly line rental, may only charge calls by the second. This can make a big difference to the overall cost of making calls. So do check a number of SIP service providers to ensure that you have chosen one that meets your needs.

Tip: For the purposes of this demonstration only, I have chosen Sipgate. This does not necessarily constitute a recommendation as your individual requirements might be better suited to a different SIP service provider.

Step 2: Download Telephone App

Alexei Kuznetsov’s Telephone App is compatible with OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard, 10.7 Lion and 10.8 Mountain Lion and can be downloaded from the Mac App Store. At the time of writing this article, the app is available at no cost. The app can also be downloaded from Alexei’s website at www.tlphn.com.

Download Telephone App from the Mac App Store
Download Telephone App from the Mac App Store

The beauty of Telephone app is in its simplicity of use, functionality and lightweight size. It just works! (As long as you’ve configured it correctly!)

Step 3: Configure Telephone App

Configuring Telephone app is relatively easy, as long as you are patient and ensure that you enter the correct details in the right places. To help you do this, for your particular SIP service provider, there is a useful list of requirements at tlphn.com/providers.

Enter your SIP account details
Entering your SIP account details into the Telephone App

In this example, using Sipgate, I will need to know the domain, the username (this is usually your account name), the STUN server, and a port number. Find this information from your SIP service provider with whom you signed up earlier.

Tip: Different SIP service providers will require different criteria to be entered into the Telephone app in order for it to work. For help with your particular SIP service provider be sure to check with tlphn.com/providers.

Configuring the STUN Server
Configuring the STUN Server in Telephone App.

It is also important that you accept Telephone App accessing your contacts, otherwise, you will not benefit from the full functionality as Telephone App uses CLI (Call Line Identification) to check your Contacts app. Further, if you have you have the incoming number listed, it will present to you the name of the person or company that is calling.

Telephone App Integrates With Contacts App
Telephone App Can Tell You Who is Calling if You Allow it Access to Contacts App.

Be sure to check the sound settings in the Preferences section of Telephone App.

Checking the Sound Preferences in Telephone App
Checking the Sound Preferences in Telephone Ap

Step 4: Make a Test Incoming Call

To test that you can receive an incoming call to your new landline number, first ensure that your Mac has an Internet connection. Second, ensure that the Telephone app is running. Finally, use a mobile telephone or a fixed line telephone to call your new landline number.

Telephone App incoming call notification
On the left: Making a call from an iPhone. On the right: Telephone App incoming call notification.

All being well, after a few seconds, you should see a notification of the incoming call. If CLI (called line identification) is available, you will see the telephone number. If the contact number is in your Contacts app, you will see the name of the person calling.

Step 5: Make a Test Outgoing Call

Until you have applied credit to your SIP account you will not normally be able to make outgoing telephone calls. However, there is still a way to test that outgoing calls is set up correctly by calling a freephone number.

In the UK, I can call 0800 numbers to test to get going call functionality. In this particular example, even though I have not applied any credit to my SIP account, Sipgate allows me to call freephone numbers using their VoIP service.

Making an Outgoing Test Call to a Freephone Number
Making an Outgoing Test Call to a Freephone Number

Call an 0800 number to confirm that the outgoing call functionality is working. Ideally, this is best when you have a reason to call that 0800 number anyway. Alternatively, find an information line that uses an 0800 telephone number.

If you have permitted Telephone App access to Contacts app, then you will be able to type a name in order to find the correct telephone number to make a call. If you prefer, you can just type in a telephone number.

Step 6: Is My Broadband Line Suitable for VoIP?

The easy way to test this is to have a friend or colleague telephone your new landline number so that you can spend some time talking to them via your Mac to ensure that the quality of service is as you expect.

Upload and download bandwidth of your broadband connection is important for ensuring good quality and reliable VoIP calls. In most cases, a normal VoIP telephone call will use around 90 kilobits per second. If you use a cable or DSL connection, you shouldn’t have any issues. If, however, you use a dial-up connection then this may not provide sufficient bandwidth to enable reliable VoIP telephony.

Checking the Broadband Line Speed
Checking the Broadband Line Speed to See if it is Suitable for VoIP.

If you are connected to the Internet via cable or a DSL connection and you are having problems, such as stuttering, with your VoIP telephony then you may wish to check the terms of your broadband contract to check that your ISP is not performing traffic-shaping or throttling of VoIP services on your line.

Bear in mind that if you are in a noisy environment and you are using your Mac’s internal microphone and speakers then the other caller may not be able to hear you clearly. In such situations, it may be worth investing in a USB headset, with a microphone, that allows you and the other party to hear each other more clearly.

Step 7: Ensure Telephone App Opens at Login

If the results of your tests are positive, and you wish to keep telephone on your Mac for the purposes of making receiving telephone calls, then you may wish to consider a couple of settings to ensure the telephone App runs automatically when you turn on your Mac.

The easiest way to do this is to drag the telephone from the applications folder onto the dock. Then secondary-click, or control-click, the mouse on the Telephone App icon. In the menu select Options and then select Keep In Dock. Repeat the process and select Open At Login.

Configuring Telephone App to Run Automatically
Configuring Telephone App to Run Automatically Each Time You Turn on Your Mac.

Step 8: Publicize Your Landline Number

Once you have set up your SIP account, downloaded Telephone App from the Mac App Store, configured and tested that the quality of telephone calls is acceptable, then it’s time to start publicizing your new landline number.

If you’re a freelancer or individual working from home, then it’s useful to have a separate telephone number from your private number. You can use your new landline number on your business cards, on your website, in your email signature and pass it on to your business contacts.

If you work away from home and you have a reliable broadband connection, you will be able to make and receive telephone calls on your landline number, regardless of location. Your customers may think that you are hard at work in the office but in reality you could be talking to them from a tropical beach. They need never know!


What Happens When I'm Not Online?

While it is possible to configure VoIP services with desk telephones, I use the Snom 320 for this purpose, this is only really useful if you are in an office and want the convenience of a desk phone. For the mobile worker, freelancer or individual it is more cost-effective to have Telephone App running on your Mac.

When your Mac is turned off then you will not, of course, be able to receive calls. So what happens with your callers? Well, VoIP providers will normally provide a voice mailbox (answering machine) that will take calls for you when you are unavailable. Most SIP providers will then send the voicemail message as an audio file to your email address. This means that you can pick up and listen to your voice messages on your iPhone when you are out and about. Invaluable.

Receive your Voicemails on Email
SIP Providers Will Send Your VoIP Voicemail Messages as Email Attachments.

VoIP for Multiple Landline Numbers

If you work on a number of different projects, operate different businesses or wish to use the different telephone numbers for a specific advertising campaigns then Telephone App will allow you to configure more than one SIP account.

This means that, when working on your Mac, you will be able to receive incoming telephone calls on different landline numbers. This can be particularly useful if you wish to have different country code landline numbers to make it easy for customers in different countries to contact you. For example, you may be working in London but using a United States telephone number specifically for your US customers.

Configuring Multiple SIP Accounts in Telephone App
Configuring Multiple SIP Accounts in Telephone App

Alternative VoIP Solutions

The main alternative to VoIP telephony, such as this, is Skype - a service that you are sure to have heard of, if not used.

It is possible to use Skype in a similar way to provide you with a landline number that you can use anywhere in the world from any broadband connection. The advantage using Skype is that it is easy to install, set up and you can send instant text messages to your friends and colleagues.

Disadvantages with Skype include the confusing interface on the Mac version (it’s received little love since early iterations) and it is a fairly chunky piece of software compared to Telephone App.

Skype also uses proprietary protocols and if you take a landline number from Skype, you will be charged a monthly fee, unlike some SIP service providers.


Conclusion

In this article we have seen how to set up a simple, lightweight application with our choice of SIP service provider to enable individuals, freelancers or business travellers to use their Mac as their landline telephone whether they are working from home, the office, or at a remote location.

In its most basic form, you can use the VoIP telephony that I have described in this article, purely as a means to have a separate number, at no cost, in order to receive telephone calls.

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