Adventures with SKYPE / VOIP

I’ve been interested in the use of VOIP and Wifi for sometime, it certainly seems to be the way mobile phone services are going. Skype is one of the many services that uses VOIP technology to allow users to make telephone / video calls via the internet. When I first saw this technology I was really impressed, but I’ve never really thought about using Skype before. The service allows telephone calls to be made from a PC/laptop with very little software configuration and a cheap headphone and microphone set, although there is an impressive range of Skype enabled telephones available. Calls between Skype users are free and users can call other Skype users anywhere in the world. This type of VOIP technology has many potential uses for both staff and students, and I know that there are a number of Skype users currently at Edge Hill. IT Services has talked internally about this type of VOIP technology but we have never really done any serious investigation. My renewed interest in Skype has been sparked because my new laptop came with a Skype compatible telephone. I finally decided to have a go with Skype and see how it worked.

Skype – First Look

I downloaded the software, installed it and was up and running really quickly. It was only when I started looking the software menus that I realised that Skype had a lot more functionality then I was aware of. Voice mail, SMS, Conference calls, Video calls and I was only just scratching the surface. The Skype service also allows users to call BT land lines and mobile telephones (for a small charge), Skype users can also purchase a telephone number to allow them to receive calls from BT land lines and mobile telephones. The more I looked at the software the more I thought of interesting ways to use the technology. If users are not online Skype can also be set to forward the calls onto a mobile telephone or land line (for a small charge)

Skype vs Mobiles

Skype is a clever service but it’s not likely to have BT and the mobile phone companies breaking into a sweat is it? Well not just yet but VOIP technology is becoming more and more popular. Wifi hotspots are becoming more and more widespread and broadband at home is also more common. So is Skype a viable alternative to a mobile telephone ? I think there are three reasons why mobile phones are so popular,

Network Coverage – Mobile phone users can get some level of signal just about anywhere in the country.
User Friendly – Most mobiles are easy to use and are fairly user friendly. You may need a manual for the advanced functions but the basics are usually the same.
Phone Hardware and Design – Mobile phones are designed to be small, portable and quite fashionable.

I’ve been wondering if Skype could match the 3 points above because if it could I would consider using Skype on a regular basis, I might even consider using Skype (or something silimar) in place of my mobile phone. Well let’s break down each point and see how Skype measures up.

Network Coverage – Skype and other VOIP services require the internet. While lots of places have an internet connection to be truly mobile any VOIP service would need to use Wifi. The Edge Hill Campus is Wifi enabled and most users have Wifi at home but that is not really going to be enough for a truly mobile service. Skype uses something call SkypeZones which are basically Wifi hotspots that Skype users can access. The are 11,324 hotspots in the list of SkypeZones in the UK. Skype has also teamed up with The Cloud who provide and impressive network of Wifi hotspots across the UK. Service would not be as comprehensive as the mobile phone network but coverage is improving all the time.

User Friendly – The skype software is fairly user friendly, and there are a number of FAQs and forums where users can get help or make suggestions about the services. The software basics are fairly intuitive and easy to use

Phone Hardware and Design – The basic microphone and headphone sets are fine but are not practical for mobile use,SMC Mobile this is because users would still need access to a PC/Laptop to use the Skype software. There are plenty of internet cafes about but this doesn’t give the mobility that a mobile phone does. There are a number of Wifi mobile phones on the market, the one that caught my eye was the SMC Wifi phone. It looks every bit as good as normal mobile phones available on the market now and comes pre-installed with Skype. There are also dual phones available that plug into a BT line and also a broadband connection, this gives Skype users access to both services.

So could I use Skype instead of a mobile phone? There are not enough Wifi hotspots currently to offer users the same UK wide coverage as a mobile phone but I can certainly make use of Wifi hotspots at work and at home. When I first signed up to use the 3 mobile phone network UK coverage was still quite limited in places. A quick look at the local SkypeZone and Cloud hotspots revealed that there are a number of hotspots around Ormskirk that I can also make use of. What is also interesting that a lot of pubs also have Wifi !!

I’ve looked into the costs of using Wifi hotspots and both SkypeZones and Cloud hotspots charge users for access. The charges are either pay as you go or a monthly flat rate. If I signed up for one (or both) of these services I would still be paying less then I do a month on my mobile phone rental. Calls from Skype to BT and mobile phones are also cheaper than calls on my current mobile phone tariff, and if I can talk some friends into using Skype calls between us will be free. I’m quite impressed by the SMC Wifi phone, and I’ve even found one on the internet for £50 which is over half the price of some other retailers. I’ve been thinking about trying this out and taking into account all the above I think I will give it a go. My mobile phone contract is due up in a few months and I’m interested in investigating if Skype over Wifi can be used on a daily basis. If it can provide a fairly reliable service I might not renew my mobile phone contract and switch to Skype. I’m going to order an SMC phone and see what happens. I’ll post something once the phone arrives and I start using it, as part of the test I will set my mobile phone to forward all calls to my Skype number. If anything this investigation will be interesting and I’m sure that if I didn’t want to move to Skype on a permanent basis a willing ebayer would take the phone off my hands 😉

This entry was posted in General and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Adventures with SKYPE / VOIP

  1. Stuart Gould says:

    Skype is a fantastic piece of software but has some rather nasty hidden details. In particular the way Skype creates a peer to peer network around the country using supernodes has been of particular concern. If a Skype client finds itself on a powerful pc with a very fast internet connection (such as a corporate network) it can become a supernode and handle all the traffic for Skype users in the immediate geographical area. In some cases supernodes have taken up huge percentages of network bandwidth and hammered major networks. I also gather Skype is incredibly smart at routing and is capable of easily traversing NAT rules and Firewalls despite restrictions, have a read here
    I’d also suggest you have a read of the JANET policies in regard to Skype, they allow it but don’t like it very much and suggest careful management! Read them here

    All said and done it’s a brilliant piece of software and has a lot to offer, I just wish they would make a business version (even if we had to pay per seat) without all the nasty habits of the usual software.

  2. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written here at all Stuart. It’s also the reason why EH has never done anything interesting with Skype. The Supernode problem is certainly something we should be aware of, and there are a number of documents and reports around about Skype that system admins should read before implementing this software across any network. Part of the problem is that once IT bods hear about problems like this they just write-off the software, users however are usually unaware of the more technical problems and plod on quite happily. This is probably why I didn’t rush to install Skype when I got my laptop, some time ago I read some of the JANET reports and decided that Skype was more trouble than it was worth. I read the reports and jumped to a conclusion without reading around the subject. If we didn’t install software because it had the risk of being abused or posed a danger to the network we would have very little software on the network. It’s all about being aware of the risks, taking steps to avoid misuse and ensuring the initial configuration is correct.

    Any install of this (or any other software like this) should be given the once over by IT services. We would also have to provide guidelines about setup and implement some careful monitoring. The new versions of Skype are reported to have registry keys that prevent Supernodes being created, and there are a number of other things that users can do to make this more secure. Skype even produce some guidelines for Universities that gives advice on dealing with supernodes. When I was reading around Skype I also found this website at the University or Waterloo in Canada.

    At the moment I’m more interested to see if I can use Wifi and VOIP to replace my mobile. Skype was just the easiest and most popular software to try this out with. Anyone thinking of using this software at EH really needs to contact IT Services before going ahead. I dare say if I my Skype experiment works I might experiment with other VOIP services over Wifi.

  3. Pingback: Core Services » Adventures with SKYPE / VOIP - Part II

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *