How Do VoIP Phones Work?

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Understanding VoIP is not always easy

If you’re not sure how VoIP phones work, or what the term “VoIP phone” even means, you’re not alone. We hear this question often at RingCentral from businesses that are interested in using VoIP service but are unsure of what we mean by VoIP phones. So on this page, we’ll answer the question: how do VoIP phones work?

What is VoIP?

Before we jump into the details of what VoIP phones are, let’s first define what VoIP is.

VoIP is a communications protocol that converts the speakers’ voices into a series of digital packets. Then, rather than being sent through the standard phone network, those packets are transmitted across the internet. Voice packets in a VoIP call travel online just like any other type of digital data, such as email messages or a document being uploaded to your favorite cloud storage app.

A virtual phone system is mobile and desktop

What do we mean by VoIP phone?

When businesses ask us if VoIP phones are physical phones, like the ones their employees currently have on their desks, our answer is: “Yes and no.”

This is because the term VoIP phone simply refers to any device enabled with VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology. It could be an actual desktop phone that looks a lot like the analog phones we’ve all used for years, but it could also be a computer, tablet, mobile phone, or other internet-connected device equipped with VoIP software.

Another way to think about this is that VoIP phones are available in two flavors: hardware phones and devices enabled with software that allows them to function as VoIP phones.

Do you need special phones for VoIP?

If you want VoIP to be directly connected to a device, then you absolutely need to invest in phones that are configured to work with the VoIP service you’re using. Your provider generally has a list of hardware you can use (you can even buy or rent from them). For example, RingCentral has a page covering all the telephony devices its solutions are compatible with.

The devices can fall under 2 categories:

  • The physical VoIP phone.

The hardware-based flavor of VoIP phone is an actual desktop phone, similar to the standard models found in most offices today, but built to send and receive calls over the internet. (In fact, VoIP phones are also often called IP phones.)

These phones typically have the familiar features and interface of a traditional business phone: touchpad, caller ID display, speakerphone capability, and buttons for features like speed dial and call transfer. Many businesses find that their employees are able to transition to VoIP phone service much more easily when using this type of VoIP device because their employees are already familiar and comfortable with the phone’s physical layout and features.

  • The software-enabled VoIP phone.

The second flavor of VoIP phone is any device (which might not be a phone at all) that is internet-enabled and loaded with software that allows it to receive and transmit VoIP calls.

In other words, a software-enabled VoIP phone could be a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. With the VoIP software installed, the user can turn that device into a VoIP phone.

This means that your employees can use an application to take and make business calls from anywhere, even their own personal smartphones, using their business phone number.

How does VoIP work with a mobile phone?

This is the most sophisticated method of leveraging the benefits of VoIP phone service. You can use software installed on your internet-enabled device, such as a mobile phone, to turn that device into your VoIP phone. This means you can use your personal mobile phone to place or receive calls using your business phone number, and callers on the other end will see your “business phone number” connected to your caller ID.

Can you use your landline business phones for VoIP calls?

The answer to this question is “kind of”. You can most definitely receive phone calls from your VoIP-based business phone system, but you can only do that through call routing.

In order to do that, you’d need to log into your online dashboard and identify the phone number of your landline as auxiliary device. This means that if you don’t answer the call on your VoIP device, that call can be forwarded to your traditional line.

But that doesn’t mean you can make VoIP calls using your old-school devices.

Thankfully, IP phones don’t look all that different from landline phones so even the staunchest traditionalists can feel comfortable using them.

How do VoIP phones work?

We’ve already published a page explaining in detail how VoIP works; but in case you don’t have time to read it, here’s a quick summary:

Voice over Internet Protocol is a series of technologies that make it possible for you to make online phone calls by converting traditional analog voice calls into digital packets of data—much like an email message or an mp3—and sending those voice packets between callers over the internet, rather than over the old-fashioned telephone network.

As for how the VoIP phones themselves function, here is a brief overview of the technologies and processes involved:

In terms of the physical phones themselves, many VoIP phones can be powered by the same Ethernet cable that connects to the phone to transmit data. This technology is called Power over Ethernet (PoE) and is often preferable for businesses because it reduces clutter and can also reduce cost, combining both power and data into a single cable connected to the phone. Other VoIP phones, however, do not offer PoE capability and instead require a separate A/C adapter to power the unit.

In terms of connecting to the Internet, a VoIP phone will be assigned an IP address (just like any computer or another internet-connected device) and then will use a domain name system (DNS) to enable it to connect with other IP phones or VoIP-enabled devices.

As for transmitting voice calls over the Internet, generally speaking, VoIP phones use one of two primary protocols: Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), or H.323. Both of these protocols support not only voice but also other types of data—including video transmissions.

How do VoIP phones work for business?

VoIP phones let your company leverage your existing internet service to create the foundation of a comprehensive business phone system that costs far less than the phone bill you’re currently paying to maintain your landline analog phones.

VoIP phones also give your team more flexibility than a landline phone system could. With VoIP, your employees can take and make calls anywhere using their business numbers and their preferred devices: office phones, desktop computers, laptops, or even personal smartphones.

Analog vs. VoIP phones: a few key differences.

Although they are often very similar in terms of looks and features to analog landline phones, there are several key differences in how VoIP phones operate. Here are a few of the most significant distinctions:

  • Because they transmit voice calls as digital data over the internet and not the phone network, VoIP phones do not require any dedicated “lines” the way we traditionally think of them. In fact, they don’t require any physical wiring other than their Ethernet connection (which is how they connect to the internet).
  • VoIP phones are configured to work with a specific user, meaning they do not need to be permanently attached to a specific phone. Likewise, the phone number is not limited to one device. A VoIP phone user in an organization might use her desktop phone to make calls from her business phone number while she’s in the office, for example, but then use the software installed on her personal smartphone and laptop to make calls from that same number while she’s away from her desk.

What are the benefits of a VoIP phone?

There are many advantages to switching to VoIP phones from traditional business phone service, but we will highlight just a few of the primary benefits here:

  • VoIP service improves mobility for remote and on-the-go employees.

    The reason many businesses, particularly small and midsize companies, become interested in VoIP phone service is the savings. Traditional phone service with the large telecommunication providers comes at a significant cost for small businesses, costs that usually include high monthly fees for each business phone line and high rates for long-distance calling (particularly for international calls). VoIP, on the other hand, has far lower ongoing costs, usually allows businesses to call long distance while paying local rates, and includes other services like video calls.
  • VoIP phone service makes businesses’ communication systems more flexible and scalable.

    Because VoIP service can work anywhere and on any device with an internet connection, it can make a business’s employees far more mobile, allowing them to work anywhere. This is in sharp contrast to traditional landline phone service which ties employees to their desks if they need to take or make business calls. Also, consider what would happen if your company was moving to new offices. With a standard business phone system, you would need to work with your service provider to switch your dedicated phone lines from your existing office to the new location or acquire new lines altogether, and you would need to set up the physical phone system at the new office.
    With VoIP phone service, though, you could use your team’s softphone capability to continue normal phone service throughout the move. You wouldn’t need to acquire additional copper lines, change your business phone numbers, or experience any downtime without phone service whatsoever.
  • A VoIP service’s any-device, anywhere communication capability improves productivity.

    In addition to the mobility VoIP service allows, with some services—such as RingCentral’s VoIP service—you can also let your employees integrate their VoIP service directly with their favorite business apps, like Office, Google, Salesforce, and Dropbox.
    They can pull their contacts and other data from these apps directly and automatically into their VoIP phone service and move more easily throughout the business day from project to project without having to jump across different apps.

VoIP phone FAQs

(Because there are no dumb questions.)

Can you use a normal phone with VoIP?

Not exactly. While people can certainly choose to use VoIP analog telephone adapters like the Cisco SPA-122 ATA to help convert a traditional phone’s signal for internet signals, it’s not really as reliable and convenient as investing in IP phones.

What VoIP phones does RingCentral sell?

RingCentral offers many different VoIP phones and related devices, so there are likely several phones that will meet your business’s needs and budget. See all available VoIP phone and device options.

Can we lease RingCentral VoIP phones instead of buying them?

You can. If you are a RingCentral customer in the US, you may choose to lease (as opposed to buy) our desk and conference phones. See our RingCentral Phone Lease Program and Rental Agreement for details.

Which RingCentral VoIP phones are Cisco Presence-capable?

The following VoIP phones are Presence-capable: Cisco SPA508G, Cisco SPA514G, Cisco SPA525G2, Cisco 303, Polycom IP 650, Polycom VVX 311, Polycom VVX 411, and Polycom VVX 501.

Do all RingCentral VoIP phones support HD voice?

All the Polycom and Cisco desk phones (except for Polycom IP321) and conference phones we sell and lease support HD voice capability. In addition to this, RingCentral for Desktop (softphone) and RingCentral mobile apps also support HD voice.