VOIP Still Kinda Sucks

Maybe it’s just been a bad week, but VOIP feels like a rare Concorde-esque backward step in technology. In the past week, I’ve had three separate conversations (all, coincidentally, with software startups) interrupted by lousy phone service. In each case, the person I was speaking to blamed their dodgy VOIP service.

We were reasonably happy with Skype (and SkypeOut) when living in Morocco and Malta (the Maltanet VOIP service was awful). Yet, counterintuitively, it’s been much more unreliable when making calls from BC. Maybe a busier network is to blame?

On the other hand, Shaw has provided the most reliable VOIP service I’ve ever used.

In short, making a phone call used to 100% reliable. Thanks to VOIP, we’re down to about 85%. What gives?


  1. That might explain why, after trying out 4 different VOIP providers which all sucked, only Shaw worked very reliably.

    Even better, Shaw’s service wires directly into you home’s existing phone cabling which was kinda nice.

  2. I should also mention that I am enjoying Shaw’s VOIP service at home, and have found it to be equally as reliable as a Telus land line. I wouldn’t say that I’m missing Telus’ “famed” customer service, either.

  3. “In short, making a phone call used to 100% reliable. Thanks to VOIP, we’re down to about 85%. What gives?”

    Well, throttling aside the obvious answer is that the traditional telephone network was dedicated to a single task – point to point voice communications (data was an afterthought).

    Your broadband internet connection has to deal with all kinds of other crap on the wire simultaneously.

    I get my VoIP service from Unlimitel.ca – a great little Canadian company. I’ve been with them for nearly two years and have had almost perfect uptime and audio. Most of those two years we were connected via Shaw (we recently switched to fibre, courtesy of Novus).

    Warning: Big Geek Advice follows.

    Tips for great VoIP (note: you’ll need to be slightly technically-inclined for these tips, or know someone who is):

    1. Use a firewall that does QoS (quality of service) and traffic-shaping, and set it to give your VoIP traffic priority over EVERYTHING else. Otherwise, that BitTorrent session is going to kill your audio quality. I recommend picking up a Linksys WRT54GL router and installing the Tomato firmware on it. It’s easy to do, and provides great visuals on how your bandwidth is being used.

    2. If you can, set up your *own* in-house PBX. A PBX is the software which routes incoming/outgoing calls, etc. Advantages of running a PBX are: reduced latency, easier firewall configuration, more control over your phone (in my house, known incoming telemarketers get routed to a recording of screaming monkeys), plus it’s *cheaper*. I pay $2.50 a month for my phone line, plus 1 cent / min for usage. Look at software like AsteriskNOW, TrixBox and Elastix. You’ll need a spare PC for this (or you can get fancy like I did and use a dedicated tiny, low-power device)

  4. Mike: Thanks for all that advice. I’m sure it works, but most of the time the VOIP problems are at the other end, not mine. And, more practically, I shouldn’t have to put up with all that. After all, that’s why I buy Apple devices. I just want them to work. All the time.

  5. We’ve been using the Shaw digital phone for almost two years now and it’s perfect.

    I’d love to lower my phone costs, but having unlimited north american long distance is certainly nice.

  6. I threw my hands in the air, gave up on VOIP and got my first landline in 10 years. Combined with a nice office phone, I can now speak to my clients without the choppiness. Until VOIP gets 100%, I’ll keep my landline. Add in a pbx in the cloud (onsip.com), I can enjoy the benefits of things like voicemail to email and call routing, but with the stability of a landline.

  7. Another vote for Shaw VOIP (here in Alberta). We tried Vonage first and it just didn’t work. It was like a 20-year step back in phone quality.

    I’m trying not to join the cynicism that Shaw is prioritizing their own VOIP and not other companies VOIP traffic. But I suspect it’s true.

  8. The office that I’m working at has had nightmares dealing with their VOIP issues – calls just cut in and out, and the guy who installed and maintains them appears to be wildly incompetent and slow. You won’t see me signing up for it any time soon…

  9. Jeffrey, these are totally different kinds of services. You don’t even need an internet connection to get Shaw phone. Voip services like Vonage & Skype rely on access to the internet for the transmission of voice packets.

    Taken from Shaw.ca:
    “Unlike Internet phone providers who use the Internet to route calls, Shaw’s Digital
    Phone service uses Shaw’s own private managed broadband network and the public switched telephone
    network to route calls…”

  10. I just cracked the sh|ts with VoIP this week after over a year of failed connections and dropped calls. I complained to my VoIP provider. The story I got from them is that due to latency issues you need a ping time to the destination < 200 ms. I am in Vancouver on Shaw cable and I ran some tests using different (non-VoIP) servers on speedtest.net, and found that I only achieve that ping time to North America, Japan, and some parts of Europe (not Australia, SE Asia, South America, UK, Scandinavia, Africa). This is on top of any throttling that may be imposed, and intermittent congestion problems.

    IMHO, VoIP may suit certain people in certain locations with certain requirements, but for the near future it will remain a gimmick for most.

  11. Does anyone tried to use SkypeOut feature from Skype being with Shaw? I mean calling internationally through Skype’s gateway in US? If so, is voice quality good? I am with Telus and use mostly SkypeOut to call Poland to my mom who does not have computer. Voice is excellent! Much better than calling directly using Telus landline. I am thinking of switching to Shaw Voip, but am not sure if it is going to work as good as is now. I bought the feature form Skype and am very happy with it. $8.15/month and unlimited calls to Poland.

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