What is Telephony, and Which Type Is Most Effective?

telephony services have grown in number

Better understand modern approaches to voice communications

At its simplest, telephony just means the technology we use to talk to one another at a distance.

In reality, of course, we all know the definition is much murkier.

These days, examining phone systems means putting multiple versions of technology up against each other. It may make some people think of rotary or touch-tone phones, and make others think of only touchscreen-driven devices. That’s to say nothing of the networks powering this hardware, the deep, dark ocean of technical details and acronyms lurking below the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Simply put, as technology keeps marching onward, the question of what is telephony only becomes more nebulous. Although it isn’t an issue widely asked by private individuals — who increasingly use only cell phones for telecommunications — the question is incredibly relevant to businesses as they consider how to set up technology.

The question is no longer just “what is telephony”; now, businesses also have to also ask the definition of analogue, digital, IP and SIP telephony (and plenty of other options besides). But beyond defining these types of technology, it’s also worth asking this: Which variety will be most beneficial to your business in particular? Is it really that important to upgrade to the latest model, or can an organization still get by on older versions?

Let’s consider the means of communication that’s best for your business by defining and evaluating the types of telephony out there now.

The Telephone’s Origins & Analogue Telephony

The original model of connecting various households and businesses by voice was first laid down in the late 19th century. To create it, the designers laid down rows of copper wire within the walls of each location and connected them in a larger network.

This is all relevant to talking about analogue telephony today, because even in the years since, that model hasn’t changed much.

Also called a “plain old telephone system” (POTS), analogue telephony uses copper wire hooked into a larger network of operators and other phones. The setup is as simple as plugging a phone into the wall and letting your telephony service handle all the other connections.

Of course, analogue telephony comes with a number of drawbacks, too. The big one is that the copper wiring that the format requires is expensive, both as a material and to lay down, and getting it in a particular room or connecting more phones to the network requires more of it to be installed physically inside walls.

On top of this, POTS is already on the way out. Plenty of countries are actively looking ahead to shutting down copper wire networks due to a lack of demand, and it’s unlikely support is going to pick back up any time soon.

As a piece of history, analogue telephony is important to understand at least on a cursory level. As an investment, however, it’s expensive and limits your telephone use to just voice calling — to say nothing of how quickly its value will depreciate in just a few years.

Digital Telephony

By the late 1980s, work on digital technologies was advancing at such a pace that analogue varieties would soon be overtaken, and it was just a matter of time before telephones would be hit. That came in 1988 as companies rolled out digital telephony.

As a format, digital telephony is fairly similar to its analogue forerunner. Phones still plug into an outlet, and the outlet still connects to a wider network of physical wires and operators. Furthermore, talking is just about all the format allows for.

The big difference comes in the wiring: In place of expensive copper wire, digital telephony could use fiber optic cabling to do its job. This establishes a faster connection and a higher ceiling of data transfer — essentially, it allows for calls with higher audio quality and less delay.

All this said, early digital telephony still came with the same core drawbacks as analogue. The number of phones you can set up with this format is still limited by the amount of cable you have wired into the building, for one. For another, it’s difficult to add additional services to telephones that use this format, as all the fiber optic cabling can do is transfer voice calls.

Mobile Telephony

Arguably the biggest revolution in voice service is mobile telephony — the use of cellular phones for voice calls. Thanks to global wireless networks and general improvements to phone technology, calls can now be taken on the go instead of being limited to network-connected outlets.

Mobile telephony works by replacing the cables usually required with wireless coverage established by cellular towers. When you make a call on a cell phone, the device sends a signal using radio waves to the nearest cell tower; that tower then relays the signal through the relevant phone networks to the number you’re calling.

Today, the use of mobile calling is nearly universal, especially now that mobile network coverage also opens up on-the-go internet access. Although in practice any given employee will likely have their own way of placing calls on the go, it’s worth considering if your business can make any relevant work numbers accessible to individuals while out and about.

However, rather than covering this capability through mobile telephony, there’s a more unified alternative.

Internet Telephony (VoIP)

These days, nearly everything can be tied to the internet. And since we do a great deal of communicating over the web, it only stands to reason that telephony would now be routed online, too.

Internet telephony goes by many names — Internet Protocol (IP) telephony and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), to name a couple. But they all boil down to the same thing: calling services routed over the internet.
The way internet telephony works is therefore quite different from analogue and even digital methods. In short, it connects to outside parties by linking your device via the internet to your private branch exchange (PBX), then to the main server of your telephony service. From that main server, a connection is made to the external user.

The game-changer here is that internet connection. Because what connects you to other parties is the web, not physical wires, internet telephony effectively takes the ceiling off how many devices and numbers can be used in a single location. With this method, expansion is simply a matter of how your phone service and associated PBX are configured.

Similarly, using the internet allows far more devices to be used for phone calls. Dedicated desk phones for VoIP exist, of course, and are a popular option for users who want a traditional approach to voice calls. But in addition, with internet telephony, users can just easily place and receive calls using smartphone apps or even their desktop computer.

As a result, VoIP enables employees to use their office number at home or on the go, just the same way they use it in the office.

SIP Telephony

This variety is technically a component of internet telephony, but it’s worth considering on its own due to its importance in business phone setups.

SIP, short for “Session Initiation Protocol,” is an important component of numerous VoIP and internet telephony systems. Like the name implies, SIP is a set of guidelines that tells a phone system how to initiate a calling session with another phone. Rather than a separate kind of phone system, SIP is a part of the technology that enables internet telephony to function at all.

It’s also worth noting that SIP also can power online media exchanges like instant messaging and video. If you move from voice calls into, say, video telephony (using a video feed in addition to the audio of a voice call), SIP will usually come into play in the process.

Hosted Telephony & Cloud Telephony

Internet telephony also breaks down into some subcategories as you examine it. One of the main examples is hosted telephony, which has achieved significant popularity thanks to its convenience and approachability.

Hosted telephony refers to having the main server of your IP telephony service “hosted” off-site — usually directly on the premises of your provider. This is in direct contrast to “on-premise” VoIP telephony, where the main PBX exists physically on-site at the location in question. By moving the PBX elsewhere, businesses don’t have to dedicate space to physical hardware or spend time and money on its upkeep. Instead, they can simply connect to the off-site server and enjoy telephony over the internet.

The practice of hosted telephony is sometimes also called “cloud telephony,” as from the end-user’s perspective using a hosted system is comparable to most any cloud setup. From a technical level, however, cloud telephony isn’t quite the same thing as hosted telephony: while hosted telephony uses a single off-site server, cloud telephony uses a larger cloud infrastructure for a more distributed online presence. Note, though, that this is more of a fine detail, and it very rarely amounts to any real difference in the end-user’s experience.

Which Telephony Service Is Right for Me?

Now that we’ve addressed the question of “what is telephony,” a more relevant one arises: Which variety should you actually use?

The truth is, this isn’t a nuanced case of weighing pros and cons, because internet telephony is flat out the most convenient and cost-effective option today. As we noted earlier, analogue telephony is already on the way out, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a technician in this day and age who will be eager to install copper wiring for your business.

While an installation for digital telephony is certainly possible, consider that it will be an expensive process if you don’t already have the required fiber optic cabling. Even if a digital setup is put together, you’ll likely need another installation to expand it — and as noted, voice calls are all you can achieve through it.

With an internet telephony system, on the other hand, an installation is as simple as connecting to your on-site modem or internet service. Even in the event you choose an on-premise setup over hosted or cloud options, the hardware installed at your location only has to connect to the web, not to its own network of cables. As a result, any IP telephony setup will be far cheaper and significantly more convenient to install than older alternatives.

The real question of what telephony variety is right for you is, more likely than not, going to come down to a question of what variety of IP telephony you need.

We already mentioned cloud telephony and hosted telephony as options, but again, those aren’t the only ways to create an IP telephony system. Namely, if moving everything to a virtual space seems like too much trust to give to an external service provider, it’s still possible to create an on-premises system. In this setup, hardware for the internet PBX and relevant VoIP server is installed on-site for the relevant location.

Although this will generally require an entire room to house the hardware — as well as regular upkeep and maintenance to keep the equipment running effectively — an on-premises PBX will equip your business with VoIP technology and the wide range of benefits it offers. Even better, the system will be yours to use and maintain, which may be preferable to some who prefer greater control over their IT systems.

However, it should also be considered that an on-premises VoIP system will be more expensive in both down payment and ongoing cost than a hosted or cloud system. Additionally, maintaining the on-premises system on your own terms is just about the only benefit you’ll get; all the features of internet telephony gained from installed hardware are also available in the cloud, but at a lower cost and with a greater degree of flexibility (as an on-premises system must be altered if a business wants more phones or extensions than the initial installation allowed for).

For more in-depth information on the differences between types of internet telephony, check out our post on VoIP.

Final Thoughts & Takeaways

In our day and age, it’s easy to take for granted how at a moment’s notice we can pick up a device and, a few button presses later, instantly communicate with someone untold miles away. With how easy the process of communication has become, the foundations of that technology likely seems buried and unimportant.

When considering communications for business purposes, however, taking in the whole picture of what telephony is and how exactly it works is enormously important. Although older varieties of this technology are too outdated to be truly worth investing in, understanding the basics of those earlier mediums will still help businesses better appreciate the benefits they stand to gain with internet telephony and VoIP.

Most notably, by moving from older forms of telephony to VoIP, organizations gain the convenience of routing calls through an existing communications infrastructure. Instead of relying on copper wiring or fiber optic cables, internet telephony users can rely entirely on their existing online connections to make calls.

That alone changes the game when it comes to defining telephony — but just as significantly, by using the internet users can also bring on components such as video telephony, instant messaging, call analytics and more through that same web connection and interface.

From pretty much any standpoint — be it cost, utility or just day-to-day convenience — internet telephony is going to come out on top compared to those legacy systems described here.

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