The History of VoIP Over the Last 55 Years (1966 to 2021)
This article is part of a larger series on VoIP.
Voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) phone systems are now commonplace in business and consumer communications. They offer affordable, feature-rich solutions with advanced calling functionality, short message service (SMS) capabilities, video conferencing, and third-party integrations. However, VoIP technology didn’t even exist a few decades ago. We’ll walk you through the relatively short history of VoIP phone systems and how they became today’s mainstream communications solution.
Telephone Technology Before VoIP (~1667 to 1965)
English philosopher Robert Hooke invented a primitive audio transfer device as early as 1667. The string telephone instrument sent sound waves over an extended wire via mechanical vibrations. However, the world would need to wait another 200 years for the next major step in the evolution of transmitted communications.
Alexander Graham Bell came upon the scene in the late 1800s, developing a telephony device that made phone services a possibility for everyday citizens. By 1886, over 100,000 Americans owned a telephone—this marked the first time in the history of the world that people separated by miles of distance could communicate instantaneously.
Thanks to the upgraded communication possibilities, phone systems began to evolve at a rapid pace. Soon, landline systems would stretch across continents, connecting businesses, consumers, friends, and families. At the time, these copper-wire towers seemed to be the most reliable system, but they had their drawbacks:
- Making calls outside of your local area code incurred high per-minute costs.
- Landlines were limited to a single location (home, office, public center, and so forth); in other words, you couldn’t take your phone with you on the go.
- Call quality still lagged behind, and it wasn’t surprising to have phone calls drop every now and then.
VoIP’s Humble Origins (1966 to 1990)
VoIP didn’t become a viable solution from the get-go. Its development required decades of research, experimentation, and technological evolution before it would become a mainstream option.
In 1966, Fumitada Itakura of Nagoya University and Shuzo Saito of the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone company collaborated to propose linear predictive coding (LPC), which is a method to convert speech into digital signals. Eight years later, in 1974, Culler-Harrison Incorporated’s office in Goleta, California, and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, made the first VoIP call over ARPANET (one of the earliest internet-capable phone networks).
The call went through, but the audio was clunky and full of static. At 2.4kbps, it wasn’t nearly as crystal-clear as the HD voice calls we have today. Still, this event marked a significant milestone in the development of VoIP communications. However, it would still take more than a decade before commercial VoIP solutions evolved to become a viable communications option.
Consumer-ready Business VoIP Applications Take Off (1991 to 1999)
The early 1900s marked a period of rapid internet adoption for businesses. Various internet-based business phone systems emerged on the market to solve business needs. Speak Freely launched in 1991 as the first consumer-ready business VoIP application. Soon after, VocalChat and VocalTec’s Internet Phone program entered the scene too.
Despite their cutting-edge technology, internet bandwidth still wasn’t fast enough to support high-quality audio or fast load times. These factors made VoIP solutions slow and call quality barely acceptable, especially when compared to today’s small business VoIP services. These programs failed to reach mainstream success, but they laid the essential groundwork for VoIP adoption when broadband internet changed the world in the early 21st century.
Broadband Internet Makes VoIP a Business Option (2000 to 2010)
Broadband internet started becoming readily available and affordable in most populated areas of the developed world by the early 2000s. That, combined with the invention of the modified discrete cosine transform (MDCT) codec (which made it easier for software to send audio as data over the web), set the stage for VoIP’s emergence.
VoIP providers charged a single flat monthly rate for their services, which was more enticing than having to pay for separate internet packages and landlines. Vonage launched in 2001 and became a huge success with consumers and businesses alike. Skype soon joined the scene in 2003 to demonstrate a new level of internet-based voice communications potential.
VoIP Becomes the Mainstream Business Phone Solution (2011 to Present Day)
The history of VoIP technology continues to evolve, making it more affordable and feature-rich than primitive landline services. Now entire offices can even use VoIP smartphone apps to conduct business communications on the go.
VoIP communication systems continue to innovate and offer new and advanced VoIP phone features. Most VoIP providers offer functionality like video calling, messaging, file sharing, automated attendants, and call recordings. Others provide still more advanced tools like customer relationship manager (CRM) integrations, interactive voice response (IVR) tools, real-time analytics, and hotdesking.
Take RingCentral, for example. RingCentral, an affordable VoIP phone system for small businesses and large enterprises alike, provides communication solutions covering calling, texting, messaging, video conferencing, faxing, and more. It equips companies of all sizes with auto-attendants, mobile apps, call management features, and APIs to solve just about any communication need.
If you’re looking for a powerful, reliable VoIP system, we recommend starting your search with RingCentral.
Businesses aren’t the only ones benefiting from the history and evolution of VoIP technology—the consumer market has expanded too. Most cell phone plans now offer unlimited domestic calling, texting, and even data, causing millions of people to cut their landline plans in favor of their mobile devices.
The Future of VoIP
The history of VoIP continues to evolve year after year. Business phone systems have become more intelligent, and developers are building new and exciting solutions using this technology.
VoIP is now expanding beyond smartphones and computers and starting to find its way into the internet of things (IoT). Electric scooters, refrigerators, smart speakers, and even TVs will likely all be equipped with VoIP communication functionality in the near future.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who invented VoIP?
No single person invented VoIP. VoIP history includes the collaborative efforts and genius of brilliant inventors over the last few centuries. The minds of Robert Hooke, Alexander Graham Bell, Fumitada Itakura, Shuzo Saito, and others all play a significant role in the emergence and history of VoIP.
What was the first VoIP application?
Speak Freely launched in 1991 as the first commercially available VoIP application.
Why is VoIP popular?
VoIP offers high call quality, reliability, affordability, accessibility, and functionality. Compared to traditional landline services, it checks nearly every box as the better solution.
VoIP is a relatively new technology that’s rapidly making its way into every facet of modern communications. However, there are still businesses equipped with primitive landline solutions as well as consumers around the world who still rely on traditional landline phones. As the internet continues to become readily available and affordable worldwide, we can expect the widespread adoption of VoIP to follow suit.
If you’re looking to see VoIP at its finest, look no further than RingCentral. It’s an affordable, reliable, and robust business phone system that provides businesses with everything from video chat to team messaging and file sharing. Click the link below to get started with RingCentral today.