Web Informant #352, 3 December 2003: The Call Heard Round the World

 

http://strom.com/awards/352.html

 

(updated April 2006)

I have seen the future of my telephone service and after two months of usage I want to recommend it to you. The biggest problem is that you might have to change your home phone number, but when you see the list of features, I think you'll agree that it is worth the hassle.

 

The service is from Vonage, a startup company that boasts a CEO who started Datek and The Island ECN online trading networks. It can be called a bypass carrier, as it bypasses everything you need with your local phone company, using a broadband Internet connection. Here is how it works: When you sign up for the service, you get a Linksys/Cisco router that connects to the Ethernet port on your home network and has an RJ11 phone jack for your phone. If your home router isn't located near where your phone lines terminate, you may have to do some wiring to connect them in my case that took about 20 minutes to pull the wires through my basement.

 

If you don't have a home network, this might be a motivation to obtain broadband service. The amazing thing is that there is nothing else to really do, short of setting up your various calling features. You just plug the stuff in and within a few seconds, you can pick up the phone, hear a dial tone and start making calls.

 

What is appealing about Vonage is the price and the control of service over my phone line characteristics. As a Verizon subscriber, when I wanted to make changes to my service I had two choices: call the local business office and wait while someone tried to help me, or forget about the service. What makes Vonage attractive is that I can do it all via a series of Web pages, allowing me to set up call forwarding, call waiting, voice mail, and just about anything else that I would need. Yes, Verizon does have Web access to some things but not to the extent and detail that Vonage does -- unless you want to pay an extra monthly fee to Verizon for this control. I don't have to talk to a phone company representative, and I have everything that I need via the Web configuration. I can also get my bills via the Web (something that Verizon now offers as well) and track call usage, as well as listen to my voice mail via a series of e-mail attached sound files. This is handy for someone who isn't ordinarily home during the workday, because I get an e-mail notice when someone leaves me a message on my virtual answering machine.

 

The answering machine works just as the telco-operated voice mail did that I used to have when I was a Verizon subscriber. You get a stutter tone when you pick up your phone if you have any messages, and you can dial the voice mail service and listen to your messages over the phone if you still like getting them that way. Or you can click on the sound files and hear the message played over your computer's speakers.

 

Vonage adds another feature to this list, which is having a phone number that you can transport with you around the world. All you need is a broadband IP connection and your Linksys router (your home phone number is tied to its MAC address). You go for a business trip someplace, and you can be making and receiving calls from your phone as if you were home. This comes in handy if you travel overseas and don't want to pay the usurious rates that hotels charge for international calls. (John Dvorak wrote about this in PC Magazine earlier this summer, and I agree that this is a big plus.)

 

When you combine Vonage with eFax, a virtual fax service, you can work from anywhere and communicate without people having to track you down in a physical location. That has its appeal, particularly as I spend so much on planes as it is.

 

Let's talk price. Vonage offers a fixed monthly bill of $35, which includes all calls made to numbers in North America. There are other plans that are cheaper if you make fewer long distance calls. I was spending more than that on my single home line with Verizon, when you added all the "custom calling" features such as voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, etc. All of these features are included in the price. To be fair, I should point out that where I live Cablevision, our local cable company, also offers IP telephone service. But they only have a single plan for the same price for unlimited North American calls, Vonage has cheaper monthly plans if you dont make many calls. Verizon now offers an unlimited North American long distance plan too, but it is more expensive than Vonage.

 

My experience so far has been mostly positive. Some of my callers say the line quality isn't always perfect and they can hear echoes on the calls. At one hotel that had broadband to the room I wasn't able to get the Cisco router to connect. And sometimes the phone rings for a while before popping into voice mail I am still fooling around with the right setting here. There is a bit of work to do to get everything set up, including having Vonage register your actual physical location with the local 911 emergency service computers. And you have to dial all 10 digits even when making even local calls something many people have to do anyway in metropolitan areas with lots of new area codes. None of these are deal breakers. The biggest problem is that my phone service is now only as reliable as my cable service: when the cable modem goes out, or the cable company network is experiencing problems, or if I lose electrical power, then I can't use my phone. But on the whole I have come to like the service, and think if you can make the break from your local phone company, now is the time.

 

(Update in April 2006) I have been a Vonage subscriber for many years, as the date on this essay will testify. When I moved to Los Angeles, my problems with Vonage began with issues that I had with Adelphia's cable service. I had to replace my cable modem with a more recent DOCSYS 2.0 version -- the 1.0 version that I had in New York wasn't reliable enough for VoIP service. I had to have Vonage rejigger the DTMF touch tones generated by my phone line, otherwise I couldn't connect with many phone conferencing and IVR services. So I am not as positive as I was when I wrote this essay in 2003. And Vonage has been slow to deal with the E911 issue: I still would be reluctant to have this as my sole phone line.

 

You can read my latest troubles here. I am still working through the issues with Vonage tech support. I did go back to Verizon, and while they have done a lot to make themselves more Web-friendly, it is still a long way from where Vonage is. Just setting up bill paying online will take several frustrating steps -- with Vonage, it is a simple process to setup.