- VoIP Telephone Service Review
A new very user
friendly service from Vonage means that people with
broadband internet connections no longer need any normal
phone at all!
If you travel, or call
long distance, your savings can become enormous.
1 of a
7 part series - click for Parts
Did you know that your internet
connection can be used for voice and even video messaging, as
well as for web browsing and email?
New services from companies
such as Vonage
and Packet 8 now give you an
internet based telephone rather than a regular phone line based
The internet based telephone has a regular telephone
number, and can both place and receive calls to/from ordinary
phones, everywhere in the world.
What is VoIP
VoIP stands for 'Voice Over
Internet Protocol' and is a fancy way of saying 'using an
internet connection for making telephone calls'.
Why is this a good thing
when you probably have a perfectly good telephone at home (or in
the office) already? The main benefit of VoIP is very simple and
non-technical to understand - it is cheaper than regular phone
service, and in some cases can be completely free!
If you have an unlimited use
internet account, then - in theory - you can make and receive
free internet type phone calls, to anyone else in the world that
also has a compatible type of internet phone connection. These
days Windows even has two programs built in for free, allowing
this type of communication (Messenger and NetMeeting).
Disadvantages of Pure VoIP
Most of these services
suffer from two very serious disadvantages :
They typically have a third
disadvantage as well - sound quality can be uneven, and phone
calls often have a lot of delay and perhaps a lot of echo, as
well. It is very hard to have a naturally flowing conversation
when there is a big delay between when you speak and the other
person hears you - it means that you're either both talking over
the top of each other, or else there are long silences while you
each hesitate to speak.
Hardware or Software Based VoIP
Messenger, NetMeeting, and
most other computer talk/conferencing programs are software
That is, a computer program
is used (along with your built-in sound card) to convert the
conversation to and from computer digital format.
Better results are obtained
if you have a separate standalone voice processing box. This
gives more reliable and better quality performance, and neither
interferes with the rest of your computer's operation nor relies
on your computer for it to allow you to make and receive phone
calls. Cisco have developed such a box - their ATA 186 family of
telephone adapters - that is now available at low price.
Vonage - a VoIP Hybrid
Vonage (and in similar
style, Packet 8) offers a wonderful solution to the traditional
VoIP disadvantages. It takes the normal VoIP concept, enhances
it by using the Cisco 186 box, and then, best of all, gives your
phone a regular phone number that anyone can dial to, and
provides a 'gateway' between the computer phones and all normal
phones, everywhere in the world.
This makes your Vonage VoIP
phone functionally identical to all normal telephones, and it
means that you can call any ordinary telephone user, who can in
turn also call you. You are no longer restricted to only calling
people at their computers, and you are no longer handicapped by
poor quality conversations.
The Vonage service is in all
ways identical to old fashioned phone lines from old fashioned
phone companies. But it is better, and less expensive, too.
Ease of Installation
Generally, the more 'clever'
the computer product, the more difficult it is to install and
use, and the more unreliable it may be in normal service.
The Vonage product is
probably the easiest thing I have ever installed. Indeed, it is
so easy, I didn't need to read the simple short manual at all.
I simply plugged a regular
phone into the phone plug, a network cable into the network
plug, and a power cable into the power plug. I picked up the
phone, and, incredibly - there was dial tone!
Scarcely believing it could
be this simple, I tried dialing a phone number. It worked! I did
not need to adjust or configure anything, either within my
existing network (it has DHCP) or in the Vonage box, or in any
other way. Truly this is a total 'plug and play' product that
any of us can immediately start to use.
Making and Receiving Calls
Making a call is exactly the
same as with any other phone. Pick up the handset. Dial the
number - (including a 1 and then area code).
Receiving calls is also
identical. The phone will ring, same as a normal phone. You can
even connect a caller ID unit to the phone and it will show the
number (but, alas, not the name) of the person calling you. Pick
up the phone and start talking.
The service even offers you
call waiting, call forwarding, voicemail and other services
which most telco's will charge you extra for.
Voicemail messages can be
received from your phone, or can even be emailed to you. An
emailed voicemail message can quickly become quite large in
size, however - a one minute message takes about 500kB if sent
to you in an email.
I have used my Vonage phone
extensively for over a month now. I've used it to test call
myself on my regular land line phone, and I've used it to call
people in small towns in rural Russia, and for many other calls
within the US and internationally.
There has only been one
occasion when the line quality was not excellent, and it was
hard to know if that was a Vonage problem or a fault with the
regular phone service that Vonage was feeding its call through
to reach the final person I was calling.
In all other cases, voice
quality has been excellent, and at least as good as with normal
phone service. There has been no appreciable increase in delays
on the line, and no annoying echo, line noise, or other problems
with the line quality.
I used both the high-quality
and the lower quality settings on the phone line. High quality
can use a rather greedy 90 kbps of bandwidth, while lower
quality uses 'only' 30 kbps of bandwidth. With the lower quality
setting there was a bit more distortion on the other person's
voice, but only the most sensitive ears would notice and be
bothered by this.
Vonage recommend that their
product only be used when you have a 'broadband' type connection
to the internet such as a cable modem or DSL connection. Dialup
service is more likely to have speech delays and may not have
sufficient bandwidth for the Vonage service to work properly.
One time I picked up the
phone and there was no dial tone. I don't know what caused this,
but I simply flipped the power off and on again on the Vonage
box, and within seconds, dial tone was back again.
Apart from this one trivial
problem, it has always worked perfectly. And because it does not
rely on any of my other computers (other than to provide DHCP
services) I can do whatever I like to other computers on my
network and the Vonage phone service remains operational.
Costs - a Disappointment
Vonage is - regrettably -
becoming more like a regular phone company or wireless carrier
and less like a VoIP company, because now in addition to its
basic rate, it has an extra $1.50/month 'regulatory recovery
fee'. Call it what you like, from our perspective as
potential purchasers of their services, it is just more money we
must pay every month, and shame on Vonage for not having the
honesty to simply add it to their monthly charge.
Vonage says it has two
reasons for adding this fee. The first is that although
Vonage don't directly pay any of the fees and surcharges and
taxes that regular phone companies much pay, it says that the
phone service it in turn buys from regular phone companies
includes some of these costs, and so it is indirectly paying
similar fees to those paid by the regular phone companies, and
therefore needs to pass these same costs on. This is
rather specious reasoning at best, and if we all used the same
reasoning, every product and service would soon become a mess of
extra fees and surcharges.
The second reason Vonage
says it charges this fee is as a nod to political correctness.
All VoIP companies are coming under increasing government
scrutiny by various regulatory and taxing agencies, all keen to
take a bite out of their revenues. Vonage's point is that
it is already - albeit indirectly - paying some of these fees
already. It doesn't want to be taxed twice, and by
splitting out a notional $1.50 and showing it separately, it
hopes to quieten the clamor for extra taxes to be added to VoIP
Although Vonage gives two
reasons for adding this fee, in my opinion the largest reason is
an unstated third reason - a chance to get another $1.50 in net
income from every user, every month. Shame on Vonage for doing
this. Neither Packet 8 nor VoicePulse have adopted a
similar strategy, and you might well choose to not select Vonage
so as to discourage such bad practices. Doesn't Vonage
understand that one of the things we hate about regular phone
service is the nasty mess of surcharges and taxes and extra fees
that go on top of each month's bill?
If you do remain interested
in their service, complete with surcharge,
they have three main service
offerings, costing $16.50, $26.50 and $31.50 a month (these
rates have dropped substantially between when I wrote the review
in August 03 and when I revised it in November 03, and have
dropped further by the time of the latest revision in June 04). The costs aren't
much different to what you'd pay for a regular phone line, but
they have an important difference.
As well as providing all
normal and premium phone services, they also include at least
500 long distance minutes within the US or Canada, and the more
expensive plan include unlimited long distance service. If you
use your phone much for calling long distance, you'll quickly
get tremendous value from a Vonage account.
In addition to the $1.50
extra fee, you also have a 3% federal excise tax (this is a true
cost) and, if you live in New Jersey, a 6% sales tax. No
other fees apply - yet.
If you're calling
internationally, Vonage offer moderately priced international
rates - for example, 5¢ a minute to most of Europe, and 6¢ a
minute to Sydney or Tel Aviv or Tokyo.
Vonage have a 24/7 toll free
service line and you can get friendly help to answer any
questions any time you need it.
Some Clever 'Tricks' with
I work for a company that
has me based in Seattle, more people in London, and more people
in Moscow. We do business with companies in New York. We can get
three Vonage accounts for our three different locations, and
then give them all local New York phone numbers. This means that
any of us, in any of the three different international
locations, could call to any of our other offices, or to
anywhere in New York, and it would be a local phone call!
It also means that the
Moscow and London offices can call to anywhere else in the US
and just pay the domestic US long distance rate (or get it
included for free as part of Vonage's monthly charge).
Another clever trick is for
people that travel a lot. Take your Vonage phone with you, and
plug it in to the hotel's broadband service. You can then make
and receive calls to and from your Vonage phone number, wherever
you are, and you're not paying anything to the hotel for phone
service. Your phone number is 'built in' to the Vonage box - it
is not physically tied to any specific geographical location.
Another clever trick is to
add a second phone number to your account, in a different area
code. It will still ring on your Vonage phone, but it enables
you to receive local calls from more than one area. You can also
add a toll free number to your account.
If you are using the phone
in a business setting, the business plans include two phone
lines rather than one. In theory the second phone line is
intended to be used by your fax machine, but of course you could
use it for normal phone calls, too. The Cisco box they supply
can support two phone lines, and if you want more phone lines,
Vonage will supply more boxes as you order more lines.
If you decide to completely
abandon your regular phone line, then Vonage will be able to
take over your old phone number and transfer it to their service
(although note that while Vonage's service can be accessed
anywhere the internet exists, they do not yet provide phone
numbers from all US area codes).
Better still, if you
subsequently move to somewhere else, you can still keep your old
phone number when you move. You now can truly have a 'lifetime,
anywhere, phone number'.
This is a very exciting new
product that is as simple and easy and good as it sounds.
A lower cost, and better
service, than regular phone service for people that have a
'broadband' internet connection (ie cable or DSL or dedicated
line). What is the catch? As far as I can tell, there is none!
Before choosing to sign up
for the Vonage service, you should compare it with the competing
services offered by Packet 8 and VoicePulse. Our
of comparative VoIP features can help you understand the
differences in the three products.
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29 Aug 2003, last update
20 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.