Internet Calling Rocks!Our intrepid reporter gave up regular phone service for voice over IP. Now he's hooked and saving big bucks. Here's his story.
Michael Desmond is a freelance technology writer based in Vermont.
My name is Michael Desmond, and I am an Internet phone-aholic.
About a year ago, I started looking into Net-based telephony services that let you place and receive phone calls over a cable or DSL modem connection. I didn't mean to turn my life upside down. I certainly didn't intend to drag half a dozen friends and family members into my alternative, digital lifestyle. But that's the way it turned out. Today, I am a man without a traditional landline.
And you know something? It's not that bad.
Consumer voice over IP services started springing up a few years ago, tapping into the growing number of homes connected to the Internet by fast broadband connections. Sign up with a VoIP service provider, and you get a little box that plugs into your cable modem or broadband router. That box talks over the Internet to the VoIP provider's servers, which in turn link to the public switched telephone network to connect calls to traditional landline and cellular phones. Plug a regular phone into your VoIP box and you get a dial tone, just like traditional phone service.
I first ran across VoIP thanks to my brother-in-law, who signed on with the Vonage service for his small business. His tale ended badly--more on that later--but I was hooked. Lured by the promise of sharply lower phone bills and powerful, Web-based controls, I decided to ditch my Verizon local and long-distance phone service in favor of Vonage, starting with my home-office phone.
One look at the math sealed the deal: My monthly phone bills were running about $75, but Vonage at the time was offering a 500-minute local and long distance dialing plan for $29.95 a month. It was a deal I couldn't refuse.
Risk Versus Reward
But moving from traditional phone service to VoIP can be like a North Korean refugee stepping into an American supermarket. There are so many choices that the mind simply boggles. Dozens of companies--many of them tiny startups--offer similar VoIP packages and equipment. Among the providers are Broadvox Direct, BroadVoice, Verizon VoiceWing, VoicePulse, and Vonage. At first glance, it can be tough to tell them apart. More important, it can be difficult to tell which services are reliable and which may be trouble.
And there's the rub: VoIP may be inexpensive, innovative, and just plain cool, but it can be a risk. Over the first six months, my Vonage calls at times produced annoying echoes, experienced momentary dropouts, and even suffered outages lasting up to 15 minutes. My uptime was still somewhere north of 95 percent, but compared to the always-on nature of traditional landlines, those wrinkles can be a shock.
My advice? If you're considering VoIP but are nervous, go with the larger providers. Vonage has the most subscribers by far, while AT&T CallVantage and Verizon VoiceWing are backed by established telecom giants.
Now, there is no guarantee that bigger is better, and glitches may be due to your cable or DSL service rather than the VoIP provider (and remember, if you go with VoIP, those multi-day cable outages could translate to multi-day phone outages). But at least bigger companies should stick around for the long haul. Smaller players, by contrast, could fold their tents or be bought out, possibly landing you in phone limbo.
If you just want to save a buck--and VoIP is all about savings at this stage--the best deals are with the so-called pure plays. Smaller VoIP specialists like Lingo and Packet8 sling all-you-can-eat local and long distance dialing for $20 a month or less. Some, like Lingo and BroadVoice, offer unlimited dialing to select countries for the same amount. Shop around, compare plans, and look for deals that can score you a free month of service or reduced rates for an introductory period.
A Tricky Business
If there's one thing I learned in my VoIP travels, it's that the technology makes the most reliable and simple appliance in your home--the phone--more complex. Over the months, I've updated firmware, moved around my telephony adapter, and noodled with configuration options. I've learned not to trust the Vonage simultaneous ring feature (which is supposed to route a single call to multiple phone numbers if I am on the move), and to occasionally reboot the adapter to avoid connection problems.
The good news is that VoIP adapters are getting better. Early models often struggled when connected directly to a modem, becoming confused by frequent port scans and other traffic from the Internet. Placing the modem behind a broadband router fixed the instability for me, but wiped out the useful Quality of Service features in the box that give voice traffic highest priority. Today, VoIP providers ship devices that combine a broadband router and analog telephony adapter in a single box.
Still, problems can persist. I know two people who have received Linksys adapters that suffer from an annoying background noise problem. One has already swapped out his device twice, yet cannot shake the line noise that makes calls hard to bear. He's likely to switch back to a landline after the embittering experience.
Other issues may also arise. Many users can transfer their current phone number to their VoIP account, a process called Line Number Portability. But the process is imperfect. A neighbor who switched both his home and office lines had one number switch through in two weeks, while the second took four times as long. My brother-in-law finally dropped his Vonage service after waiting on the transfer for months. The reality is that your mileage can, and probably will, vary.
Me? I was one of the lucky ones. My line numbers ported quickly, and I was able to solve my performance woes by upgrading a four-year-old cable modem. Since then, I haven't noticed a single issue.
In fact, the sailing was so smooth, I convinced my wife to switch our home line over to Vonage back in August. It's been a savings bonanza ever since. Thanks to an ongoing price war, Vonage today charges $24.95 for unlimited local and long distance dialing. We are saving about $100 every month on our combined phone bill, and I am totally hooked.