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VoIP Makes Telephony Affordable

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Voice On The Cheap
Voip Makes Telephony Affordable For Anyone With A Broadband Connection

August 1, 2004

By Michael Cahlin

Forget everything you think you know about making telephone calls over the Internet. Today’s Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, has as much in common with yesterday’s lousy service as a Commodore 64 does with a modern PC.

Smarter technologies, faster Internet connections, more widespread use of wireless routers, and lower prices are calling consumers to digital dialing.

This growing popularity is causing fierce competition between traditional telecom and cable companies like AT&T, Qwest, Timer Warner Cable, and Sprint, and VoIP-only providers such as Vonage, Net2Phone, Packet8, and Skype.

It seems everyone is rolling out trendy Net-phone services. If for no other reason than is adoption appears inevitable and nobody wants to be the last one in.

ABCs of Voip

There are two types of Voip services. Ones uses a little adapter box connected to a broadband modem or router. Plug in any standard or wireless phone and you’re pretty much good to go. Your PC doesn’t even have to be powered up for this service to work.

The other type of service connects directly to a desktop or laptop, and requires installing proprietary software and attaching a special headset with a microphone. In both cases, you’ll need a high-speed Internet connection.

Voip works by treating your phone like a computer instead of a dumb terminal. In lieu of routing calls through a series of switches, calls are broken into audio data packets and piggybacked over the Net. Your phone number is associated with an IP address, allowing you to receive and send calls from any Net-connected computer on the planet.

Value-Priced Perks

One great benefit is that a la carte extras on your home plan, like caller ID, call forwarding, voice mail, and three-way calling on Voip standards. Additionally, because your phone number is not associated with a physical location, you can pick your own area code. You could live in Miami but have a Chicago area code.

Even cooler, some companies like Vonage offer additional phone numbers that route into the same line for a paltry $4.99 monthly fee. If you live far away from your friends, business associates, or relatives, you can get a second phone number in their area code, so they don’t have to make long-distance calls to reach you.

Because Voip providers currently operate free of F.C.C. line charges, state 911 surcharges, and other rules and regulations, international calls cost pennies per minute. That’s part of the reason why providers can offer packages of unlimited local, regional, and long distance calls for so little money. Packet8’s service, for example, is a dirt-cheap $20 a month.

How Do the Calls Sound?

Net-phones vary in price and performance, although most equal or exceed cellular quality. Audio depends on your Net connection. Most calls sound amazingly clear, but latency delays can result in echoes, clipped words, or muffled voices.

Voip calls routed through an adapter box are much closer to landline quality, but microwaves can distort the sound. Road warriors will appreciate the ability to unplug the box, bag it, then reconnect it to an Ethernet jack in an office or hotel room. Or, simply leave the box at home and route calls through a laptop. While disconnected, calls can be forwarded to your cell or answered by voicemail.

Some Hang-Ups

Voip calls on a PC don’t work quite as well. Downloading a file or playing a game in the background can affect the sound quality. So, too, can your choice of headset. Wired models keep you tethered to the PC, and Bluetooth headsets are tiny and controls can be a pain to manipulate.

Growing pains aside, there are other more serious drawbacks. For example, only a few companies let you dial 411 or 911, and those that do, like Vonage, charge extra for the service. Currently there is no universal Voip phone directory, so your number is unlisted although Skype users can search a company database for other Skype users. If your power or ISP goes down, so does your Voip service. And, of course, you’re responsible for troubleshooting.

Ditch the Landline?

The bottom line is that Voip is a young technology with gobs of potential. While there are compromises involved with jumping on the bandwagon now, early adopters will be rewarded with good-enough voice quality and savings so substantial that you’ll be tempted to kick Ma Bell to the curb.

Review: Vonage – Best of Both Worlds

Vonage currently offers more phone numbers in more area codes throughout the U.S. than anyone else, with both hardware and software-based services. There are three residential plans from which to choose, starting at $14.99 for 500 anywhere minutes in the U.S. and Canada, up to $34.99 for unlimited calls. International rates start at just 2 cents a minute to London, Hong Kong, and Rome; 3 cents to Sydney and Tokyo; and 4 cents to Singapore and Tel Aviv.

International calling rates vary by a penny or less between Voip companies, so better differentiators are hardware compatibility, software, and services.

Setting up the Vonage hardware service is simple. Visit the Vonage site, sign up with a credit card, and the company will send you a little black adapter box preprogrammed with your new number. Like any Voip service, you can pick the area code, but not your phone number. Connect the box to your broadband modem or router, wait until it connects to the Vonage server, plug in any household phone in the back of the box, and you’re done.

Unlike Packet8 and many other competitors, Vonage lets you add virtual phone numbers in any area code for $4.99 each per month. Each area code and phone number links into you main account. The Vonage adapter has connection for two phones, another distinguishing feature. If you want multiple phones throughout your home or office, however, you’ll need an expandable cordless system.

As with competing services, you can take the Voip box with you, although that means nobody at home can use the Net-phone. Vonage’s solution is for you to fork over an additional $9.99 per month for a software version, called SoftPhone that works on any Windows desktop or laptop. This solution would be fine if it tied into minutes from your hardware account. It doesn’t. You also can’t get the software version without the hardware service.

What you do get is a separate number and an extra 500 local and long-distance minutes before 3.9-cent-per-minute fee kicks in. Otherwise, the SoftPhone boosts every feature found on the hardware side, except the ability to dial 911.

Once the hardware version is installed, there’s nothing to it. Vonage’s voicemail service can be configured to send e-mail alerts when messages are received, and you can play them back online. A separate number is required to dial in and listen to your calls. Of course, you can simply connect a phone with a built-in answering machine to the adapter box and save yourself the aggravation, or just have the calls forwarded to your cell.

The software version on a PC is similarly slick. The telephone skin is intuitive and easy to use. Disappointing however, are extras like the phone back and menu of user settings, which are poor by MS-DOS standards, let alone Windows configuring the phonebook was clumsy, and features like speed dial and importing Outlook contacts were unreliable at best, and even when they did work, we lost them every time we turned off our PC. The company is aware of the problems and says new versions are forthcoming. Otherwise, Vonage is very impressive.

4 out of 5 stars

Hardware based phone plans starting at $14.99 per month, PC plans at $9.99 per month.

Hardware and software plans

Easy to set up

Virtual phone lines

Ability to dial 411 and 911

Poor software address book and add-ons

How to Make a Voip Call

Thanks to the emergence of Net-phones, the way we make calls may soon change dramatically. Area codes and even traditional telephone numbers may become as obsolete as operators and rotary dialing. Here’s how easy it is to get and use the Vonage SoftPhone on a laptop.

  • After signing up for one of three residential service plans, visit the Vonage Web site, log in, go to Features, and select “Add a SoftPhone Line.”
  • Select a state and area code and, after agreeing to the financial terms, you will receive e-mail confirmation with your new phone number.
  • Download, install, and configure the software.
  • Click the X-Pro Vonage icon.
  • When the login screen appears, click “login.”
  • When the SoftPhone skin appears, use a mouse or the number keys on your notebook to dial outgoing phone numbers. Note: You can also configure an address book and use features like speed dial.
  • Click the green phone icon to dial or redial a number. The red slider controls the volume of your voice, the green slider controls the volume of the person on the other line. Other features include a call timer, mute, call transfer, and conference call.
  • To hang up, click the red phone icon.


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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See for details.

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