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Make Calls On Your PC

Vonage In Print News

You Can Make Calls On Your PC

August 23, 2004

By Fred O. Williams

On a trip to Shanghai, Buffalo musician Edgar Henderson took along an electronic box about the size of a paperback. Plugged into a phone, the box allowed him to call friends in Buffalo toll-free.

"This is the only product - this and the Mach 3 razor - that I care enough about to endorse," he said. "I'm totally sold on this service."

It might sound like one of those illicit devices that can dupe Ma Bell out of tolls. But Henderson plays the upright bass, not the long-distance system.

His electronic box comes from Vonage, a company that uses the Internet to carry voice calls. It transforms Henderson's voice into digital "packets" and shoots them out over a high-speed Internet connection.

Residential "voice over Internet protocol" or "VoIP" is making the leap from a quirky, techno-geek accessory to a mainstream phone service. Major telcos AT&T and Verizon launched their versions of the technology in Buffalo in recent weeks, joining Vonage and other independent providers.

For people who already pay for a high-speed Internet connection (usually about $35 a month) voice over Internet can be a way to save money on phone bills - either at home or on the road, like Henderson. The major services offer unlimited local and U.S. long-distance calls for about $30 a month, plus taxes. Even cheaper is voice Internet software that lets you make computer-to-computer calls, but those programs don't try to be a substitute for standard phone service.

Why is Voip cheaper? Data networks work more efficiently than the conventional phone system, providers say. What's more, some Voip services don't charge customers the regulatory fees that come with phone service, but that practice is under review by the Federal Communications Commission.

Voip adapters connect your Internet modem with a standard telephone. As long as your high-speed modem is on, you can make and receive calls the usual way - the phone rings when someone calls you. The computer doesn't have to be on, only the modem.

But don't let the standard phone fool you - Voip only looks familiar. Its workings are very different from the network that Bell built. Think of it as telephone with all the quirks of the Internet.

"For now, it's still in its infancy," said Margaret Schoener, an analyst at Gartner Dataquest. She predicts 19 percent of households will make Internet calls by 2008. But many of them will keep a standard telephone line too, as a backup.

The reasons for hesitation are many. Voip won't work in a power outage, or when your Internet connection is down. It won't support more than one corded phone.

Also, you can keep your old number, but not your listing in the white pages. Sending faxes can be a problem.

And 911 emergency calls don't work the usual way, as Voip service agreements warn in bold type. You should reach an emergency call center by dialing 911, but it might be a back-up system for wireless calls, and it probably won't know where you're calling from. (You probably do know where you're calling from, but a baby-sitter or houseguest might not.)

Jillian E. Pritchard, a Vonage customer in Tonawanda, filled out a form to register for a kind of alternate 911 service. The company's system should transmit her call and her address to emergency personnel.

"I haven't had to use it, so I don't know if works," said the school secretary.

What attracted her to Vonage were the savings. Her bill is about $33 a month for all local and long-distance calls, including those to Canada, compared to her previous phone bill of $65 to $75. The Vonage bill doesn't include the $40 she pays for Adelphia high-speed Internet, but Pritchard was paying that anyway.

VoIP's differences from the phone system aren't all negative. Being a data-based service allows Voip to perform functions a regular phone never imagined, such as forwarding calls to another number or even to your cell phone. This on top of the standard phone features like voice-mail call waiting. As FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a recent statement, "VoIP is clearly not your father's telephone service."

David Straitiff would agree. The Buffalo entrepreneur set up his Vonage connection so that his home and work phones work together with his cell phone and even e-mail.
If someone calls his home number and leaves a message, his computer will alert him with an e-mail sent to work, or even a text message on his cell phone.

"At home I don't even have a land-line anymore," Straitiff said. The Voip service works over his cable modem.
Then there are those free calls that Henderson made from Shanghai, a product of the way Internet voice routes calls. Instead of sending calls to a specific address like the phone system, Voip relies on routing information transmitted by your adapter. Wherever on the Net that your adapter plugs in, that's presumed to be your home calling area.

So when Henderson took his Vonage adapter to China, calls back to Buffalo were seen by the network as local. Vonage encourages customers to use their adapter on the road this way, although the company says it can't be responsible for dicey Internet connections abroad.

"Wherever your home phone number is, that's where you are," Henderson said. At least as far as the system is concerned. "I've saved hundreds of dollars and hassles."


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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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