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Internet Calling: Should You Answer?

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Internet Calling: Should You Answer? Ready Or Not

November 1, 2004

By Rik Fairlie

With Today's Cell Phones capable of doing just about everything but shampooing your poodle, the landline phone has become a quaint, sleepy little device. But Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone service is now being marketed in retail tech stores, and some believe it will place a wake-up call to the traditional telecommunications market.

Voip leader Vonage recently connected with Linksys ( and Netgear (www.netgear. com), and is selling the home-networking heavyweights' phone adapters from its Web site. Staples, Office Depot, Circuit City, and CompUSA are also selling the phone adapter/VoIP service packages. On-the-shelf exposure like this could consumerize the technology, but only if Voip is ready for consumers.

To find out, I tried Vonage's service using a Linksys phone adapter, and I was pleasantly surprised. Setup was brain-dead simple, call quality was indistinguishable from that of my landline Verizon service, and Vonage's calling features are intuitive and useful.

My $ 14.99 monthly plan offers 500 minutes of local or long-distance calls and a boatload of free services. A great deal, but remember you need a broadband Internet connection to use VoIP.

Setup couldn't be easier: I just plugged the $ 59 PAP2 phone adapter into my router and connected a plain-Jane telephone to the adapter. There was no software to install. Unfortunately, there was no dial tone, either.

Settling in for what I predicted would be an epic installation session, I checked my network wiring, disconnected and reconnected the adapter and phone, and waited. After a few minutes, I picked up the phone and heard that familiar tone.

Patience, it turns out, is key. When you first plug in the phone adapter, it connects to Vonage's site to register the number and download firmware patches, a process that takes several minutes. You can establish a number in any area code you choose. I live in 212, for instance, but I have family in 979; if I set up my account using that area code, all calls they make to me would be local.

Next, I noodled around Vonage's intuitive Web interface to configure voice mail, call forwarding, e-mail notification of messages, and 911 service. The 911 service is not the service as we know it, however. You can register your home location, but if you take the phone adapter on the road and call from some-place else, the dispatcher won't know where you are. You'd have to reregister your location, which takes a couple of days. Worse, suffering a power or Internet outage means no phone service. This could be dangerous to those who have sketchy broadband services or who live in areas prone to electrical outages.

Internet phone service comes with other caveats. It requires 64Kbps to 128Kbps of upstream bandwidth, and because broadband's upstream pipe is typically smaller than the downstream, large uploads from your network during a call can mangle voice quality. To test this, I e-mailed a 1.5MB photo while talking to a friend in Arizona; she couldn't detect a difference. I downloaded songs from iTunes Music Store, and, again, call quality was unaffected. When I uploaded a 6MB file, however, she commented on the distorted Tron-like quality of my voice.

This--and the larger issue of 911 service and potential outages--are the biggest drawbacks to VoIP. Less critical is the clutter of an additional box next to your broadband modem and router. By the time you read this, router/phone-adapter combo units will be available. Besides halting the ever-encroaching desktop-box proliferation, these units will offer Quality of Service (QOS) features that prioritize voice packets over data packets to ensure maximum call quality.

In the meantime, if you're considering Internet calling, here are a few pointers:

  • Make sure you have a reliable broadband provider.
  • Voip may work better with cable than DSL.
  • 911 via Voip is sketchy. Until this issue is resolved, retain an alternate means of reaching 911.
  • When setting up the hardware, leave it turned on for 10 minutes, then power down and restart your PC.

So is Voip really ready for prime time? If you can live with a few limitations and already have reliable broadband, I'd say definitely yes. It's easy to set up, the call quality is excellent, and the price is right.

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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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