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Vonage Premium Unlimited: Say Hello To VoIP

Vonage In Print News

Say Hello To Voip

April 20, 2005

By Russell Shaw

Voip isn't just a bunch of talk-we put out the call to 5 services that are changing the way we reach out and touch someone.

For the last couple of years, I have been writing about-but more importantly using-VoIP phones. Voip is the common acronym for voice over Internet Protocol, a type of technology that makes it possible for you to make and receive telephone calls over the Internet rather than through your standard phone company landline connection.

If you're just hearing about Voip for the first time, it may be easy for you to dismiss both the technology and its communications value for you. It's really no different then when cell phones first hit the scene. Seems like that turned out pretty well (although it really depends on how you look at it). In fact, Internet-based calling has actually been around for more than 10 years, but the initial services were undependable at best, and snap-crackle-pop-with emphasis on the crackle-almost as a matter of course. And to make calls between computers meant both parties needed a PC microphone as well as the same brand of phone software.

Voip has changed everything. The quality is unsurpassed, and about as good as those placed through traditional phone wires. In VoIP, phone calls are routed over your high-speed cable or DSL (digital subscriber line) connection. With few exceptions (read about soft phones on pg. 58), you talk over your regular phone, which is hooked up to a PC. A broadband router, most of which cost less than $100, is attached to your PC as well.

We won't get too technical on you here, but just so you know, the "Internet protocol" reference in Voip describes the way in which packets (small groups of bits and bytes) are sent and received over the Internet. This packet transfer happens when you download a Web page or send and receive emails. The process also occurs with calls you make over the Internet, which are translated into packets of data and then reinterpreted back to sounds (and in some cases, video too) at your recipient's PC.

There are a couple of drawbacks, however. If your cable modem or DSL service goes down, so will your Voip connection. And although the technology is improving, Voip services still aren't perfect for emergency 911 calls-something you probably don't want to mess with.

All of this technology may sound expensive-but it isn't. In fact, most of the 400-plus VoIP-service providers in North America charge either a flat monthly fee (usually ranging from $19.95 to $29.95) for unlimited national and some international calling, or just a few cents per minute for each call.

Signing Up For Service

The signup and setup processes for these services follow a common, if not identical, model. Before you get started, you'll want high-speed broadband access. Voip calls won't work over dial-up because dial-up doesn't involve the exchange of Internet packets directly via the Internet, but through a phoneline that connects to it. To put it another way: Voip requires your phone to talk. If you only have a dial-up service, your phone modem will already be preoccupied and chattering away, making conversation just about impossible.

Most Voip services allow you to sign up over the phone or via their Web site. You'll be asked to provide some personal information, such as your zip code, and if the service is available in your city, you'll be taken through a series of screens where you enter your basic contact info, credit card data, and your preferred billing plan.

Many companies will also offer you a broadband router for rent or purchase. If you already have a router, you are probably all set. Still, some newer routers come with enhanced functionalities. If your router is more than two-years-old, think about replacing it with a newer model that is sold or provided by your new Voip phone company.

When you complete the sign-up process, you will be given a new phone number. This number will not replace your existing home number given to you by your local phone company. It will simply be the one offered by your new Voip provider. Your new number will work with your existing phone just as your old number does. For example, when someone calls you at your new Voip connection, your phone will ring just as if the caller dialed your existing home number. It's just that when the call travels to your phone, it will come to that same phone over your high-speed Internet service, not that copper wire connection.

About a week (or less) after your order is complete, the Voip equipment will arrive. Typically, this includes the broadband router and power adapter, a phone cable and an Ethernet cable. Of course, you'll also see a standard welcome kit. This usually has the installation manual and a CD to help you configure your setup, as well as cards that illustrate how to sign up for extra services such as voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, and enhanced 911 emergency services. Unlike more familiar phone companies, most Voip providers offer these provisions for free or for a very inexpensive price.

The Installation

In most of the services tested, installation was virtually identical. 1. Start by turning off your computer and the cable modem. 2. Connect one end of the Ethernet cable to one of the numbered ports on the back of the router. Then, connect the other end of the cable to the Ethernet port on the back of your computer. 3. Plug your phone into the phone port on the back of the router. 4. Power the cable modem back on, and just leave the computer off for now. 5. Connect the power adapter to the router's power port. 6. Plug the power adapter into a nearby outlet. When a connection is made, the Power LED (light emitting diode) should come on. 7. Turn your computer back on.

Next, I went to each service's Web site to complete the sign-up process. This meant configuring the router to work with the applicable service. The procedure involved entering a default local IP address (such as, for the Linksys router Vonage sent), and then parading through several screens where I entered a user name and password, and then selected an IP address automatically through Comcast (my current Internet service provider).

Now it's time for some actual testing!

Vonage Premium Unlimited

The most subscribed-to Voip service not affiliated with a traditional phone company, Vonage offers four basic monthly phone plans. These range from the $14.99 Basic 500, which includes 500 free monthly minutes to the U.S. and Canada, to the $49.99 Small Business Unlimited, with as many calling minutes as your voice can handle, to the U.S. and Canada.

I chose the $24.99 Premium Unlimited, which includes unlimited North American calling, but without a few of the exotic features of Small Business Unlimited.

I was, and am, quite impressed by some of the service features available on the Vonage Web site. One that specifically caught my eye was the Savings Calculator. This lets you estimate how much money you will save per month over traditional phone service. Sure, it's a marketing tactic, but a darn useful one.

The Premium Unlimited plan offers some standard calling features, plus other free features that are not available in some competing products. Voicemail Plus is the most interesting. With this feature, you can get your email messages played back to you, over your Voip connection. Another one worth mentioning is the colorfully named BlastMe feature. This rings several numbers simultaneously.

The ordering process was pretty straightforward, but did include a rather lengthy disclaimer noting the inconsistencies in which local jurisdictions are able to handle 911 calls placed from Voip phones. Availability of this information was rather buried in the Terms & Conditions disclaimer, and took some reading to reach. As I determined during the order process, Vonage's shining light is near-ubiquitous local number availability. If many of your callers are local, this could possible be your deciding factor when choosing service.

Arrival and installation of the Linksys router and associated components went smoothly, as did all of the calls I placed. While I was overall pleased, I deducted a few points from Vonage only because unlike some other services, they do not offer international minutes as part of their calling plans. International calls are inexpensive (three cents a minute to U.K. landlines, for instance) but some of that should be bundled in.

All About Soft Phones

You don't need a physical telephone to make or receive a phone call. Some Voip service providers offer a "soft phone" alternative.

A soft phone is a piece of software that, when you install it on your PC or laptop, takes on the physical appearance of a telephone. To use a soft phone, you will need four things: an account with a soft phone Voip service provider, an Ethernet connection, a mouse or other pointing device, and a microphone that you hook up to your PC or laptop's USB port. And, of course, you'll need the soft phone itself, which you download from the soft phone service provider's Web site.

Soft phones have some advantages over standard Voip setups. They are great for business travelers, especially those staying in hotels with high-speed Internet connections. Because the phone is software, you will be able to use it readily from the road-an attractive option considering that it is difficult, if not prohibited, to reconfigure your standard Voip account to work from the phone you are calling from.

Voip soft phone rates are generally cheaper by the minute than regular Voip rates are. Skype, the leading soft-phone-service provider by subscriber count, offers no monthly subscription rates and very low per-minute fees throughout the world. Some international calling is available for as little as two cents a minute.

On the other hand, most of the soft phone providers do not have established customer support capabilities. Users generally report phone call quality measurably below that of standard Voip service providers. And some soft phone companies include spyware within the download process. Spyware can slow down your PC, and in some cases, violate your online privacy. Also, in an age when flyers undergo extra scrutiny, do you really want to schlep around a PC microphone?

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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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