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Price Is Right For Using The Net For Phone Calls

May 1, 2002

By Ed Baig

What relatively inexpensive technology has been in homes for decades, works reliably most of the time, appeals to all age groups and is user-friendly? Need a hint? Everybody - and I mean everybody - can reach out and touch somebody with it.

The answer is the phone, of course, and dare I suggest that all of you by now have mastered the art of calling, without considering very often how these communications actually occur.

Which leads me to the subject of VoIP, industry jargon for "voice over Internet protocol." Almost two years ago, when I last devoted space to cyber-telephony, I intimated that I wouldn't start making calls via the Internet just because they were cheap or sometimes free. Then, as now, consumers could choose among an abundance of bargain-rate offerings from traditional phone carriers and telecom newbies. My feeling: Even if I might save a few pennies, why mess with something that wasn't broken?

To make Net calling the least bit worthwhile, it had to be convenient and provide audio clarity as good as regular phone connections. Back in 2000, the technology failed miserably on both counts.

Calls routed over the Internet have, pardon the pun, traveled an awfully long distance since those early days. And the results are extremely encouraging.

I've come to this conclusion after testing DigitalVoice, a Voip service from an Edison, N.J., upstart called Vonage (VON-edge). Vonage exploits broadband cable or DSL Internet services to route calls over the Net made with an off-the-shelf telephone. Callers need not dial extra digits.

As before, the chief selling point of Internet telephony remains inexpensive calling rates - for $39.99 a month (one-year commitment required), Vonage offers you unlimited local and long-distance minutes, plus features that usually command premiums on other phone services, including voice mail, caller ID, call forwarding, call waiting and three-way calling. Obviously, the more you use the phone, the better the rates will look. But the numbers appear attractive when you consider that, according to Yankee Group research firm, the typical monthly household local/long-distance phone bill in the USA amounts to $56.

Vonage may save you a bundle on international calls. For example, you can call London for a nickel a minute, Paris for 6 cents and Tokyo for 8 cents.

You can view call history and retrieve voice mail on the Web. And here's another nifty feature for people who want to make a hoity-toity statement: You can choose your own area code, even if you live outside the region. Vonage currently has a limited supply of area codes in New York, New Jersey and California, including Manhattan's prized 212. So if, say, you run a business in Iowa but have numerous clients in the Big Apple, you can give them your 212 number - it'll be a local call for them (and long distance for your Iowa neighbors). In any case, you have to get a new phone number as part of the service.

The voice quality on almost all my Vonage calls was excellent, certainly as good as my regular phone service and vastly superior to any cell phone connections I've experienced. On only two calls out of the many I made or received did I detect an echo or gain the feeling as I sometimes do on a cell that one or both of us must be calling from Mars. The ever-slight delay hearing touch-tone keys as I dialed was no big deal; as with any phone call, I was able to use those tones to remotely navigate through voice mail.

Setup was a cinch. I took an AT&T cordless telephone and connected it via the usual "RJ-11" phone cord to a small black box made by Vonage's partner, Cisco Systems. In turn, I ran an Ethernet cable from the Cisco box, supplied by Vonage as part of the service, to my own 3Com router that was hooked up to my cable modem.

If you don't already have a compatible router (which is necessary to run both your PC and your phone off of one cable or DSL modem), Vonage will sell you one for $25. Then you'll have to muck around with network settings on your computer.

The first time I hooked everything up, I waited two minutes, picked up the receiver, dialed 80# to identify the phone's IP address, and that was that. The next time I picked up the phone I heard an ordinary dial tone and was able to make a call, dialing 11 digits (1 plus area code plus the seven-digit number). If your phone has speed dialing, you can make calls that way.

In techie terms, you'll need a broadband connection with upstream speeds of at least 90 kbps; you can run speed tests at the Vonage site before you buy. Of course, broadband is a key reason the quality is so much better than when I evaluated Voip the last time using a dial-up modem. More jargon: Vonage also relies on an emerging technological standard called SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol.

To be sure, there are still hang-ups, and Vonage is marketing DigitalVoice as a terrific second-line option. Why not the primary phone? Computer networks are hardly infallible. When I was testing the service, the Vonage network went down for a spell, and I couldn't make or receive calls. I briefly also ran into audio problems - I could hear the person at the other end, but they couldn't hear me.

You also better hope that your Internet provider is up to snuff. My Cablevision cable modem service all too frequently crashes. When that happens, I often have to reboot my PC, and in the case of Vonage, I had to dial 80# again.

Yet another problem is that you can't dial 911, though schemes are in the works to start rolling out the emergency service by year's end. For the moment, your Vonage phone number will not be listed in any directories. Vonage also will not allow you to connect to 900 numbers and other "toll" area codes, as well as certain other codes listed at its site.

Is that any way to reach out and Net somebody?

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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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