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Product Reviews: DigitalVoice

June 1, 2002

By Staff

For quite some time there has been talk about offering residential voice services across broadband connections at rates less expensive than traditional PSTN while at the same time offering enhanced services such as call follow me and Web-based voice messaging. Vonage is just one example of several companies coming to market with products that provide high-quality, SIP-based Voip communications solutions with advanced telephony features.

Vonage offers unlimited national calling for a flat-fee of $39.99 per month. Vonage also does international calling at a reasonable per-minute rate. For instance, for the United Kingdom it’s $0.6/minute with London costing just $0.5/minute, and Moscow costs just $0.10/minute.

The Vonage architecture consists of three layers. The first layer, the network infrastructure, is comprised of physical equipment, such as routers and gateways, while last mile networks are under the purview of Vonage’s distribution partners, including MSOs (Cable Companies), NSPs (Network Service Providers), and ISPs (Internet Service Providers). Within the second layer (voice-enabling layer), Vonage has integrated core SIP-based Voip components, such as call routing and security, to enable quality voice communications and provide advanced features and applications. Finally, the third layer, the service management layer, is based on Vonage’s proprietary developments and provides service configuration, provisioning, account management/billing, and customer support functions. Also, Vonage provides phone numbers outside of your own area code that can provide businesses a local presence.

TMC Labs tested the Vonage platform from the end-user side. We had Vonage ship us a Cisco ATA 186 (H.323 and SIP compatible) endpoint that contains two analog ports for connecting up to two phones, although only one phone currently works with the Vonage service. They also shipped us the relevant account information. We should point out that as part of the Vonage service, Vonage gives you the equipment (Cisco ATA 186) free of charge, although there is a one-time $25 setup fee.

In addition to voice service, users are offered a bundle of traditional features including multiple phone numbers, number selection, dial tone, voice mail, call waiting, call forwarding, caller identification, and three-way calling. In addition to the flat-rate U.S. calling, competitive international rates are available for the most popular countries.

Other features include the ability to choose your own area code: Vonage can supply you with a ‘212’ or other popular area codes now; use any regular phone; manage all aspects of your account online through the Vonage Web dashboard; retrieve voice mail from Web interface or phone; view entire call history, both inbound and outbound; and online bill payment.

Operational Testing
We should first point out that Vonage addresses security and quality of service concerns by utilizing dynamicsoft’s Firewall Control Proxy that automatically administers the Aravox 3000 network services platform to achieve:

  • Access Control: Firewalling that will protect Vonage’s Voip infrastructure from hackers and denial of service attacks by keeping media ports closed until instructed by a SIP Proxy to open them.
  • Address Control: Dynamic IP address and port management to protect the identity of Vonage end-users by making private to public address translation in real time.
  • Path Control: Packet steering that enforces a consistent path for all media packets in order to preserve Vonage’s voice quality.
  • Usage Control: Bandwidth management that allocates bandwidth on a per-call basis.
In addition, Vonage’s proprietary SIP-thru-NAT technology makes Vonage DigitalVoice (VoIP telephony) accessible on any and all broadband connections, even through NAT’ed corporate or home firewalls often interfere with VoIP.
Installing the product was a snap - it took less than 60 seconds. We hooked up the Cisco ATA 186 to our corporate LAN with T1 Internet access and connected an analog phone with CallerID support to the ATA 186’s port "Phone 1." Next, we simply picked up the receiver, pressed the button on the ATA 186 and then pressed "80#" on the phone. A female voice told us the IP address was acquired by the ATA 186 from our DHCP server. Pressing "80#" also registered us onto the Vonage service allowing us to make and receive phone calls.

Outbound Call Test
We then picked up the receiver once again and dialed a phone number to a phone located in the lab. We answered the call and found the voice quality to be pretty good. Latency was quite minimal and there was no echo in the conversation. There was some choppiness at times, which was most likely due to high traffic on our leased T1 line that connects to the main office for Internet access.

Inbound Call Test
Next, we tried receiving a call on the ATA 186 by dialing the phone number Vonage assigned us (98-997-111). Almost immediately the phone connected to the ATA 186 rang. What’s more, it even displayed the CallerID of the phone number we called from. Essentially, the CallerID information was transmitted from Vonage’s network across the Internet to the Cisco ATA 186 unit that concerted the IP packets back into the analog CallerID signaling so the analog phone could display the CallerID info.

Call Conferencing
With the call still active, we pressed ‘flash hook’ on the ATA 186’s telephone to get dial tone and to place the first caller on hold. We dialed another number and were able to speak to a third party with the first caller still on hold. We then pressed the "flash hook" button once more, which initiated a three-way conference with all three parties. The voice quality was once again pretty good.

Voice Messaging
We made another inbound test call and this time let the voice mail system pick up so that we could leave a test voice message. After leaving the test voice message, we noticed that the phone now had a stutter dial tone when we lifted the receiver. We were able to access our voice messages both from the phone and the Vonage Web interface.

DigitalVoice Web Interface
When we logged onto our account via a Web browser, we had several options available to us. We could change features, such as setting a call forwarding number; we could retrieve our voice messages; and we could pay the bill online. In addition, detailed call records, including both inbound and outbound calls can be viewed from the Web interface.

Room for Improvement
We were disappointed to find out that although Vonage uses the SIP protocol leveraged both on the Cisco ATA 186 and across their own network, Vonage does not support other SIP-based clients, such as the hardware-based Pingtel phone or the software-based MSN Messenger. Supporting MSN Messenger or some other SIP-capable softphone would be especially beneficial. In theory, a user on the road with a laptop could connect to the Internet and have calls to their Vonage phone number routed to their laptop running the SIP-based client.

The voice mail system doesn’t allow you to create subfolders for storing and organizing voice messages; there is simply an Inbox and a Trash folder. Also, we couldn’t figure out a way of downloading voice messages to the hard drive. It appears streaming the voice message is the only allowed method.

Our final improvement we’d like to see is the ability to send faxes to the Vonage voice mail system. If the user lets the call go into voice mail, we would like to see the Vonage voice mail service detect that it was an incoming fax and then instead of recording a voice message it would capture and render it as a fax. Then the user could access his/her faxes from the Web interface, thus obviating the need for a physical fax machine connected to their ATA 186 for receiving faxes.

The fact that DigitalVoice utilizes Internet telephony - yet doesn’t require a PC and works with traditional analog phones, including cordless phones - is certainly a plus. Its ability to get through NAT firewalls and support for the flexible SIP standard make this a great product that will not soon be outdated. TMC Labs believes that Vonage’s DigitalVoice is a great solution for consumers and even perhaps SOHO environments that currently have phone bills exceeding $40 a month.

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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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