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Future Calling: A Voice-Over-Broadband Hands-On

October 23, 2002

By Matthew Miller

NEW YORK- In the archive of our Inside the Digital Den articles, in which we try convergence products firsthand, you won't find many examples of unqualified praise. Whether it's immature software, unwieldy physical design, or useless instruction manuals, we always find something that deserves constructive criticism. However, I'm hard-pressed to find anything bad to say about DigitalVoice, a voice-over-broadband service available nationwide from Vonage.

In fact, DigitalVoice is so good, it gives me new hope for the future of voice-over-broadband. When I reported on Vonage's service from a news perspective a few months back (see "Frontal assault," August 28, 2002), I expressed skepticism about the company's claims of no-brainer installation. That's the proper tack for an objective journalist to take, but now I'm happy to report that the service works like a dream.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that it took me less than five minutes to get the service up and running-from the time I opened the box until the time I placed my first call. The box contained a Cisco ATA-186, a device about the size of a broadband router (the ATA stands for analog telephone adapter). I simply plugged a standard telephone into the ATA (I used a corded model, but a cordless would work too), plugged the ATA's power brick into the wall, and ran the included Ethernet cable from the ATA to my existing broadband router. Within about a minute, the ATA had introduced itself to the Vonage servers, and I had a dial tone. And lest you think Vonage made it easy on me because I would be writing about the experience, the company assures me it's the same for users who sign up on their own.

Needless to say, the process would have been significantly more difficult had I not already had a cable-modem connection and a broadband router. Vonage provides decent instructions for setting up a router, but in my experience the average user's first crack at home networking will take some time and-more often than not-help from a knowledgeable friend. That said, Vonage's primary target customers are people like me, who already have broadband and home networks in place.

From there on, my DigitalVoice experience was so painless that I more or less forgot I was using an Internet-telephony service. The beauty of a SIP (session initiation protocol)-based system like Vonage's is that the phone thinks its connected to a normal telephone network. So you place and receive calls exactly as you would with a normal phone.

The service provided excellent call quality. Most of the people I talked to were unaware that I wasn't calling on a normal telephone line. And my wife and I agreed that the service pretty much lived up to Vonage's claim of being virtually indistinguishable from a landline. We sometimes "heard" silences (if that makes any sense) at times when no one was speaking. These silences could be disconcerting compared with the low-level background noise that reassures you that you're still connected during an analog call, but they didn't interfere with communication.

The service costs $39.99 a month for unlimited calls, and the ATA is included in the price. Then there's the extras Vonage throws in: call waiting, caller-ID, call forwarding, and voicemail. The best feature-something the incumbent phone carriers don't provide-is an online dashboard, which allowed me to view my call history, administer features like call forwarding, and even listen to voicemail messages on my computer (in Windows Media Audio format).

You know what? That's it. I've got nothing else to report from the hands-on perspective. If all products were this good, Inside the Digital Den would be boring. Vonage has hit a home run as far as its product is concerned. Anyone who makes a lot of long-distance calls, has broadband, and wants a rock-solid service should consider signing up.

Whether the company will succeed in translating this success into a viable business is another story, of course. But the fact that voice-over-broadband can be delivered this gracefully gives me confidence that such services will be successful over the long term.

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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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