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Get Me A Line Online

December 24, 2002

By Paul Taylor

Over the years I have tried - and abandoned - quite a few services that claimed to offer reasonable quality voice calls over the internet for a fraction of the price of the plain old telephone service. Now I think I have found one that delivers the goods.

The service is Vonage DigitalVoice, provided by a New Jersey-based company of the same name (www.vonage.com). So far, in my tests, the service has surpassed Vonage's promises and my expectations.

The service works with any standard wired or cordless telephone, it does not require users to dial additional access numbers and the call quality is indistinguishable from that of ordinary phone lines. Also, most users will find the monthly service is much cheaper than their conventional phone bill.

As usual, there are two important provisos. First, you must have high-speed broadband internet access such as a cable modem or DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) or broadband wireless. Technically speaking, you need an internet connection capable of delivering 90Kbps in both directions. That rules out dial-up modems, ISDN lines and satellite- based services.

The second limitation is that, for the moment, the service is sold only in the US. You can use it elsewhere but a US shipping address is required in order to sign up. Vonage says some customers sign up to use the service overseas. It plans eventually to appoint overseas partners that can sell and support the service locally.

Those wanting to sign up for the service visit the Vonage web site and choose one of two service plans. The basic package provides unlimited local and regional calls and 500 "any time" minutes for long-distance calls in the US for Dollars 29.99 (Pounds 18.70) a month. Long-distance calls over the 500-minute limit are charged at 3.9 cents (2 1/2p) a minute and international calls are charged at competitive rates. Calls from the US to Britain cost 5 cents a minute, to Paris 6 cents a minute and to Tokyo 7 cents.

By comparison, Verizon in New York charges me 10 cents a minute for all regional and long-distance calls and 9 cents a minute for calls to the UK. My average monthly phone bill, including unlimited local and regional calls, a second line and taxes, is about Dollars 250.

The premium unlimited package from Vonage costs Dollars 39.99 a month and provides unlimited nationwide calls. Both premium and basic packages include free call waiting, voice mail, call forwarding, call transfer and other services that usually cost extra. Most of these can be customised from a password-protected section of Vonage's web pages, Vonage Dashboard, accessible to subscribers.

First-time users pay a Dollars 29.99 activation fee but receive a free phone adapter, or media terminal adapter. This small box, made by Cisco, the network equipment market leader, plugs into an existing cable modem/router device or DSL modem with a spare ethernet port using a short cable (supplied). If you do not have a suitable cable/ DSL router, Vonage will supply a Netgear router cheaply. Potential overseas subscribers should note the Cisco box comes with notebook personal computer style auto-detecting power supply that can be used anywhere with the right power plug adapter.

Most new equipment comes preconfigured, so starting up is just a question of plugging in the power supply and broadband cable.

Similarly, setting up the Vonage service requires no technical knowledge. Users simply plug the MTA box into the broadband modem/ router and attach a standard phone with a US-style telephone jack to one of the two phone sockets on the back of the box. There is no software to install and it took me two minutes to open the box and make my first internet phone call.

Once connected, callers use the service like an ordinary phone and calls made to their number are routed via the internet and the MTA box to the phone, which rings just as usual.

For outgoing calls, there are no awkward codes or special access numbers, no delays and no instructions to follow. It is possible to extend the reach of the internet phone line, for instance by plugging a cordless phone into the device, or using a wireless phone jack or a multiple line extension connector to plug in multiple phones.

Whether internet telephony is attractive to users depends largely on where they plan to use the service and the types of call they make. By my reckoning, a standard call plan from a traditional phone company in the US that includes unlimited local and regional calls plus 500 minutes of long-distance calls and the usual services costs from Dollars 80, compared with Dollars 30 for Vonage's basic package. Also, Vonage's extra minute and international call rates are cheaper. The service could be attractive to users outside the US, particularly if they want to use a US contact number or they make a lot of calls to US numbers.

For me, the Vonage service offers substantial potential savings as well as the convenience of a single bill for local, long-distance and international calls. But, being a bit of a coward, I am not ready yet to give up my traditional phone line - particularly since Vonage does not cope with emergency 911 calls.

Since its launch in March, the Vonage service has redefined the quality and ease of use of digital internet telephony. If it continues to grow at its current pace, it could pose the first real threat from this quarter to traditional phone companies.

Paul Taylor answers your personal technology questions at www.ft.com/paultaylor



 
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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 www.vonage.com/911 for details.

** Certain call types excluded.

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