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The End User: Loud and Clear

January 13, 2003

By Lee Dembart

PARIS- If you've ever tried making telephone calls over the Internet using Net2Phone or Dialpad, you probably gave up because the connection was so poor. You also probably had to spend half of every conversation shouting "Can you hear me?" into the microphone. "Like two tin cans and a string" is how I described it in these pages three years ago.

Forget all of that. The technology has improved: Telephone by Internet has arrived, and it's fabulous. There's a lot of hype in the computer world, and there isn't much that knocks me cold. This does.

I have been testing a service called Vonage for the past 10 days, making phone calls around the world using a regular telephone handset hooked up to the Internet, and I have nothing but smiles all around. What's more, practically everyone I call says it sounds better than a regular telephone.

To use Vonage DigitalVoice ( you must have a broadband connection to the Internet, either by cable, DSL or Ethernet. It will not work with a dial-up modem.

There is one drawback for people living outside the United States, which is that Vonage is available only with a U.S. telephone number. That doesn't mean you can't use it from outside the United States. You can, and I have been using it very successfully from France. But your base phone number - your "home" number - will be in the United States, and for $40 a month you get unlimited calling throughout the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.

All calls to phones outside the United States - such as a call to your next-door neighbor in Paris - are charged at Vonage's international rates, which, to be sure, are generally lower than your regular phone company's rates for international calls. For example, a call from anywhere to London costs 5 cents a minute; to Paris or Sydney, 6 cents a minute, and to Tokyo, 7 cents a minute. New Delhi is 29 cents a minute.

So if you live outside the United States but make a lot of calls there, or if you would like to have a U.S. telephone number where people could call you - perhaps by making a local call - Vonage may be a good deal. If you live in another country and want to take advantage of generally low international rates, it still may be worth looking into. But if you live in, say, Germany, and all of your calls are in Germany, you should probably wait.

Here's how Vonage works: The key to it is a little box called an analog telephone adaptor (ATA) that's about the size of a portable CD player. It translates analog voice signals into packets of data that can be sent over the Internet.

When you sign up with Vonage, they send you an ATA box free. It runs on both American and European voltage, but you will need an adapter for the U.S. plug. You will also need a router, which is just a gizmo that allows two or more devices to be attached to the same cable or DSL line. Routers cost about $200, but Vonage will send you one for $39.99.

Vonage also charges a onetime activation fee of $29.99, and there is a $10 shipping charge. You don't have to sign a contract or agree to any minimum term, and there is a one-month money-back guarantee, according to Brooke Schulz, a Vonage spokeswoman. But after that, if you drop the service, there is a $40 disconnect fee. To sign up, you must also have a credit card billed in the United States and a U.S. shipping address.

Setup is essentially painless, and the instructions that come with the equipment are clear - a rare and notable achievement. Your broadband cable comes out of the wall and attaches to a cable modem. You attach your cable modem to the router and then run two cables from the router, one to the ATA and one to the computer. (If you have a Wi-Fi setup, the router lets you connect both it and the ATA phone to the cable modem.) Then you hook a telephone into the ATA, disconnect and reconnect the power to the cable modem to reset it, and push a couple of buttons. When you then pick up the telephone, you hear a dial tone, and you're ready to make a call exactly as if you were dialing it in the United States.

You can also travel with your ATA, which weighs 340 grams (12 ounces), and plug it into the Internet wherever there is an accessible broadband connection.

Vonage's basic plan costs $39.99 a month for unlimited U.S. calling along with free voice-mail, call waiting, call forwarding and other goodies. There is also a plan for $25.99 a month that includes 500 minutes of long-distance calls. The basic plan for businesses costs $69.99 a month for unlimited U.S. calling.

You also get to choose your home area code. For example, if you have friends and relatives in the New York area, you can choose to have your number in the 212 area code so those callers can make a local call to reach you. Or you can be in the 415 area code for San Francisco or 213 for Los Angeles. At the moment, Vonage has half of the U.S. area codes covered, and it is adding more.

As for international bases, Schulz said, "We are considering plans for that, but it is not a priority over the next year."

There are other companies that let you make phone calls on the Internet using the latest technology, but they all have drawbacks in my opinion. For example, Free World Dialup ( has no monthly charge, but you have to use a special five-digit phone number, and you can only make calls to other Free World Dialup subscribers. You also have to buy either a special Internet telephone or an ATA box. Free World Dialup also offers no special preferences for users or callers in the United States.

Of all these, Vonage also is the only one that has the look and feel of a real telephone.

"Ours is as close to a regular telephone as you can get," Schulz said. "You don't realize you're talking over the Internet any more."

I love it. The Vonage folks gave me a 30-day free trial so I could try out the phone. After that, I'm signing up.

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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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