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Internet Telephony Cleans Up Its Act

March 15, 2003

By George Walsh

Among the promises of the Internet that just did't come to pass was that of cheaper, or free, long distance phone calls. Sure, Internet phone calls have always been possible, but the sound quality was so bad that few people ever got past the "gee-whiz" phase of calling their friends and relatives just to tell them they were calling over the Internet. With broadband becoming more prevalent, it was inevitable that someone would come to market with a better personal Voip product. Vonage thinks it has things wired with its DigitalVoice service. Digital Voice lets you make voice calls over a broadband connection using a regular household telephone. The service isn't free -- the base service price is $39.99 per month (plus a $29.99 activation fee) for unlimited calls within the U.S. and Canada. But for those who make a lot of long distance calls, it could shave a few bucks off the monthly telephone bill. In addition to the unlimited calling, you also get free call waiting, voice mail, call forwarding, caller ID block, the ability to pick the area code of your choice, and other features. International calls are also very competitively priced. A call to Australia from the US, for example, runs only six cents a minute, which is less than half of AT&T's current rate for the same call. You're not saving any money if the service doesn't deliver, however, which is what we investigate here.

The Hardware

In addition to a standard issue home phone and a broadband connection (both of which you presumably have already), you'll need the Cisco ATA 186 analog telephone adapter and the router that is supplied by Vonage when you sign up for the service. If you already have a network on site, you can hook the ATA 186 to your current router. If not, you can buy one from Vonage or search for a better deal. The Cisco ATA 186 analog telephone adapter, as its name implies, is a handset-to-Ethernet adapter that interfaces regular analog phones with IP-based telephony networks.


Installation is ridiculously easy. You simply connect the ATA 186 to your router with an Ethernet cable just as if you were hooking another computer to the network. Plug the ATA 186 into a power strip, plug the phone into the ATA 186 using a POTS phone cord, and you're ready to roll. There's no software to install. As an aside, if you're installing a router to accommodate the DigitalVoice system, get it installed and working before hooking up the ATA 186 and phone to make troubleshooting (or tech support) easier if you run into any problems. After everything is all hooked up, pick up the phone and dial 80#, at which point a voice prompt will announce the telephone's IP address. It's probably a good idea to write this down, although nothing I ran into in the installation process required that I know the phone's address. Hang up the phone, pick it up again and do whatever you usually do to get a dial tone, which should now be present.

Making Calls

To make a call, you have to dial the area code of the number you're trying to reach - even if it's local. That's a small tradeoff for being able to pick your own area code. You could be living somewhere in the Midwest and choose a big city area code that makes it look like you're calling from New York on the recipient's caller ID box. All the calls I made, both local and long distance, sounded as clear as they would on a POTS line, and the call recipients couldn't tell that I was calling over my DSL connection.

Service Features

As mentioned previously, the DigitalVoice Service has all the features of a POTS line. However, a few additional features are added. Besides being able to call in to a voice mail number to get your messages, you can also retrieve them online. After going to the Vonage website and entering both your service password and voice mail password, you can access a list of the voice mail messages that are waiting for you. Clicking on a message plays it through the computer's speakers via an embedded version of Windows Media Player. After listening to them, you can choose to leave the messages in your online inbox or delete them. This feature could have a number of potential uses. If you're away from a phone, you could use a connection at a kiosk, airport, or any other place that allows you to get online to check your voice mail. It's kind of like the voice version of Internet email (Hotmail, etc.), where as long as you are online, you can get your messages. Obviously, you can also check your voice mail while you're online using your own broadband connection if someone else is using the phone. The downside of this voice mail feature is that you have to enable cookies to get your messages, including first-party cookies, third-party cookies and session cookies. That's kind of a lot to swallow for the many people who want to limit - or at least control - the cookies that are placed on their machines.

Another interesting feature of the DigitalVoice service is "virtual phone numbers," which are secondary numbers that ring your primary Vonage phone line. These numbers, available for $4.99 a month each, let callers outside your local area call you for the price of a local call if the virtual phone number is in their area code. This feature could be useful, for example, if you live in one calling area, but do business in another and don't want your clients to have to pay for long distance. If you have lots of friends or family in a particular area code, you could offer them the same benefit.


As far as I'm concerned, the more ways we have to communicate, the better. Vonage's DigitalVoice certainly gives you all the benefits of a standard analog phone - if you have a broadband connection and make enough long distance calls to justify the price. The price is definitely reasonable even if you only make a small number of toll calls, but if you only make a few each month, you're probably better off using your cell phone's free night and weekend minutes.

For personal use, you can pick your communication options based on your own needs and preferences. Maybe DigitalVoice will fit into that configuration and maybe it won't. For business use, however, the service is more compelling and has the potential to save you more money, along with giving you more communication flexibility. If you happen to be somewhere where your cell phone isn't getting a signal but a broadband connection is available (an airport or hotel, for example), you could use DigitalVoice to make and receive calls (though smaller mobile equipment might be in order here). You can also check your voice mail without a phone and let business associates call you without incurring long distance fees.

As with everything, there is room for improvement. Having to turn on cookies is a turn off, and a way to store voice mail messages in folders like email messages instead of as a chronological list might be useful. In the end, however, it's a service that works well and may fill a communication need for some. Basically, if it will save you buckets of money, you'll want to check it out. If it's not financially compelling, however, it will seem like little more than an interesting toy. But as THG readers know, that's not necessarily a negative comment.

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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.

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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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