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Dialing Up A Better Phone

June 4, 2003

By David Lidsky

Dear Dave:

Why don't you ask to be assigned a column you like instead of filling your current column with such negativity and complaints???


Fred, let me explain if I can. I'm like the Incredible Hulk reviewing tech. I get angry when products with promise let me down (but without all the clothes-ripping and green muscles). Occasionally something doesn't disappoint, like the latest in Internet telephones. This one's for you.

Net phones, or as the technology is more formally known, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), aren't new. Basically what we're talking about is routing telephone calls through the Internet rather than over traditional telephone lines. What's new is that they no longer suck. I covered these way back in 1996 at PC Magazine, and to give you the skinny Zagat-style, conversations were "stilted and worse," and even the best products were characterized by "minimal dropouts." Moreover, in order to use one, callers had to hook up a microphone and headset to their PC, and the only people they could call were folks using the same product. Despite being marketed to both home and business users, these early Net phones attracted computer programming enthusiasts, ham radio operators, and sex-chat aficionados.

Seven years later Net phones are for more than freaks and geeks: They're bursting into the mainstream as EarthLink, the Internet service provider, is offering phone service over its broadband connections for $39.99 a month. And it's good! I got the welcome kit, and setup registered a measly 1.0 on my Curse-O-Meter (patent pending). After that I used my regular phone much as I normally would (except for the rash of "Guess where I'm calling from? The Internet!" calls that I made). The call quality was topnotch, as good as my MCI phone service. I did experience occasional echoes, but then I regularly get interference on my cordless phone too.

But what gives Net phones the nod is how routing calls through the Net enhances my use of the phone. The features included with a Net phone are competitive with Baby Bell plans--call forwarding, voicemail, and so forth--but what sold me was being able to manage them on my own. I can enable and disable any features and get a snapshot of calling activity with a couple of clicks online. Baby Bell plans don't let you do that--it's a phone call and "press 3 for ..." hell to administer any features. And I love the Net-friendly extras. I get an e-mail when I have new voicemail, and can listen to it online. And for $4.99 a month I added a virtual number to my account, which lets a business look as if it has offices in L.A. and New York, or in my case, lets my parents in Atlanta reach me in New York via a local call.

The big payoff from a Net phone comes when the bill arrives. At $39.99 a month for unlimited local and domestic long-distance calling, it's much cheaper than similar unlimited calling plans like MCI's The Neighborhood and Verizon's Veriations, which are $25 to $35 more once you factor in taxes and surcharges. Plus, Baby Bell plans are only residential. EarthLink's service (by a company called Vonage, which also sells directly to individuals and businesses) would nicely outfit a home office.

The Net phone I tested is just one example of the maturity of the technology. Covad, another ISP, is testing voice over DSL with four- and eight-line plans for businesses, with plans to roll out service to 12 cities by the end of the year. T1 customers will soon have the option of running 24 voice lines, Internet service, and faxing through that pipe. The same calling features, self-service, and 20% cost savings apply on the larger scale. It'll be a couple of years before it is widely available, and in that time, Net phones should only improve in quality and features. Wow! Liking something was fun. Maybe I'll do it again. I doubt it, but stay tuned.

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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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