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Vonage - Voip Telephone Service

August 29, 2003

By David M. Rowell

Did you know that your internet connection can be used for voice and even video messaging, as well as for web browsing and email?

A new service from Vonage now gives you an internet based telephone rather than a regular phone line based telephone. The internet based telephone has a regular telephone number, and can both place and receive calls to/from ordinary phones, everywhere in the world.

What is VoIP?

Voip stands for 'Voice Over Internet Protocol' and is a fancy way of saying 'using an internet connection for making telephone calls'.

Why is this a good thing when you probably have a perfectly good telephone at home (or in the office) already? The main benefit of Voip is very simple and non-technical to understand - it is cheaper than regular phone service, and in some cases can be completely free!

If you have an unlimited use internet account, then - in theory - you can make and receive free internet type phone calls, to anyone else in the world that also has a compatible type of internet phone connection. These days Windows even has two programs built in for free, allowing this type of communication (Messenger and NetMeeting).

Disadvantages of Pure Voip Services

Most of these services suffer from two very serious disadvantages :

They only work if your computer is switched on and the program running

They only work if the other person is also at their computer and has the same program loaded and running

They typically have a third disadvantage as well - sound quality can be uneven, and phone calls often have a lot of delay and perhaps a lot of echo, as well. It is very hard to have a naturally flowing conversation when there is a big delay between when you speak and the other person hears you - it means that you're either both talking over the top of each other, or else there are long silences while you each hesitate to speak.

Hardware or Software Based Voip

Messenger, NetMeeting, and most other computer talk/conferencing programs are software based.

That is, a computer program is used (along with your built-in sound card) to convert the conversation to and from computer digital format.

Better results are obtained if you have a separate standalone voice processing box. This gives more reliable and better quality performance, and neither interferes with the rest of your computer's operation nor relies on your computer for it to allow you to make and receive phone calls. Cisco have developed such a box - their ATA 186 family of telephone adapters - that is now available at low price.

Vonage - a Voip Hybrid

Vonage offers a wonderful solution to the traditional Voip disadvantages. It takes the normal Voip concept, enhances it by using the Cisco 186 box, and then, best of all, gives your phone a regular phone number that anyone can dial to, and provides a 'gateway' between the computer phones and all normal phones, everywhere in the world.

This makes your Vonage Voip phone functionally identical to all normal telephones, and it means that you can call any ordinary telephone user, who can in turn also call you. You are no longer restricted to only calling people at their computers, and you are no longer handicapped by poor quality conversations.

The Vonage service is in all ways identical to old fashioned phone lines from old fashioned phone companies. But it is better, and less expensive, too.

Ease of Installation

Generally, the more 'clever' the computer product, the more difficult it is to install and use, and the more unreliable it may be in normal service.

The Vonage product is probably the easiest thing I have ever installed. Indeed, it is so easy, I didn't need to read the simple short manual at all.

I simply plugged a regular phone into the phone plug, a network cable into the network plug, and a power cable into the power plug. I picked up the phone, and, incredibly - there was dial tone!

Scarcely believing it could be this simple, I tried dialing a phone number. It worked! I did not need to adjust or configure anything, either within my existing network (it has DHCP) or in the Vonage box, or in any other way. Truly this is a total 'plug and play' product that any of us can immediately start to use.

Making and Receiving Calls

Making a call is exactly the same as with any other phone. Pick up the handset. Dial the number - (including a 1 and then area code).

Receiving calls is also identical. The phone will ring, same as a normal phone. You can even connect a caller ID unit to the phone and it will show the number (but, alas, not the name) of the person calling you. Pick up the phone and start talking.

The service even offers you call waiting, call forwarding, voicemail and other services which most telco's will charge you extra for.

Voicemail messages can be received from your phone, or can even be emailed to you. An emailed voicemail message can quickly become quite large in size, however - a one minute message takes about 500kB if sent to you in an email.

Quality

I have used my Vonage phone extensively for over a month now. I've used it to test call myself on my regular land line phone, and I've used it to call people in small towns in rural Russia, and for many other calls within the US and internationally.

There has only been one occasion when the line quality was not excellent, and it was hard to know if that was a Vonage problem or a fault with the regular phone service that Vonage was feeding its call through to reach the final person I was calling.

In all other cases, voice quality has been excellent, and at least as good as with normal phone service. There has been no appreciable increase in delays on the line, and no annoying echo, line noise, or other problems with the line quality.

I used both the high-quality and the lower quality settings on the phone line. High quality can use a rather greedy 90 kbps of bandwidth, while lower quality uses 'only' 30 kbps of bandwidth. With the lower quality setting there was a bit more distortion on the other person's voice, but only the most sensitive ears would notice and be bothered by this.

Vonage recommend that their product only be used when you have a 'broadband' type connection to the internet such as a cable modem or DSL connection. Dialup service is more likely to have speech delays and may not have sufficient bandwidth for the Vonage service to work properly.

Reliability

One time I picked up the phone and there was no dial tone. I don't know what caused this, but I simply flipped the power off and on again on the Vonage box, and within seconds, dial tone was back again.

Apart from this one trivial problem, it has always worked perfectly. And because it does not rely on any of my other computers (other than to provide DHCP services) I can do whatever I like to other computers on my network and the Vonage phone service remains operational.

Costs

Vonage have four main service offerings, ranging in price from $26 to $50 a month. These prices aren't much different to what you'd pay for a regular phone line, but they have an important difference.

As well as providing all normal and premium phone services, they also include at least 500 long distance minutes within the US or Canada, and the more expensive plans include unlimited long distance service. If you use your phone much for calling long distance, you'll quickly get tremendous value from a Vonage account.

There is one very nice feature of the Vonage fee. It doesn't attract the same panoply of local, state, and federal fees that a regular phone account does. It is truly incredible the number of different fees that get added to a basic phone line's charge. With Vonage, you merely pay a single 'FET' charge of 3% (assuming you're not in NJ - if you are then you'll have to pay sales tax as well).

If you're calling internationally, Vonage offer moderately priced international rates - for example, 5˘ a minute to most of Europe, and 6˘ a minute to Sydney or Tel Aviv or Tokyo.

Service

Vonage have a 24/7 toll free service line and you can get friendly help to answer any questions any time you need it.

Some Clever 'Tricks' with Vonage

I work for a company that has me based in Seattle, more people in London, and more people in Moscow. We do business with companies in New York. We can get three Vonage accounts for our three different locations, and then give them all local New York phone numbers. This means that any of us, in any of the three different international locations, could call to any of our other offices, or to anywhere in New York, and it would be a local phone call!

It also means that the Moscow and London offices can call to anywhere else in the US and just pay the domestic US long distance rate (or get it included for free as part of Vonage's monthly charge).

Another clever trick is for people that travel a lot. Take your Vonage phone with you, and plug it in to the hotel's broadband service. You can then make and receive calls to and from your Vonage phone number, wherever you are, and you're not paying anything to the hotel for phone service. Your phone number is 'built in' to the Vonage box - it is not physically tied to any specific geographical location.

Another clever trick is to add a second phone number to your account, in a different area code. It will still ring on your Vonage phone, but it enables you to receive local calls from more than one area. You can also add a toll free number to your account.

If you are using the phone in a business setting, the business plans include two phone lines rather than one. In theory the second phone line is intended to be used by your fax machine, but of course you could use it for normal phone calls, too. The Cisco box they supply can support two phone lines, and if you want more phone lines, Vonage will supply more boxes as you order more lines.

If you decide to completely abandon your regular phone line, then Vonage will be able to take over your old phone number and transfer it to their service (although note that while Vonage's service can be accessed anywhere the internet exists, they do not yet provide phone numbers from all US area codes).

Better still, if you subsequently move to somewhere else, you can still keep your old phone number when you move. You now can truly have a 'lifetime, anywhere, phone number'.

Summary

This is a very exciting new product that is as simple and easy and good as it sounds.

A lower cost, and better service, than regular phone service for people that have a 'broadband' internet connection (ie cable or DSL or dedicated line). What is the catch? As far as I can tell, there is none!



 
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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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