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Internet Phone Service Not Just For Geeks Anymore

January 8, 2004

By Julio Ojeda-Zapata

With a little technical improvement, Internet-telephone service has my vote

I knew I wanted Vonage, or an Internet-telephone service like it, when I opened my e-mail program at work and found my personal voice-mail messages neatly lined up as clickable sound-file attachments.

Such services, which route users' voice calls through an Internet connection instead of the local phone company, aren't just for geeks who rave about WAV-file voice mail as their loved ones roll their eyes.

They have broad appeal because of low cost, both for standard calling and the oodles of add-ons _ call waiting, call forwarding, (asterisk)69, Caller ID and so on _ that are typically thrown in at no extra cost.

If Vonage can work out minor technical issues, it has a good shot at earning my business.

I spent a week testing Vonage (www.vonage.com) in my office and home. I have cable modems in both places for high-speed Net access, a requirement to use the service. It also works with phone-based DSL connections.

Setup is absurdly simple. Vonage gave me a phone number with a 651 area code, then mailed me a box called an analog telephone adapter for making Internet calls -- technically known as "voice over Internet Protocol" or VoIP.

I plugged the box into my office Linksys router, which lets multiple computers and other devices share my modem connection. I then plugged my phone into the box.

I was immediately able to carry on phone chats, which sounded so good I was willing to overlook annoyances such as needing to dial "1" plus area code to call people in a nearby cubicle or down the street.

Long-distance calls also sounded great. When carrying on a long chat with a family member in Europe, I soon forgot I was using a Net-phone service. My relative, who didn't know I wasn't using a regular phone line, never noticed anything different.

I called that person from home, but only after unhooking my iMac from my cable modem and plugging in my Vonage box. For reasons I couldn't discern, routers plugged into the modem wouldn't provide shared online access for the computer and box.

Vonage users won't need routers when using the service's new Motorola boxes, which last month replaced older Cisco models. Users can now plug their PCs or Macs directly into their Motorola boxes, which then hook up to their cable or DSL modems.

My connection problem disappeared when I switched from my original Cisco loaner box to a Motorola unit.

Digging into Vonage's add-on services, I developed an overwhelming urge to ditch my current phone provider.

While Qwest provides voice mail for a fee, Vonage offers it for free. I can call a local number to play back my messages, or pull up a Web page to see a clickable call list and pipe the messages over my PC speakers at work. Best of all, Vonage can send my voice messages as WAV attachments to any e-mail address.

The problem: My WAV messages were all but inaudible, even when I cranked up my PC's volume. That rendered this feature all but useless.

Other enticing Vonage features include:

Number options. I can move my home number to the Vonage service, or pick a new number with any area code. I can add a "virtual" number to my account, too, which means I can have a main number with a Minnesota area code and a secondary one with another area code. All calls go to the one box.

Mobility. The Vonage box hooks up to any high-speed connection, so I was able to use it at home and work. Users can take their boxes on trips across the country or the world, using them in relatives' homes or in hotels. Laptops can be used as Vonage boxes, too, once special software is loaded on them.

Call forwarding. Using a Vonage Web page, I can configure the service so it transfers calls to any U.S. or Canadian land line or cell phone. This can be set to work during Internet outages, too. If Vonage detects that my connection is down, it will route my calls to a cell phone or my work number.

Most add-on services are free. One exception, the virtual-number feature, costs $5 a month. International calls are extra, too, but they're generally affordable _ just a few cents a minute to places such as London and Sydney.

Vonage's standard call plans should look appealing to anyone who racks up big phone bills. A basic $15-a-month level provides 500 minutes for calls to anywhere in the United States and Canada. An extra $10 adds unlimited local calling. For $10 more, users get unlimited U.S. and Canadian calling.

Vonage also offers 911 service, but not precisely the kind regular phone companies provide. Read the fine print at http://vonage.com/features_911.php.

And investigate Vonage rivals such as Packet8 (www.packet8.com), VoicePulse (www.voicepulse.com) and Addaline (www.addaline.com). I know I will.



 
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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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