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Airport Extreme And Internet Telephones: Please Map My Port

January 21, 2004

By Gene Steinberg

When someone woke up and realized that the Internet could transfer phone calls as easily as anything else, a new industry was born. But it wasn't always easy. In the early days of Net2Phone, for example, you had to don an operator's headset or a separate mic and earphone to talk to someone, and the person on the other end had to be similarly outfitted.

Although that sort of service is still around, the latest round of Voip (Voice Over Internet Protocol) services work with your ordinary corded or cordless phone. As most of you know, the big boys and girls in the telephone industry are preparing to leap into this technology with a vengeance; some are testing it even as we speak. Users can bypass copper wires and harness the power of their broadband connections. Hence, the telecommunications companies can sell you broadband too, if you don't already have it.

Yes, traditional wires and switches are still involved, because today's Voip service can be used to call anyone in the world with a regular telephone. But a great part of the service bypasses such mundane connection schemes, so you can save money, lots of money. As some of you know, I've already talked to the folks at Vonage, one of the larger Internet phone startups, about their services on my radio show, The Mac Night Owl LIVE.

The neat thing about Vonage is that they have set up their service to operate in the same fashion as a regular land line. You have all the standard features, such as Caller ID, Call Forwarding, Voice Mail and the rest. But it's a whole lot cheaper, especially if you place lots of long distance calls. The company's current pricing structure will set you up with unlimited local and long distance calls to the U.S. and Canada for just $34.99 with all the features. This compares to such residential plans as MCI's The Neighborhood, which charges you $49.99, but limits you to the U.S. and only a handful of custom calling features. If you want the whole ball of wax from MCI, it costs lots more. Vonage also has MCI beat on providing calls to other countries, with rates less than half what the regular phone companies charge.

If you are on a budget, Vonage offers a basic 500 minutes in the U.S. and Canada for $14.99, and unlimited local and 500 minutes long distance for another ten dollars. There are also rate plans for small businesses, dedicated fax lines and so on. Calls to other Vonage customers are always free.

The basic installation involves hooking up a digital to analog voice converter to your broadband modem. The other end goes to your computer (Macs and PCs are both supported). The converter Vonage sent me for review, made by Motorola, comes with two standard analog phone jacks, so you can add that extra phone line if you need it. If you have lots of extra phones around the house, and you're handy with wiring, you may want to find some way to rewire the junction point of your home's phone connection to the Vonage converter. Otherwise, you'd want to consider using portable phones, or buy sets of those phone jacks that plug into the AC wall socket.

Things get a little more complicated if you are using a router to share your Internet connection to several computers. If your router, like most, offers firewall protection, you have to open up the proper ports to allow Vonage's servers to contact your phone converter. Otherwise, you can send but not receive calls. Then again, that might not be a bad idea for some.

Vonage's user guide uses the standard name for the feature: port forwarding, and it's known as port mapping with Apple's AirPort system. In order to get this setup to work in my home office, I had to choose one of the ports listed in the Vonage manual and set it up as a public and private port in the Airport Admin Utility. AirPort assigns a static IP address to the converter (the last three digits can be altered if you want), but you still have to connect your Mac directly to the voice converter's PC port and call up its browser interface to specify that address. That way, it can only use that address and not DHCP, which is the normal setting.

It sounds a lot more complicated than it is in practice. It really only took a couple of minutes to make it happen. The problem is that Vonage's manual has descriptions that do not quite jibe with the ones in the AirPort online manual. But if you compare the two, you'll get the picture. If not, Vonage's 24/4 technical support can probably straighten it out for you. However, an installer of some sort might be called for here, because less experienced users (even those on Macs) are apt to find this more than a little confusing.

Since most home users have only a single computer connected to the Internet, this port mapping stuff won't be a factor.

But the real issue is the quality of the connections, reliability and voice quality. After running this setup for over a week, and comparing it to my regular phone lines, Vonage comes up smelling like a rose. Sometimes quality even exceeded that of my local phone company, and I encountered few of the blips and burps that sometimes affect such services. It's fair to say that your mileage may vary. In any case, you have to give up some of your broadband connection's bandwidth to experience all this joy, and if you have a basic 256K DSL hookup, it might be a bit much. You can use Vonage's Web-based setup dashboard to adjust the system's piece of the pie from 30Kbps to 90Kbps, but you'll want to test the settings to see how they impact voice quality.

There are two remaining issues. One is 911 service, since your phone number is portable and can be used anywhere in Vonage's service area. Their solution is to have you register your home location with Vonage for 911 service. The other limitation is an outage, from your ISP or your power company. Vonage suggests you get a cheap battery backup for your broadband modem, router and voice converter. Of course that doesn't help if your ISP goes down. However, Vonage's solution to that dilemma is clever. You can have your calls automatically forwarded to another number if it can't connect to your phone system. This number can either be a cell phone, or another land line, and in the end you may want to order up the cheapest possible "lifeline" from your local phone company as a backup.

I'm certain the various glitches in Internet phone service will be solved over time and such services as low cost videoconferencing will be part of the picture. I've read about other companies that are already providing such features. The only question is whether such pioneers as Vonage will be able to survive once the major telecommunications fully embrace VoIP. I hope it does, because I'm very tempted to keep the service once the review process is over.

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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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