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Vonage Voip Solution

June 4, 2004

By Joel Evans & Sam Evans







Intro
You've seen Vonage's website ads all over the 'Net (they've been dominating Geek.com, courtesy of our ad broker affiliate relationship), so by now you're probably familiar with the name and basic pricing details of the Vonage (pronounced "von-udge") Voice over IP (VoIP) service offerings. Vonage has been around for about 2.5 years and boasts over 250,000 customers, leading the field against some major (AT&T, Quest, Verizon) and "minor" (Net2Phone, 8x8) competitors. Vonage and its public relations firm want to double that subscriber number by the end of the year, which explains the media blitz and price cuts we've all been witnessing.



Unlike many cutting-edge computer tech phenomena for the home, your plain old telephone service (POTS) is often something you don't want to mess with, especially if you're toting a cellphone and/or smartphone as well. As a self-respecting geek you've almost certainly held a voice conversation over the Internet before, and you may have been unimpressed with the service quality. Broadband obviously makes that better nowadays, as does the improved equipment along most Internet backbones and in most ISP datacenters, etc., but Voip is still extremely new for residential locations. Still, something's keeping the vast majority of telephone users from ditching their monopolistic, old-style phone companies for what looks like a pretty sure-thing wave of the future.

Joel and I have been using the Vonage Residential Premium Unlimited Plan for a couple of months now, and we've been so impressed with the quality, ease of use, and pricing that we're signing up for Vonage service for both our residential and business needs. Read on to find out why.

Setup

Joel
I'd been hearing a lot about VoIP, and recently a fellow geek friend of mine was telling me about how this great new technology from Vonage would let me make Voip calls from my home. It sounded pretty straightforward. The company sends you a modem that you connect into your broadband router. After a few minutes and some opening of ports on the router, you're supposed to be in business. Read on to see how my experience joining the world of Voip really was.


Setup for multiple devices

I figured that since I had a router connected to my cable modem and a number of PCs hooked up both with a wire and wirelessly, I had a pretty complicated setup. Based on that, I immediately went to the website to look at the setup Vonage recommended for a person with multiple PCs. The website told me to hook the Vonage Digital Phone Adapter directly into the cable modem and then hook the router to the Digital Phone Adapter. Once that was done, I was supposed to hook the PC up to the router.



I tried this a number of times and couldn't get a dial-tone on the phone. So, I went to the Alternate setup for multiple PCs. This setup recommends plugging the router into the cable modem and then the Digital Phone Adapter into the router. Once that's done, you hook up a phone to the Vonage Digital Phone Adapter. This worked perfectly. Unfortunately, the website states that this setup doesn't make voice calls a priority on your connection, so the quality of service may suffer. Since I couldn't get the other setup working, that was my only choice.

Sam

I received a box containing a nice folder full of documentation and press materials, extra cables, and the Digital Telephone Adapter, in this case a Motorola VT1000 Voice Terminal (actually the VT1005).



The Motorola VT1005. The green light blinks in different sequences to indicate what the terminal is doing (e.g., downloading updates)

I was testing the "straight to single computer/cable model/no router" connection method, and started following the 9 steps on the Quick Installation Guide sheet. The instructions are very simple and easy to follow, stepping you through the cable connections and other nuances if necessary (e.g., PPPoE for DSL users). The longest part of the setup is the up-to-5 minutes waiting you're told to do while the Voice Terminal makes its initial connection and downloads whatever firmware and feature updates are available.


Setup for single computer


Back of the VT1005 with cables

Everything went smoothly, and when I picked up the phone I heard a dialtone. However, I noticed two things: 1) my computer wasn't able to get to the Web, and 2) when I made a call it seemed as though a connection was not made--I could dial my parents' house, but all I heard was ringing ... no pick-up on the other end. I unplugged everything and started again ... same thing. I checked the Vonage manuals and the Motorola manual but there didn't seem to be any answer. I did the unplug/reboot sequence again just to make sure I'd followed the proper sequence ... no change.

So, I called Customer Care and got connected to the most helpful support rep I've ever dealt with: John Crispi. Over the course of the next half-hour, John coached me through a huge number of diagnostic exercises and attempted solutions with a Dalai Lama-like patience. I stupidly forgot to give him my landline number before hanging up for the first reboot he suggested, but another call to the Customer Care line had me reconnected with him in no time (he'd been trying to call me back on the Vonage phone number which I'd given him, but, of course, that wasn't working yet). Oddly, while we were in the middle of that second call the Vonage line rang--it was my mother. She said that she'd picked up their phone when it was ringing, but there was no answer; so she called the number she saw on her Caller ID, and it connected to me. So I was apparently making outgoing calls without voice, and receiving incoming calls with voice. Odd.

Armed with this new info showing that the Vonage line was hitting the Internet, and having narrowed the trouble down to some kind of IP address problem, John asked if I could hold on while he consulted with the senior reps for next steps. While he was doing that, I rebooted the machine again ... and this time my ISP asked me to confirm the IP address of this new device I had connected to the cable line. I filled in the info it asked for, rebooted, and everything was working.

When John came back on the line I told him it was working, and we agreed that the Vonage documentation and troubleshooting areas should mention that some ISPs have to recognize the new IP address of the Voice Terminal before the service will function properly. Even that simple notice would have saved me (and John, I'm sure!) some heartache. But let me again thank John for all his time, patience, and help. If he's representative of the quality of Vonage's tech support staff, there's no need for anyone to worry about having problems with the service--they'll be resolved, and in an extremely courteous manner.

In use

Joel
The first call I made was to my parents--lucky for them that they're ALWAYS my first test call from any new device. ;-)



Joel's setup (from left to right): voice terminal, phone, router, cable modem

I can happily report that aside from wondering what number I was calling from (since I was using a different, Vonage-assigned phone number), the sound quality was perfect. At no time did I notice a degradation in quality on either end. In addition, I decided to do some heavy surfing while on the phone to test the throughput. Again, no latency issues.

One thing I did notice, though, was that my router was being hit pretty hard during my conversations. Thankfully, the voice quality didn't suffer a bit. I had heard stories from my friends of how they had to reconfigure the router to make Vonage and the ports it uses primary to improve the voice quality, but I didn't have to go that route.

I should also mention that my standard landline phone tends to have an annoying buzz occasionally that I've worked for years with the phone company to fix. Vonage has no such buzz, which makes it an even better sounding connection than the standard connection I pay monthly for.

Sam

Since this review is for geeks, I asked our Vonage spokesperson to give me a nice, geeky explanation of how the Vonage service works:

For an outbound call, the voice packets travel from the customer's Motorola device along the Internet and are pulled up with Cisco Border Routers through dedicated T1 connections at 1 of 3 outbound facilities. The router passes the packets off to Cisco Gateways (5400s or 5800s, large versions of the Motorola device), which changes the protocol from digital to analog. (The packets find the Gateway by looking for an IP address--disguised as a phone number.) The Gateway then passes the information to the PSTN switch, which is owned by a CLEC. The CLEC then passes the information to an IXC, which takes the call to its recipient.

For inbound, the call hits one of our other PoPs, depending on area code. So if someone in Chicago calls a Vonage customer with a 212 number, the call is sent to a switch in Manhattan where the 212 number resides. The switch then passes the call over to our Gateway, which changes the protocol from analog to digital. The Gateway then passes the packets off to the Border Router, which pushes the packets to the Internet through a dedicated T1 connection. The packets then find their way to the Vonage customer's Motorola device--by looking for an IP address--which changes the protocol from digital to analog.

Vonage recommends minimum upload/download speeds of 90kbps (you can test your connection via the site's link to Brix Networks' TestYourVoIP.com), and the service will work with Macintosh computers ("Vonage Voicemail works with Macs using Media Player 7 or QuickTime. Supported browsers are Safari and Internet Explorer 5.2.").

My first tests were with a very low-end Sony wired phone, so while the calls sounded okay they didn't sound as good as the landline connections. I'm positive the reduced quality of those early calls was due to the bad phone, not the Vonage service.



My setup, with junky Sony phone in the middle (my wife hates the clutter, by the way)

My wife and I then made some long distance calls, and we started to notice some oddities. At one point during a call to New Jersey I heard a packet break-up noise (like when Neo's Matrix signal is disrupted by the red pill), and my voice was echoing on the line. My wife's father said the sound wasn't too good on his end, and she heard the echoing as well. These problems only seemed to happen on long distance calls, so I asked a Vonage spokesperson if the quality problems were due to the packets having farther to travel. Here's the answer I got:

Sometimes packets may travel further for "local" calls than for "long distance" calls. Vonage routes calls to different locations based on best-quality route and then least-cost route. So a call in NYC to someone down the block from you may (or may not) actually go to California to hit the PSTN and then come back to NYC ... So there really is no long distance and local anymore. That being said, there may be some other characteristics of the calling patterns that are creating your experience, including time of day, weaker connections in the target area code, and the quality of your ISP.

That made total sense to me, and since the quality of the calls did improve when we hooked up a higher-quality phone, I think the problems were primarily due to the poor-quality phone.

One of the really nice things about using the Vonage service is that the customer website gives you some very nice details of (and control over) what you're doing with the service. You can see how many calls you've made, how long those calls were, what phone numbers they were made to (or received from), what your account settings and totals are, etc. Here are some screenshots.


The customer login at vonage.com


The initial page you see after logging in, called the Dashboard. That's all my recent incoming and outbound calls


Close-up of the call detail (I obscured the numbers, you sneaky telemarketers!)


Billing details, with all kinds of things you can change easily accessible on the right


Voicemail info

The Features menu, where you can customize at will

One of my favorite things about using Vonage was that I could have the service send me a .wav file of any voicemail message that was left for me. I tested it one morning on the way to work by calling the Vonage line at home from my cellphone and leaving a message. I got an e-mail less than 30 seconds later with a .wav attached; I opened it with Winamp and heard the message. This is very cool, especially for a business line or if you're traveling and don't have access to a phone (e.g., in a training).

But the most important aspect of using Vonage was that the vast majority of the calls I made sounded perfectly normal to the recipients, whose only confusion was due to an unrecognized number showing up on their Caller IDs. You can have Vonage port your existing phone number to a Vonage line (in select areas--you can check your number on the website), but I didn't do that because I had a test unit.

Features

Vonage offers an amazing variety of features, most for free (depending on your plan). Here's the list--I've included links to descriptions of the ones you may not be familiar with, but there are explanations of every feature on the Vonage site.




Quite a list, eh? And please note that you CAN get to 911 via Vonage, something I know a LOT of people worry about when they're thinking about turning off the standard land line.

While you can get these features from your local phone companies, there are charges associated with them. Vonage is including them in its low prices, which is very nice.

Joel played with some of the more "complex" features, and here's what he found.

3-way calling

Vonage offers a number of options with its service, including call waiting and three way calling. My experience with call waiting was just as expected; but with three-way calling I encountered a number of problems trying to get all of the parties connected. I finally did succeed, but it made me 15 minutes late for a conference call kick-off that I was in charge of. I'm still trying to determine if it was user error or a hardware error. Once the call was in operation, though, the quality was perfect, and at no time could I tell that I was using Voip instead of the traditional phone line.

Cordless phone use

As any good geek would do, I put the Vonage system through various tests, including hooking up my cordless phone to it. One would assume that hooking up a cordless phone should work the same way as hooking up a wired phone, but I did experience some latency issues occasionally while using the cordless. Perhaps the Vonage device was confused by the wireless communication occurring before it actually had to do its Voip work? Needless to say, aside from the occasional latency issues (which probably can be solved by making voice a priority on my LAN) the quality of the calls were superb, and it was difficult to tell that I was actually on a cordless.

Vonage to Vonage

Another great feature is the ability to call other Vonage users for free. Sam and I tried out this feature on a number of occasions. In our tests we did notice occasional latency, but I'm sure that either of us could tweak our setups to give Vonage priority to eliminate this in the future.

Pricing

Vonage offers three Residential Plans and two Small Business Plans, outlined on the Rate Plans Web page. Here's a quick breakdown:



Joel

As for price, Vonage can't be beat. I pay $55 a month for unlimited calling anywhere in the US, and that comes closer to $80 a month once the various taxes are finished being calculated. That package also includes three-way calling, caller ID, call waiting, and voicemail. A comparable monthly plan from Vonage is $30 and includes calling Canada and the ability to have your voicemail automatically forwarded to an e-mail address. That's enough of a reason right there for me to use it as a personal phone. Also, the Basic 500 plan for calling anywhere in the US and Canada for $15 a month probably covers the total minutes I use from a home line, so imagine that savings over my standard landline charges.

On the business side, a free fax line is included with some of the other plans. The phone companies will definitely have a hard time competing with that one.

The other nice piece is how cheap some international rates are. I've got a number of business contacts in Ireland, and I can call them for only 5 cents per minute. In addition, I tend to travel a lot so the cost savings of one call per month to another country made by my wife with Vonage will pay for the service immediately!

I've been so impressed with the quality and ease of use of my Vonage system that I ordered a number. Since my wife tends to use the phone a lot, $15 a month is a small price to pay for being able to make another phone call from the house.

Sam

Geek.com finally decided to test the Vonage service because of a realization Joel and I made this past March. We both pay $50ish per month for a cable modem connection, and we both pay about that same amount for a landline service, on top of cellphone/wireless plan fees. When I lived in Boston proper and couldn't get a broadband connection it cost me $25 a month for the bare minimum Verizon connection I needed just to use a dial-up connection or two, none of which ever gave me better than 44kbps. And setting up another account just to handle Geek.com business calls isn't cheap either if you use the land line folks. So what allegiance could we possibly owe the telecom giants if a scrappy upstart like Vonage could provide what we were looking for?

As Joel mentions, the prices are amazing. My wife and I find that we don't really use the phone much (500 minutes seems more than adequate), but we pay Verizon $50 each month so that we can make occasional calls to some of our friends who live only a couple of towns over but who are quasi-long-distance calls to the local phone company. That's $50 without a long distance service, mind you, and we have to pay lots more to call out of state, where a lot of our friends and family live. We can save $35 a month with Vonage, and get much, much more. How do you say no to that?

Conclusions

After talking with Joel and concluding my before and after analyses of what Vonage offers, the decision to drop the local phone company seems like a no-brainer for geeks and non-geeks alike. But what about the concerns people might have that keeps them from switching to one of Vonage's Voip plans ...

Sound quality

Both Joel's and my experiences were pretty free of trouble, and the problems I had were almost certainly due to the cheap phone I used some of the time.

Trouble with features because Vonage is a "new" company
We experienced small glitches here and there with some of the advanced features, but I kept thinking to myself, "Who cares if it takes me a minute or so to get a 3-way call going? I don't have that feature now and I wouldn't use it that often ... and it's free!" Maybe I'm settling, but I can't see why you'd pay more money to the phone company to have a trouble-free path to a feature you only use a few times a year.

911 access

Maybe this used to be a problem, but with a few quick Vonage settings you have nothing to worry about nowadays.
Power/connectivity outages

This one is harder to answer ... but not impossible. First of all, how many of us don't have cellphone nowadays? If the power's out in your house and/or you can't use Vonage because your cable modem's down, why not just pick up the cellphone and be chatting like normal? And honestly, how often is the power out in your house at all, let alone for long periods of time?

To me, the biggest issue was sound quality, and that just wasn't a disturbing factor in our tests. My wife and I will be waving goodbye to Verizon. (Can you hear that now? Good.) Since we use the phone so little the Basic 500 plan is where we'll start, and Vonage has made the plan upgrade process as easy as the local telcoms have, so there's no worry that we'll be without service if we have to move to the Unlimited Local plan. And even if we "splurged" and went to the Premium Unlimited, we'd still be paying much less than we were to Verizon and we'd get much more. I think most consumers will really like the Web functions (that voicemail to e-mail thing is great!) as well, and the FAQs and Support contacts are abundant and helpful.

Vonage is getting better and better, and if you've got and are paying for a cable modem already, why not save yourself some money and hop on the Voip bandwagon?

Ratings Defense
Vonage gets 4.5 Geekheads for Quality. The half-Geekhead came off because we had a few problems here and there with setup and service; granted, the problems were basically insignificant, but they were there, so the perfect score had to be withheld. Any sound quality or function glitches you may run into are massively outweighed by the cost/feature benefits you get with even the cheapest Vonage plan, and 8 times out of 10--even on my cheap phone--there was no perceived difference between using Vonage and using Verizon.

Vonage gets the full 5 Geekheads for Geekness. It's not often that adopting new technology with myriad features and excellent account control/customization will cost you LESS, especially for something as essential as a home telephone. Some of Vonage's advanced features (like the new Click-2-Call and SoftPhone offerings) are very geeky, and we still think getting a .wav file of our voicemail messages in your e-mailbox is right up there with liquid-cooling and Ultra High Definition Video.

Any service that gets the Chief Geek and the Chief Editor on board along with their families definitely deserves a Geek.com Pick!



 
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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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