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November 2, 2003
By Alan Hoffman

Goodbye Verizon, Hello Vonage.

If my trial run with Vonage, an Internet-telephone system, is any indication, that is just what phone customers around the state will be saying during coming months and years.

Unlike earlier efforts to provide phone service via the Internet, Vonage's service doesn't sound like a toy walkie-talkie or require a special phone headset connected to a computer. A visitor to your house, picking up the phone to make a call, would never know the call was being made via the Internet, rather than a traditional line: You pick up a phone, hear the dial tone and place your call.



Vonage costs $34.99 per month for unlimited local and local-distance calls, along with a package of services, including caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding and even e-mail notification of voice-mail messages.

Verizon offers a package, with unlimited local and long-distance calling and other services, such as voice mail and three-way calling, for $54.95 per month, but the bill for the service, after assorted taxes and regulatory charges, is typically about $70, as I learned when I signed up for the service a number of months ago. With taxes and fees, Vonage's plan still comes to less than $40 per month with taxes and fees.

Founded during 2001, Edison-based Vonage has more than 60,000 phone lines in service. Aside from the $34.99 plan, Vonage also offers a $24.99 plan with fewer features and plans for small businesses.

My mission was to test-drive Vonage service at home. My initial bill was $124.67, including one month's service and the equipment required for installation. No special phone is required.

Sound quality was excellent, except for a very occasional echo on the line. I was talking to a friend for a half-hour when I told him the call was being made via the Internet. He couldn't believe it.

Vonage may not be for everyone -- not yet, at least -- for a number of reasons:
  • High-speed Internet access is required.

  • Setup isn't foolproof.

  • When you lose power or Internet access, you also lose phone service. (Vonage will automatically forward calls to a cell phone or other number in such cases.)

  • Vonage doesn't connect to your home's traditional phone wiring and phone jacks. (You can work around this by buying a cordless phone with multiple handsets.)

    The set-up process, in particular, may give pause to the technology-averse. Vonage does an admirable job providing simple, easy-to-follow instructions. But in order to connect your high-speed modem to both a computer and a telephone adapter provided by Vonage, you must install a piece of equipment called a router. A router essentially lets multiple devices -- in this case, your PC and the telephone adapter -- share your Internet service.

    Installation was a relatively painless process for me, but because of the varying requirements of Internet-service providers and computer-operating systems, others may encounter problems, especially when configuring the router. A 14-day money-back guarantee lets you try the service without much risk.

    Beyond the potential cost savings, Vonage highlights the constraints and limits of traditional phone systems. With Vonage, you have lots of flexibility in how you manage your service.

    Here is one simple example: If you're away from home, you can choose to listen to voice-mail messages as e-mail attachments or by logging onto your Vonage account via the Web. An e-mail will notify you when you have a message, with the caller-ID information displayed in the subject line. You can be at work, or at a cafe with wireless Internet access, and pick up your messages without even picking up a phone.

    This sort of flexibility extends to other features, too. You are able to choose the number of seconds your phone rings before voice mail picks up. You are able to add a fax line for just $9.99 per month.

    When you sign up, you are even able to choose a phone number from another area code, such as 602 (Arizona) to 802 (Vermont).

    One particularly interesting option allows you to travel with your phone service. You can disconnect your telephone adapter and plug it into a high-speed Internet line at another location -- a Shore house, say, or a hotel room in Paris or Prague -- and receive calls there (yes, at your same phone number) and make them (without any additional fee).

    Then there is the sheer rush of having a phone operating via the Internet -- a rush, that is, for those interested in avoiding the phone company or using the latest technology. I admit to falling into both categories.



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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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