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Internet telephony coming of age

Vonage provides cheap, efficient VoIP service -- when it works. Review by MSNBC's Gary Krakow.
Vonage uses a voice terminal box, such as this one from Motorola, to link up your high-speed Internet connection and your phone.
Vonage uses a voice terminal box, such as this one from Motorola, to link up your high-speed Internet connection and your phone.Vonage

The last time I tried the Internet for making phone calls it was in the early days of VoIP (voice over Internet protocol), when getting the right headset and completing the call were only half the battle. Trying to hear the party you were calling (and making them hear you) was a constant struggle. But a few years of Internet technological advances are like decades for anything else -- and I’m happy to report that VoIP is now coming of age. 

I’ve been testing an Internet-based phone system from Vonage, one of a growing number of companies that provide all-inclusive telephone services. The only difference between Vonage and the “wired” service you’re probably using now is that Vonage works via your high-speed Internet connection’s DSL or cable modem instead of the wires snaking through your home. (If you don’t have a high-speed Internet connection, Vonage’s service isn’t really for you.)

Here’s how it works: When you sign up for Vonage they send you a voice terminal box. You plug it directly into your DSL or cable modem via Ethernet. You then plug your computer, or computers, or router/switch into the voice terminal and plug in a phone. All your calls on that phone line are routed through the high-speed connection.

To make a call, you pick up the receiver and dial -- just like any other phone. However, you do always have to dial 1 + the area code + the number. You set your local 911 emergency area on the Vonage Web site.

It’s that simple. If you want extension phones on this VoIP line you could run wires throughout your home or set yourself up with any of the new cordless phone systems (from Siemens, Panasonic and Radio Shack, for example) that send their signal wirelessly to extension phones.

On the cheap
There are three tiers of Vonage residential service: "Basic 500," which allows you up to 500 minutes of phone calls anywhere in the United States or Canada for $14.99 a month; "Unlimited Local," which, as the name suggests, offers unlimited local and regional calls plus 500 minutes of U.S. and Canadian long distance for $24.99; and "Premium Unlimited" with unlimited calls anywhere in the United States or Canada each month for $34.99. There are rate plans for businesses, too. There's also a one-time $29.99 activation fee.

All service plans come with free voicemail, caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, call transfer, and three-way calling. Calls to other Vonage users are always free. You can hook up a fax machine to your Vonage line or you can order an additional fax-only line, with its own phone number, for an additional $9.99 a month. By the way, that’s what the second RJ-11 phone jack is for on the voice terminal box.

The new federal law concerning cell phone number portability applies here, too. You can transfer an old phone number, wired or wireless, to your new Vonage line. Or you can have Vonage give you a new number –- anywhere they provide service (most states and Canadian provinces). That means if you live in New York (212) and want your new Vonage number to have a Los Angeles (310) area code –- it's yours.

Vonage also offers something they call virtual phone numbers. Let’s say, once again, that you live in New York (212) but your parents/children/friends live in Florida. For an additional $4.99 a month you can get a number in the 954 area code which will ring your Vonage 212 phone. It’s like adding aliases to an e-mail account. Want three or four numbers nearly anywhere in the country? They’re $4.99 each. It’s a great idea if you want to have a presence in many cities –- and do it on the very cheap.

Want a toll-free 800 area code number? You can do that for $4.99 a month as well and comes with 100 incoming minutes, with 4.9 cents per minute after that.

Vonage has also just announced very, very low international rates: 2 cents a minutes to England, France, Italy or Hong Kong; 3 cents a minute to Germany, Japan and Australia; and 4 cents a minute to Israel and Singapore. Wow!

Here’s the best part. You can take your Vonage phone with you.

Traveling across country? Just plug your voice terminal and phone into a high-speed line and your phone number travels with you. You'll get calls just as if you're still at home People (not a great idea if you’re on vacation.) Going overseas? Just plug it into a high-speed Internet connection and your home Vonage service is there with you. Think of the money you’ll save calling home.

How it sounds
When the Vonage system works, it is terrific. Of the dozens of test calls I made (all over the world) only one call was of questionable quality. All in all, I’d say its voice quality is just as good as Alexander Graham Bell’s phone system. I consider that to be quite a feat.

At no time did I find that my computer use interfered with my VoIP phone calls or vice versa. I even tried to trip up my Vonage service by downloading large files on two and three computers at the same time to see if bandwidth usage would affect call quality. No problems there, either.

Unfortunately, life was not all fun and games during my tests. My voice terminal box installed properly and worked wonderfully for the first three days. Then problems began.

At first, the terminal box wouldn’t allow VPN/PPTP connections from my computers. A number of calls to Vonage’s friendly customer service number didn’t help but removing the voice terminal box from the cable modem/computer loop did. A few days later, I installed it again and everything seemed to work just fine –- for three days.

This time the voice terminal wouldn’t allow phone calls, although computer usage was unaffected. Turning the terminal box off and on helped -- sometimes. But soon, the box was turning itself off every morning around 8 a.m. Sometimes it would reset itself in three to four hours; sometimes it took 10 or more. 

I thought the problem might stem from the old cordless phone I was using so I bought a new one, but that wasn’t the problem, either.

Finally, I asked Vonage’s front office for help.  Almost immediately I received e-mail from someone who knew what to do. Within minutes I watched my voice terminal box reset itself after some remote commands. At the Vonage end, my phone line had just been switched to another computer port. My problems were solved. 

For a week everything was great. Then my phone service disappeared again. A quick e-mail exchange with the tech whiz revealed that my terminal box was receiving a software update from Vonage. Within five minutes everything was back to normal. 

I now believe that ALL my Vonage problems had something to do with receiving software updates. I also think my voice terminal box is not in perfect working order.

While Vonage does warn about the software updates in its literature, it's still baffling. Why doesn’t Vonage wait until after midnight to update terminal boxes? Customers shouldn’t have to endure outages –- even one to three minutes long -- during business hours. Three in the morning sounds about right.

Another warning: Unlike an old-fashioned telephone, a Vonage voice terminal plugs into AC for power. During blackouts and power interruptions your Vonage phone will not work. But, then again, your DSL/cable modem won’t work either, so it’s probably a moot point.

Recently I’ve read about security problems with VoIP systems –- software glitches which make current VoIP systems not as secure as old-fashioned, copper wired phone systems. However, this is a young industry and I believe its working very hard to fix any problems that arise.

In addition to Vonage, other VoIP providers such as Broadvox, Packet8, VoiceGlo, VoicePulse and VoxFlow offer Internet telephone service with slightly different features and prices. In addition, big companies such as AT&T have announced their intention to get into the game. AT&T's Call Vantage service is in limited testing now -- but expect to see a big nationwide push later this year.

Bottom line: Vonage provides a great service at a great price. I hope that as they work any remaining kinks out more and more people will look to use VoIP instead of their old wired phone service. Either way, as these technologies compete phone rates should come down and consumers should benefit.