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Ten and more years ago, a regular phone line was used to also carry computer data (using a modem).

Today, the situation has reversed. A high speed computer line (via cable or DSL or dedicated line) can be used for voice phone calls as well as computer data.

 
 
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Vonage - VoIP Telephone Service Review

A new very user friendly service from Vonage means that people with broadband internet connections no longer need any normal phone at all!

If you travel, or call long distance, your savings can become enormous.

Part 1 of a 7 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven

 

 

Did you know that your internet connection can be used for voice and even video messaging, as well as for web browsing and email?

New services from companies such as Vonage and Packet 8 now give you an internet based telephone rather than a regular phone line based telephone.

The internet based telephone has a regular telephone number, and can both place and receive calls to/from ordinary phones, everywhere in the world.

 

What is VoIP

VoIP stands for 'Voice Over Internet Protocol' and is a fancy way of saying 'using an internet connection for making telephone calls'.

Why is this a good thing when you probably have a perfectly good telephone at home (or in the office) already? The main benefit of VoIP is very simple and non-technical to understand - it is cheaper than regular phone service, and in some cases can be completely free!

If you have an unlimited use internet account, then - in theory - you can make and receive free internet type phone calls, to anyone else in the world that also has a compatible type of internet phone connection. These days Windows even has two programs built in for free, allowing this type of communication (Messenger and NetMeeting).

Disadvantages of Pure VoIP Services

Most of these services suffer from two very serious disadvantages :

  • They only work if your computer is switched on and the program running

  • They only work if the other person is also at their computer and has the same program loaded and running

They typically have a third disadvantage as well - sound quality can be uneven, and phone calls often have a lot of delay and perhaps a lot of echo, as well. It is very hard to have a naturally flowing conversation when there is a big delay between when you speak and the other person hears you - it means that you're either both talking over the top of each other, or else there are long silences while you each hesitate to speak.

Hardware or Software Based VoIP

Messenger, NetMeeting, and most other computer talk/conferencing programs are software based.

That is, a computer program is used (along with your built-in sound card) to convert the conversation to and from computer digital format.

Better results are obtained if you have a separate standalone voice processing box. This gives more reliable and better quality performance, and neither interferes with the rest of your computer's operation nor relies on your computer for it to allow you to make and receive phone calls. Cisco have developed such a box - their ATA 186 family of telephone adapters - that is now available at low price.

Vonage - a VoIP Hybrid

Vonage (and in similar style, Packet 8) offers a wonderful solution to the traditional VoIP disadvantages. It takes the normal VoIP concept, enhances it by using the Cisco 186 box, and then, best of all, gives your phone a regular phone number that anyone can dial to, and provides a 'gateway' between the computer phones and all normal phones, everywhere in the world.

This makes your Vonage VoIP phone functionally identical to all normal telephones, and it means that you can call any ordinary telephone user, who can in turn also call you. You are no longer restricted to only calling people at their computers, and you are no longer handicapped by poor quality conversations.

The Vonage service is in all ways identical to old fashioned phone lines from old fashioned phone companies. But it is better, and less expensive, too.

Ease of Installation

Generally, the more 'clever' the computer product, the more difficult it is to install and use, and the more unreliable it may be in normal service.

The Vonage product is probably the easiest thing I have ever installed. Indeed, it is so easy, I didn't need to read the simple short manual at all.

I simply plugged a regular phone into the phone plug, a network cable into the network plug, and a power cable into the power plug. I picked up the phone, and, incredibly - there was dial tone!

Scarcely believing it could be this simple, I tried dialing a phone number. It worked! I did not need to adjust or configure anything, either within my existing network (it has DHCP) or in the Vonage box, or in any other way. Truly this is a total 'plug and play' product that any of us can immediately start to use.

Making and Receiving Calls

Making a call is exactly the same as with any other phone. Pick up the handset. Dial the number - (including a 1 and then area code).

Receiving calls is also identical. The phone will ring, same as a normal phone. You can even connect a caller ID unit to the phone and it will show the number (but, alas, not the name) of the person calling you. Pick up the phone and start talking.

The service even offers you call waiting, call forwarding, voicemail and other services which most telco's will charge you extra for.

Voicemail messages can be received from your phone, or can even be emailed to you. An emailed voicemail message can quickly become quite large in size, however - a one minute message takes about 500kB if sent to you in an email.

Quality

I have used my Vonage phone extensively for over a month now. I've used it to test call myself on my regular land line phone, and I've used it to call people in small towns in rural Russia, and for many other calls within the US and internationally.

There has only been one occasion when the line quality was not excellent, and it was hard to know if that was a Vonage problem or a fault with the regular phone service that Vonage was feeding its call through to reach the final person I was calling.

In all other cases, voice quality has been excellent, and at least as good as with normal phone service. There has been no appreciable increase in delays on the line, and no annoying echo, line noise, or other problems with the line quality.

I used both the high-quality and the lower quality settings on the phone line. High quality can use a rather greedy 90 kbps of bandwidth, while lower quality uses 'only' 30 kbps of bandwidth. With the lower quality setting there was a bit more distortion on the other person's voice, but only the most sensitive ears would notice and be bothered by this.

Vonage recommend that their product only be used when you have a 'broadband' type connection to the internet such as a cable modem or DSL connection. Dialup service is more likely to have speech delays and may not have sufficient bandwidth for the Vonage service to work properly.

Reliability

One time I picked up the phone and there was no dial tone. I don't know what caused this, but I simply flipped the power off and on again on the Vonage box, and within seconds, dial tone was back again.

Apart from this one trivial problem, it has always worked perfectly. And because it does not rely on any of my other computers (other than to provide DHCP services) I can do whatever I like to other computers on my network and the Vonage phone service remains operational.

Costs - a Disappointment

Vonage is - regrettably - becoming more like a regular phone company or wireless carrier and less like a VoIP company, because now in addition to its basic rate, it has an extra $1.50/month 'regulatory recovery fee'.  Call it what you like, from our perspective as potential purchasers of their services, it is just more money we must pay every month, and shame on Vonage for not having the honesty to simply add it to their monthly charge.

Vonage says it has two reasons for adding this fee.  The first is that although Vonage don't directly pay any of the fees and surcharges and taxes that regular phone companies much pay, it says that the phone service it in turn buys from regular phone companies includes some of these costs, and so it is indirectly paying similar fees to those paid by the regular phone companies, and therefore needs to pass these same costs on.  This is rather specious reasoning at best, and if we all used the same reasoning, every product and service would soon become a mess of extra fees and surcharges.

The second reason Vonage says it charges this fee is as a nod to political correctness.  All VoIP companies are coming under increasing government scrutiny by various regulatory and taxing agencies, all keen to take a bite out of their revenues.  Vonage's point is that it is already - albeit indirectly - paying some of these fees already.  It doesn't want to be taxed twice, and by splitting out a notional $1.50 and showing it separately, it hopes to quieten the clamor for extra taxes to be added to VoIP service.

Although Vonage gives two reasons for adding this fee, in my opinion the largest reason is an unstated third reason - a chance to get another $1.50 in net income from every user, every month.  Shame on Vonage for doing this.  Neither Packet 8 nor VoicePulse have adopted a similar strategy, and you might well choose to not select Vonage so as to discourage such bad practices.  Doesn't Vonage understand that one of the things we hate about regular phone service is the nasty mess of surcharges and taxes and extra fees that go on top of each month's bill?

If you do remain interested in their service, complete with surcharge, they have three main service offerings, costing $16.50, $26.50 and $31.50 a month (these rates have dropped substantially between when I wrote the review in August 03 and when I revised it in November 03, and have dropped further by the time of the latest revision in June 04). The costs aren't much different to what you'd pay for a regular phone line, but they have an important difference.

As well as providing all normal and premium phone services, they also include at least 500 long distance minutes within the US or Canada, and the more expensive plan include unlimited long distance service. If you use your phone much for calling long distance, you'll quickly get tremendous value from a Vonage account.

In addition to the $1.50 extra fee, you also have a 3% federal excise tax (this is a true cost) and, if you live in New Jersey, a 6% sales tax.  No other fees apply - yet.

If you're calling internationally, Vonage offer moderately priced international rates - for example, 5 a minute to most of Europe, and 6 a minute to Sydney or Tel Aviv or Tokyo.

Service

Vonage have a 24/7 toll free service line and you can get friendly help to answer any questions any time you need it.

Some Clever 'Tricks' with Vonage

I work for a company that has me based in Seattle, more people in London, and more people in Moscow. We do business with companies in New York. We can get three Vonage accounts for our three different locations, and then give them all local New York phone numbers. This means that any of us, in any of the three different international locations, could call to any of our other offices, or to anywhere in New York, and it would be a local phone call!

It also means that the Moscow and London offices can call to anywhere else in the US and just pay the domestic US long distance rate (or get it included for free as part of Vonage's monthly charge).

Another clever trick is for people that travel a lot. Take your Vonage phone with you, and plug it in to the hotel's broadband service. You can then make and receive calls to and from your Vonage phone number, wherever you are, and you're not paying anything to the hotel for phone service. Your phone number is 'built in' to the Vonage box - it is not physically tied to any specific geographical location.

Another clever trick is to add a second phone number to your account, in a different area code. It will still ring on your Vonage phone, but it enables you to receive local calls from more than one area. You can also add a toll free number to your account.

If you are using the phone in a business setting, the business plans include two phone lines rather than one. In theory the second phone line is intended to be used by your fax machine, but of course you could use it for normal phone calls, too. The Cisco box they supply can support two phone lines, and if you want more phone lines, Vonage will supply more boxes as you order more lines.

If you decide to completely abandon your regular phone line, then Vonage will be able to take over your old phone number and transfer it to their service (although note that while Vonage's service can be accessed anywhere the internet exists, they do not yet provide phone numbers from all US area codes).

Better still, if you subsequently move to somewhere else, you can still keep your old phone number when you move. You now can truly have a 'lifetime, anywhere, phone number'.

Summary

This is a very exciting new product that is as simple and easy and good as it sounds.

A lower cost, and better service, than regular phone service for people that have a 'broadband' internet connection (ie cable or DSL or dedicated line). What is the catch? As far as I can tell, there is none!

Before choosing to sign up for the Vonage service, you should compare it with the competing services offered by Packet 8 and VoicePulse.  Our table of comparative VoIP features can help you understand the differences in the three products.

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 29 Aug 2003, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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