Voice Over IP is coming at you whether you are ready or not:
Voice Over IP (VoIP) is an emerging technology for most large businesses today and it’s finding a way into your home more quickly than you may think. There are hundreds of VoIP solutions available to the United States household today, each ranging on a large scale of quality, service, expandability, and reasonable liklihood to stay in business long enough to see Christmas 2008. Many who read this are probably already utilizing a VoIP solution as their local and long distance provider.
Vonage in my opinion is the best marketed residential and very small business name, so I will review and speak on several Vonage characteristics for the benefit of your betterment in decision making.
I am a personal current user of the Vonage services including 3 phone numbers in service with them. For the non-tech, or non-caring tech - skip this particular paragraph and continue to the next. For those that would like to know: Phone number one rings to line 1 connected to a dedicated fax machine. A Linksys/Cisco WRT54GP2 services the first phone line. Phone lines 2 and 3 are voice lines connected to a Linksys/Cisco stand-alone PAP2 device. I will speak more to the line types later - for the purposes of this article, the remaining network architecture is not as important.
The number one question in your head and the head of any other pursant of the VoIP technology is “how well does it work?” There will be different answers based upon your bandwidth and overall connection quality. In my particular residential situation, the connection is solid through SBC Global DSL. There are four full-time computer devices connected with several other miscalaneous computers and TCP/IP components. I consider these part time - tivo, xbox, secondary computers, palms, ip camera, etc. I will do my best below to extend some of my personal experiences in a manner that benefits your decisions. I do not work for Vonage, and am not paid by Vonage or any other marketing affiliate for this article.
What is the cost?
At the time of this article, Vonage has four simple plans:
- 24.99 plan is for unlimited residential local and long distance calling anywhere in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico.
- 14.99 plan is for 500 minutes of residential local and long distance calling anywhere in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico.
- 49.99 plan is for unlimited local and long distance calling anywhere in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico for business customers.
- 39.99 plan is for 1500 minutes of long distance calling anywhere in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico for business customers.
Everything in Life has a Side that is POSITIVE:
Low Prices - Under 25 bucks for unlimited long distance within the U.S. and Canada is an amazing rate. The lower plan with 500 minutes is also quite good depending on your calling habits. If you think the overall call time will even be close, it makes great sense to spend the extra ten dollars for the unlimited plan, especially if there are multiple family members using the line. There are also other incentives to lower your already low monthly rate.
Voicemail - This is nice because you can check voicemail through your phone or from the internet via windows media player, or have the message delivered straight to your email. Okay, maybe that’s kind of geekish - but here’s the reason this is a positive: If you use a home phone answering system, this can not pick up when you are on a call and someone is on call waiting. If your internet service goes out, so will your vonage phone line, thus no answering system at home. These are two reasons (among others) that it makes sense to use this feature.
Call forwarding and SimulRing - This can be configured from the easy to use web console, and I’ve personally found great value in this feature. There are two options here - one is call forwarding. You can enable a line to forward to a different number (cell, office, any phone) after the length of ringing time of your choosing. Downside to this, the voice messaging services will be provided by the phone number you just forwarded to if you don’t use the vonage voicemail service which will automatically retract the call to its system. The other feature which I use regularly is the SimulRing, this unique service will ring up to six phone numbers of your choosing when your vonage line rings. So, someone calls me on my vonage number and at the same exact time - my cell phone is ringing with the callerID passed forward!! I can choose to answer the phone call at any of these locations and all other phones stop ringing. Very nice feature to provide your presence to your family, friends, or customers from anywhere in the world. Seamless availability - yeah, it’s that good.
Call Transfer - I have to admit that I love this feature. You can transfer your current call to anywhere or anyone within the U.S. and Canada. Lets say you are on the phone with someone and you need to hit the road. Just transfer the number to your cell phone and keep on going. Don’t stop there. Think of the possibilities. Since you have don’t have to pay long distance and you’ll probably sign up with the unlimited minutes - you can play switchboard for family and friends so that no one has to pay.
Caller-ID - Vonage fully supports caller-ID assuming your phone has it built-in. Past complaints of not showing callerID on call waiting has been fixed - so no issues here. (see more in negatives below)
911 Service - This is a topic of high debate, I know. You have to register this with Vonage by entering in your exact address and then Vonage will have any 911 calls go directly to your local emergency team responsible for your address. Typically not a big deal - just be aware of the service.
Bandwidth Saver - This allows you to choose to sacrifice sound quality for the phone by choosing to use less bandwidth. If you have a good broadband connection, you might as well leave this at full which is 90kbs. I leave mine full bore and have no issues with sound quality or remaining bandwith.
Network Unavailability Forwarding - This feature is a lifesaver and peace of mind tool. Of course, I have more to say about this below, so make sure you read the cons too! If your cable modem is not on or there is a network failure with your Internet Service Provider or Vonage, then your phone calls will automatically forward to any number of your choosing. I have mine set where it forwards to my cell phone upon a disruption through the vonage service - this way if there is a blip or oops in the system (my fault or theirs), I can still receive the calls to my cell phone instead of constantly wondering if I’m missing important phone calls.
Virtual Phone Numbers - You’ve no doubt heard plentyabout this. Neat idea - some will use it, most won’t. For those not in the “know”. You can purchase a virtual phone number for five dollars. The number can be the area code of anywhere of your choosing. For example: I can call an Ohio virtual number that you have set up. The number then transfers me to your real phone number. I call free of charge (if I’m living in Ohio), you still get the phone call - everyone seems happy. You can not make outbound calls on virtual numbers.
Real-Time Online Records - In case you want to see who called and didn’t leave a voicemail or who you or a family member has called in previous months, it is all accessible in real-time from the web page. They have a dashboard view that shows all activity of incoming and outgoing calls. This too has its problems, read below.
Take Vonage Anywhere in the world - You can travel anywhere that has broadband connectivity and hook up your phone and still call the U.S. and Canada for free. This is a neat idea if you want to take your calling and call receiving abilities with you.
Alright, I’ve said a lot of nice things about Vonage, but the truth with any emerging and rapidly growing technology is not complete without discussing some of the downfalls and shortcomings of the technology. Before any conclusions are drawn, I want to share with you some of the negatives.
And with Each Positive there is usually a NEGATIVE:
Dependent on Broadband/Power - You are completely dependent on having power at your house and no broadband outage. The Network Unavailability forwarding works greats if you have a cell phone or landline but it is probably not a good idea to have this service without at least a cell phone in case of emergencies. In these terms, your phone line will naturally be less reliable than your POTS (Plain Old Telephone System).
No 411 - There is no directory assistance available currently with this service. I personally never use 411 since the internet is the best way to look up phone numbers but this could be problematic for people who use directory assistance frequently.
Numbers not Available for all cities - Although Vonage is constantly adding local numbers to new areas, they may not have one for your city. You can still get the service if you don’t mind having a phone number outside of your local calling area.
Caller-ID Issues - The caller-ID for incoming use to have some problems, but this seems to be cleared up. The only “problem” remaining is that your outbound calls do not show full caller ID in the manner you may desire. Your phone number will be shown, but the associated name varies. The name for me usually shows up as my phone number a second time. I’ve heard others sometimes get the phone number with the name VONAGE in the caller ID. There are requests for actual names to be associated in the future - I hope this becomes available.
Internet Latency - Internet latency could affect the quality of your phone calls and it is possible to get the “tin can” or echo effect on phone calls especially if you are utilizing a great deal of bandwith on your network already. I have not run into this issue at the time of this writing but I expect it will occur at least sporadically just due to the nature of the internet in general.
Web Interface - While the concept is strong, the interface and response leaves a little to be desired. The configuration page is easy enough (Forward, SimulRing, E911, etc), but the rest of the dashboard is nothing too special. In addition, I’ve found the search queries do NOT return accurate results. I’ve had better luck viewing ALL history and searching with my browsers search for a phone number. Typically searching for a phone number with their tool yields no results - very frustrating and misleading.
Call Waiting - When receiving a call on the call waiting line, an awful screeching and beeping sound comes over the line instead of a casual beep. The sound is best mimiced by something R2D2 might give off. Very disruptive. You can of course disable call waiting if you wish - but be sure you have vonage voicemail setup, else you’ll miss the call entirely (this part is no different than a typical phone line to your house)
Vonage Support - I’ve dealt with Vonage support on three occassions, non of which are thought of fondly. Second-level support with vonage is hard to get to and first-level support remain pretty clueless. I’m not sure which country vonage is exporting their calls to, but it was certainly difficult to communicate each of the times I called. It was also difficult to comprehend the directions I was intended to carry out. This is not my only complain, the other problem is that they are (in my experience) strictly tied to their scripts. There is no customization of support help it is entirely scripted and you had better hope that your problem fits into one of their recorded issues.
Vonage is not for everyone. However, if you already have a broadband connection and have a fair amount of long distance phone calls then it may be a cost effective solution and give you peace of mind knowing you will not have to pay for long distance phone calls anymore.
I will not claim that the Vonage train has been perfect - infact in my first weeks of service the line condition was horrible, the connection was inconsistent, and the support did not seem very supportive. These issues seem to have worked themselves out and I have not had an issue since the time. The calls are crystal clear and the flexibility is nice. I think I joined during some growing pains as the website always had some sort of issue announcement posted. Today, I occassionaly lose connectivity on one of my three lines. A small pain, but it has never occurred during a call - and it always seems to rejoin itself nicely. I have had no issues when the phone line is seized - and this is a good thing.
For a home solution, the easiest type of setup in this case is a newer cordless system where you utilize a single base that can transmit to several different handheld units. These systems are very popular today. If you still wish to use your existing phones and phone locations, Vonage actually allows you to connect a Cisco ATA analog to digital phone converter to your existing phone(s). Your phone functions exactly the same as if you are using a regular POTS line provided by local carrier. You do have to dial the full 11 digit number for all calls but all features work the same such as caller-ID, call-waiting, etc. Some phones can be programmed (like mine) to automatically append your local areacode to all calls - this allows you to dial a normal seven digits when inside your local calling area.
If you have additional thoughts or personal experience you wish to share, please leave them in the comments. There is no way you would possibly read a complete review of every last aspect included with the Vonage services, so I have not written one. This is not intended to hit on every aspect of Vonage, these are some strong and weak points that I’ve personally come across and find somewhat ambiguous or undefinable without personal experience - I hope you find them helpful in your decision making.