The last time I paid a phone bill for a land line, I was promised $13.00 a line. Imagine my lack of surprise when the bill showed up at over $37 - and that only included CallerID and Call Waiting, and of course I didn't expect long distance to be included! I haven't used anything but my cell phone for over a year and half. Why would anyone in their right mind look at getting another land line and spend more money over the virtually unlimited local and long distance cell phone plan I currently enjoy? For the same reason I do everything - I do it for you. But to be honest, many people and businesses need more than a cell phone, so the need is there for both. So why spend more than you have to?
Voice over IP, or VOIP as the cognoscenti and geeks call it, lets you use your regular telephone over that fat broadband Internet pipe you've got running into your home. You can even port your existing phone number to VOIP. And if phone wasn't enough, ISPs like Verizon are going to be offering HDTV over IP capabilities with their rollout of Fiber to the Home. But, VOIP is reaching a point where it is described as cheap, and equally important, effective. So, we're here to test that claim out for you.
About a month ago we noticed there was increasing chatter about VOIP, QOS (Quality of Service), and integrated home networks. So, we picked up a few VONAGE products to test out. Vonage is currently the largest VOIP provider in the US with over 634,000 subscribers as of the end of March, are adding over 20,000 per week, and well on their way to a million customers by the end of the year. Founded in 2001 they have quickly risen to the top by keen marketing (think 'People do stupid things...' TV commercials), easy accessibility through over 8500 retails outlets, and great user feedback fueling word of mouth. I was looking forward to seeing just how well Vonage stacked up to my expectations and if they could convince me to keep the service on past our trial period.
Vonage uses Linksys as its OEM provider of hardware, which nicely fits into our area of expertise. Interestingly the PAP2 router is based on a piece of hardware by Sipura, a company that Cisco Linksys just acquired to expand its position in the consumer VOIP business. With software customized to Vonage's network requirements, the products reviewed here promise users a seamless integration into their new or current home and small business networks. We were provided with both the PAP2 and WRT54GP2 along with an account and phone number for each. ThePAP2, provides two phone lines when plugged into an existing network, and theWRT54GP2 integrates a Wireless-G router, 3 port switch, and 2 VOIP ports into one compact package allowing new network users to get up and running quickly. Vonage also offers theRT31P2, a wired 3 port VOIP router, which Simon will provide a review of in the near future.
This article is divided into two parts. Part one will look at our experience with vonage, VOIP, and the PAP2 hardware. Part two will cover the WRT54GP2. We'll look at its performance and how easily a new user would be able to deploy it at home or work. So, without further ado, our review of VONAGE VOIP.
Initial Impressions and Setup
Because our accounts were pre-setup with the hardware delivered, we didn't get the initial impression of a new user signing up for service, so we took care of that, short of finalizing the order for a new account. New users have the option of purchasing hardware at their local brick and mortar store or purchasing online at the time of sign up. With many stores offering the PAP2 or WRT54GP2 for free or very cheap after rebate there is virtually no added cost to implementing VOIP over the monthly cost. Of course, you do have to deal with rebates, but in the end, free isn't bad. Signing up online is quick and painless. There are several offers you can easily find online that entitles you to a free 2nd month of service - matching a pretty standard introductory offer among traditional phone companies - so far we're par for the course. We'll even make it easy for you - follow the link at the end of the article to get this deal.
First you are presented with the pricing plans, Home users can choose from either Basic - $14.99, offering 500 minutes, or Premium at $24.99 with unlimited call time. Small business options add a free fax line and are priced at $39.99 for 1500 minutes of $49.99 for unlimited. Additional time for either of the Basic Accounts is 3.9Â¢ per minute. Local, long distance, and even calls to Canada are included in your minutes. A table of other international rates can be found here. International rates seem to vary widely based on provider, so if you're interest lies across borders, I'll let you make the comparison to your current service.
Perhaps most shocking about these rates is the missing connection charges or contracts to get the good deals. Perhaps even more shocking is there aren't outrageous taxes, regulatory recovery fees, or surcharges. Personally I never saw fees and surcharges as anything but a way to advertise a lower price. I say, state the price needed to cover costs plus profit margin, let's be honest about what a customer is going to pay. Vonage does charge the FET Tax and that seemingly obligatory Regulatory Recovery Fee which total to 2.25. So you get away with $27.24 a month. NJ residents also pay a 1.50 sales tax for sharing the state with Vonage. Not too far off from the advertised rate of $24.99, and there aren't any contracts, month by month is the only way to go. I'd say that is pretty good truth in advertising and that alone ranks high in my evaluation.
Moving forward from selecting your plan, you are presented with the option to select whether you'd like to choose a new phone number or port your existing one. If you choose to create a new number, you get to select where you'd like it to be based. Whether you want a number local to your town or city or a number local to the grandparents, you have your pick. In fact, you'll have the option later of creating additional phone numbers.
All that's left is to select the hardware you'd like. Doing so is pretty easy - if you have an existing network that you're happy with, choose the PAP2 Phone Adapter. Choose the WRT54GP2 if you either do not have a network or have one you'd like to upgrade to include 802.11g wireless capabilities. The RT31P2 is a good choice if you'd either like a new wired network or the features of a PAP2 plus a few additional network ports. There is a one time $29.99 activation fee and $9.95 shipping charge for the hardware adapter.
I also called Vonage to test out setting up an account through a live representative and deluged the poor customer service agent with about a million of the typical questions any normal user might have before signing up. He was very considerate and easy to deal with. When I asked about costs he readily and accurately disclosed the final amount I would see on my bill. Without pressing he even offered to waive the $29.99 activation fee and include the first month of service free, making the offer essentially a 30 day trial for cost of shipping of the hardware. Regarding hardware, they offered to ship either a RT31P2 or PAP2 for just cost of shipping at 9.95. If I wanted the WRT54GP2, I was told I could pick one up at any major electronics or office store and complete account registration online.
Personally, I would probably prefer just calling and speaking with a rep as they were very professional and the possibility of having the activation fee waived may be worth the last call on your current land line. Now, your mileage may vary on the deals offered depending on promotion periods, but I did not prod for free activation, it was offered up front. But, if you are weighing your decision to switch to VOIP, take this into cost into consideration and consider it a bonus if you get a similar deal.
For comparison, I loaded up Verizon's web site to find out how much local and long distance service would cost. The Verizon Freedom package includes unlimited local and long distance calling to the US and Canada and 'Five Popular Features' which include Home Voice Mail(30 minutes), Caller ID, Call Waiting, Speed Dialing and Three-Way Calling. International rates appear to be cheaper on the average but do vary - a table can be seen here. All this for only $51.95. Add in a 'Subscriber Line Charge' of $6.25, 'Federal Universal Service Fund Surcharge' of $0.70, and a long distance version of the same at $1.46 and you're looking at $60.36 There is no initial setup charge that I could find.
So, comparing Unlimited Local & Long Distance plans to each other, without adding in additional features, (though Verizon still falls short), Verizon comes in at $60.36/month or $724.32/year. Choosing Vonage will cost you without promotional pricing, $29.99 activation + $9.95 adapter shipping + $27.24/month or a total of $366.82 for the year, almost exactly HALF the traditional land line solution. Of course, as you'll see, its not without its tradeoffs, but that's what makes weighing a decision so much fun - pros and cons!
What is a phone without features but a dial tone? Customers are all about additional features and so are traditional phone companies, yet another chance to nickel and dime the consumer. In addition to the 'dial-tone' charge of $13 with my original provider, I opted for the $9 feature package that included CallerID and Call Waiting. I shudder to think what adding Voicemail would have been like.
Vonage adds a number of features for free - they're all pretty much self explanatory except for a few.
Caller ID with Name
Free In-Network Calls
Take Vonage With You
Area Code Selection
Caller ID Block
International Call Block
I'll try to explain some of the more cryptic ones here:
Take Vonage with you - with the small size of the PAP2 its easy to take your phone number with you on business trips or anywhere you have access to a broadband connection. Moving? Your Vonage service will stay the same. Weeklong business trip? Take the PAP2 with you and move your office into your hotel room and never miss another important phone call. Going international? Even better, call back home for free as though it were a local call.
Free In-Network Calls - well known among cell phone carriers, its frequently a reason for people to choose a certain carrier. If the majority of the people you will be calling have one provider you can opt for a cheaper plan and add in the option for free in-network calling. Here all calls to any other Vonage customer, even if they are international are FREE and do not count against your minutes if you chose one of the limited plans. This alone piqued my interest as my LinksysInfo cohort is located across the pond and its nice to be able to discuss business over something besides IM and doing it for free is just sugar on top.
If you have questions on the others - there's a great feature explanation page at Vonage's site.
Now, Vonage isn't completely above so called value-added features either, but they are kept to a minimum. They offer directory assistance at 99Â¢ a call. Oddly, I tried calling directory assistance twice but was not connected to an operator the first time, but was still charged twice. I imagine a call to customer service - 800-VONAGE-HELP would remedy this, but this is something that needs to be addressed.
Other options that are available include:
Virtual Phone number - 4.99 - Allows you to have a number anywhere that rings to your existing line, making calls to you local for anyone in that area. Have a child studying abroad in Italy for the summer? Add a local Italian number and they'll have no reason not to call home!
SoftPhone - 9.99 - A software based solution that gives your a laptop a phone number for getting business done on the road.
Toll Free Number - 4.99 100 minutes, 4.9Â¢/additional minute - Allows you to add a virtual Toll free number on top of your existing account so that your clients can call you free of charge.
Fax lines - $9.99 for 500 minutes. Hook up a regular fax machine and use your fax line as though it were a regular land line.
Additional Voice Lines - also available if you need more than one. Pricing varies dependent on your plan choice.
Several times throughout my evaluation, I caught myself mouthing 'WOW.' Its fun to find neat features you wouldn't expect out of such a mundane product as a phone line.
One of my favorites is the option to forward voicemail to an email address. I thought it would be a good idea to setup a new Gmail account specifically for that purpose. From that point on, any voicemail you receive would not only be available through the Vonage Dashboard and traditional phone access but also through your email. With over 2 GB of free storage I could store literally years of voicemail. This can be enabled through the Voicemail settings by Email Notification and selecting 'Enable Voicemail Attachments.' Attachments are delivered near instantly and are encoded in standard .wav format and run about 600k/minute.
Also a great feature is the 'Vonage Dashboard.' The Dashboard gives you complete control over your account including complete call logs, billing information, voicemail settings and access, and other optional features. The Dashboard requires very little thinking to use and presents all the data in an easy to access format. Kudos to Vonage for making such a powerful yet simple tool.
At the beginning of our test, I posted one of the phone numbers to give our readers a chance to call in and share their VOIP experiences. The response was overwhelming, and I got to speak to many of your in person which was also a treat! Customer reports showed a generally positive with the only major complaint being occasional drop out when using high Internet loads such as downloading at the same time as talking. I couldn't tell a difference from a regular land line and the Vonage line sounded even better than when I was using my cell phone. Vonage to Vonage calls were even more impressive.
I tried out international calling by 'ringing' up the UK and speaking with Simon - Over the course of the 47-odd minute conversation, there were several times that I could hear a severe echo of my own voice, almost like a second long delay. Annoying is not strong enough a word to describe it. Its very hard to keep a train of thought going while listening to what you said a second ago. The problem did resolve itself each time within 45 seconds. I was not utilizing my Internet connection at the time but for VOIP, so the variety of possibilities could range from shear distance to software glitches. Simon shortly thereafter received his Vonage equipment and making a Vonage-to-Vonage call between the two of us eliminated all those symptoms and resulted in the clarity I previous had experienced with in-network calls.
Bandwidth Saver in the Vonage Dashboard allows you to choose three settings of 30Kbps, 50Kbps, or 90Kbps. I kept the default 90Kbps setting as I have a 6.0/768 Internet connection, but even with a 1.5/384, you should be able to run multiple lines simultaneously at highest quality. If you are concerned about prioritizing traffic, you may be able to configure QoS in your router to give VOIP traffic first priority. As we'll see, the WRT54GP2 comes enabled with this by default, simplifying the process and making the user experience as seamless as possible. A quick check for how many simultaneous high-quality lines you can support at once would be to divide your upload speed by 90 and round down to the next whole number - this is how many you should be able to support. Even though each adapter device can only support two lines, you can use multiple devices for 10+ lines if you're connection will support it!
Now I know this review has been pretty glowing so far, but Vonage is not without its faults. First and perhaps important, and certainly the center of much debate, 911 service is not enabled by default. You must manually turn on 911 support through the Dashboard. To do so you must provide a physical address to which the number will be associated. Because it is my impression that this service is targeted at younger middle income professionals and their families, you will undoubtedly have this service being used in many homes with children. If I or my children were to need to call 911 I would hope that everything worked right the first time. This could be a problem if someone took the ~30 days to enable 911 service like it did me. Enabling the service only takes a few seconds and could save lives, so MAKE SURE YOU ENABLE 911 SERVICE IMMEDIATELY!
That said, in the case of a power outage, Internet service outage or Internet problems, you will be without phone service. While a POTS phone line may stay in service through a power outage, provided you have something besides a cordless phone laying around, a VONAGE phone line requires power and an Internet connection. Missing any of these will leave you on the end of a dead line - not a comforting thought in the case of an emergency. But, again I am guessing that the majority of target customers will still have a mobile phone available in this situation.
Now, on the other side of the coin for those that will not use 911 services like business travelers using their Vonage number in a hotel room or as an additional line in their office, forcing VOIP companies to provide 911 services could be an extra cost. Perhaps a solution would be to address this issue at the time of signing up for service, whether online or with a live representative over the phone.
Operator Assistance - Simply put, there isn't any! I found it very frustrating when trying to dial internationally, not having done so, that there wasn't an operator that could help me make sense of the dozens of numbers I had to use to assemble an appropriate international phone number. So, don't try dialing 0, it won't you get anywhere. Account and service questions can be directed at 1-VONAGE-HELP and directory assistance can be reached by 411.
311 Services are being implemented as they come online around the country. 311 provides non-emergency access to a variety of local government services and should be added as available.
Part of the magic that enables VOIP is the 'broadband phone adapter.' Vonage makes three different options available to customers today. The PAP2 is a small adapter that lets you plug your phone into your existing network and is what we'll be taking a look at first.
The Linksys PAP2 is based on the reference design SPA-2000 by Sipura used by other VOIP providers. Each adapter tends to be customized in design and firmware for each provider. The PAP2 is customized to fit in with the emerging corporate image seen in the WRT54GC and RT042, dark gray vented plastic sandwiched between silver covers. Vonage branded the Linksys device with its logo right below Cisco's. Measuring approximately 4"x4" and half an inch thick, it is similar in size to the WRT54GC and stacks nicely with it. Like the GC, it also features holes for wall mounting.
If wall mounting or stacking isn't your cup of tea, the PAP2 has a removable base that adds quite a bit of heft to the setup and keeps the device from tipping over when a network cable, phone line, and power cable are all plugged in.
Power is provided by a 'universal' supply that works with 100-240v power systems and provides 5V and 2A. The power adapter features a wall wart design but keeping with Vonage's claim of portability, the pins are removable for easier, flatter packaging but perhaps also makes adapting to international power outlets cheaper.
On the front side edge are four blue LEDs for Power, Ethernet, Phone Line 1 and Phone Line 2. The rear edge has the corresponding ports. The Ethernet port is a standard 10/100 port and is connected with standard network cabling to your existing Internet connected network. Each phone port provides one plain old telephone port and one line per port.
Using the PAP2
Using the PAP2 couldn't be easier; one network connection and a phone into the phone port. After waiting about 2 minutes (Vonage suggests 5), the adapter will provision itself and you'll have a dial tone. I was concerned about having to set up firewall rules, but the adapter worked out of the box with my WRT54GS with stock both Linksys and aftermarket firmware set to defaults. If you'd like to distribute phone service to your whole house, its as easy as connecting the PAP2 phone port to an available phone outlet in your home. This will make a dial tone available to all the phones in your home, keeping with the effect of transparency to the ultimate end user, someone using the phone.
Click to View the entire Admin screen we do NOT have access to.
Other than plugging in the adapter, there's not much else to be done with it - Vonage has disabled access to the status page citing that they have 'no power users' that would need access to it. This immediately disables tools like Samurize plug ins that are available for the Sipura counterparts. It also means that any configuration must be done through the phone interface. The PAP2 is set to use DHCP by default, but if you'd like to assign a static IP, this must either be done through the interactive voice interface or your DHCP server.
Example of Samurize plug in for Sipura VOIP Phone Adapter by Digiblur.
On setting up options like voicemail Static IP, the included guides and Voicemail access card give you easy step by step instructions on how to use the voice interface and worked as expected. But again, short of recording your voicemail greeting, everything else should be set to go and in no need of modification.
Part One Conclusion
In my one month trial with Vonage VOIP I've found it provides a simple, inexpensive, and easy solution to phone service. Its not without its faults and shortcomings, but combined with pleasant customer service and, must I stress again, inexpensive price, I feel it a fair trade. I think the best praise I could give Vonage is simple - Short of the lower price and more complete feature set, I couldn't tell a difference from traditional phone lines. I think this is Vonage's target so that the service will appeal to everyone and not just those interested in high end, custom systems - they'll leave that market to the OpenSource program Asterisk. If you're looking for a way to save money every month on your phone bills - this is a GREAT way to do it. 4 out of 5 bars!
Vonage Rating 4 Bars
Regarding the PAP2 adapter, it does exactly whats its supposed to do, but for that, I'm also a little let down. By barring users from accessing the information page, Vonage users are left out of the loop of monitoring their phone line status like other Sipura users can. Still, it more than achieves its intended goals and makes VOIP implementation painlessly simple. 4 out of 5 bars!
PAP2 Rating 4 Bars
If you're interested in moving to wireless network, upgrading your existing one, or reducing the number of boxes, Vonage also offers the WRT54GP2, which we'll cover in part two of the article come back for that soon...
If you are interested in signing up with Vonage, send me a PM and I will send you a link that includes a free month for signing up online.
Please note: LinksysInfo.org has not been compensated for this review nor has it been influenced or guided by the manufacturer of the product reviewed. All opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily that of LinksysInfo.org, Linksys, Cisco or Vonage.