To VoIP or not to VoIP

I’ve mentioned my history with voice over Internet Protocol phone services on several occasions. In 1999 I worked for a company that installed an enterprise call center unified messaging product that brought traditional phone lines into a Windows NT server and routed them across a local network, integrating voice services with email servers like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange Server. While this solution worked effectively for large companies requiring phone infrastructure for handling large call centers, the price started in the six figures range which meant home users had no hope.

Since then, I’ve dabbled in VoIP, watching new products come and go with limited success, as each new product failed to meet the expectations established by landline services from the progeny of Ma Bell. Even Vonage, the service I’m currently subscribed to, had some issues early on. When Skype appeared on the scene with a beta product in 2004, I knew VoIP finally worked well enough for people to consider it a viable alternative to traditional phone communications.

Skype is a decent software-based option for making calls between continents on the cheap or handling non-critical communication, but it falls down in the spouse acceptance factor (a benchmark any technology must pass to be used by non-geeks). It’s hard to find a wired phone for placing calls with Skype and more people expect wireless communication with their cell phones through the use of a Bluetooth headset. At the moment, the two options for making Skype calls are either connected directly to the PC via a headset microphone or connected to the USB port via a wired handset. European users have a slight advantage here because there is a wireless handset option though a distributor that only sells in the EU. Add to Skype’s frequently call latency issues producing an echo effect and the ability to find any user by searching the database for ‘*’ and I couldn’t recommend Skype as the legitimate successor to the Baby Bells.

Several services offer a cross between traditional landline phone service and the software based phone service offered by Skype. Qwest is trying to keep customers as they move from landline to VoIP by offering both services, although their site implies that the service is only available for small business customers. The Qwest service offerings include features like integration with email for additional charges on top of their core service. Verizon offers similar features for a flat $34.95 per month. Lingo may be the most comprehensive service for international calling, with several flat rate plans for anyone making large numbers of calls outside the United States and Canada. VoicePulse offers $24.99 pricing on its unlimited plan including free long distance, a traditional 10-digit phone number and a reasonably user-friendly Web interface. The main thing I don’t like about these services is the confusing assortment of hacks required to get the equivalent of a standard phone handset. In some cases, you get a wired handset that plugs into your home network. In other cases, you can use a standard phone, but you need to order hardware from a specialty vendor. All this leads to my reason for choosing Vonage.

Vonage offers competitive pricing at $24.99 per month in, which includes unlimited long distance in the United States and Canada. Service is available to Canada, Mexico, parts of the United Kingdom and the United States. The Web interface works exceptionally well, with configurations for routing voicemail to my email, which is far better than having to dial a number to listen. The idea of getting all inbound communications in a central repository was one of the features that attracted me to the concept of unified messaging back in 1999 when I installed the enterprise call routing systems. Combining Outlook with Vonage voicemail and news aggregation via NewGator, I have everything combined to a point that’s almost complete unification. But that wasn’t what won me over.

In addition to owning Vonage, Cisco also owns consumer networking company Linksys. Just recently, Linksys started carrying wired and wireless routing products integrated with ports to connect a standard landline phone to the Vonage phone network. Linksys also carries a standalone analog phone-to-VoIP converter. The prices for these things are cheap. In most cases you can find the standalone product for $9.99 or less after rebate at places like Office Depot, Best Buy, and Frys. For $24.99 I can connect my 900 mHz phone, a fax machine, a standard wired handset, a 2.4 GHz phone (which doesn’t play well with my wireless network) or any other phone compatible with traditional landline service. The service obeys all the rules of traditional service, like 11-digit dialing and 7-digit-dialing, as well as the now standard 10-digit dialing of cell phones. The call quality from Vonage is better than any landline service I’ve had in recent memory and the spouse acceptance factor of a service that looks and behaves like a “normal” phone is transparent.