Mobile Computing: Voice Over IP

Feature: Voice Over IP for Mobile Professionals

When said out loud, "VoIP" sounds like something that should be quickly followed by, "Excuse me; it must be that burrito I ate for lunch."

But get used to it, because in the coming months, with AT&T and other companies entering the nascent market, you'll be hearing more about VoIP--short for Voice over Internet Protocol. And I'd advise you to listen, because the lower costs and portability of phone features that VoIP offers makes the technology a potentially compelling new telecommunications alternative for mobile professionals.

What the Heck Is It?

Put simply, VoIP technology converts the spoken word into digital packets that travel across the Internet (or any other Internet Protocol network), just as an e-mail message would. To prevent or minimize delays in a conversation, VoIP relies on high-speed network connections such as digital subscriber line, cable modem, or T1 lines.

Unlike earlier Internet telephony systems, VoIP doesn't require that you or the person you're calling sit at a computer to chat. Though VoIP systems differ, the one that I recently evaluated from Vonage Holdings lets you use any standard telephone--such as a cordless or two-line phone--connected to a Motorola VT 1000 digital phone adapter. The adapter, in turn, must be connected to your DSL or cable modem (or to a T1 line) via an Ethernet cable.

Why Should You Care?

VoIP offers lots of advantages for mobile professionals.

Portability. According to Vonage, you can use the Motorola phone adapter at any location that has a wired high-speed Internet connection, such as a hotel or a client's office. I didn't test the device anywhere but in my home office, but I can certainly see the potential benefits.

For instance, suppose you're traveling from Seattle to New York on business. By connecting the Motorola adapter to the phone and broadband Internet connection in your New York hotel room, you could receive any calls made to your regular office number back in Seattle. It's as if you've taken your phone system and services with you, including caller ID and call waiting. And your callers won't even know you've left town.

"So what?" I can hear you asking. "You can do that with a cell phone and call forwarding." True enough. But consider this: Long-distance and local calls that you make as well as receive in New York would eat into your cell-phone minutes. And with VoIP, you'd have more consistent and reliable voice quality than what a cell phone would deliver (more on that later). Even better, you could use the VoIP system when traveling abroad to send and receive calls without incurring additional charges, the company says--a potentially huge advantage for frequent international travelers.

Cost savings. At a minimum, Vonage's compelling rates demand consideration. You can make unlimited local and long-distance calls in the United States and Canada for a monthly fee of $35 for residential customers. At the moment, Vonage adds only $2.50 in federal excise and other taxes, though that may change down the road pending efforts in Washington to tax Internet phone services. So for a total of $37.54 per month, Vonage provides you with voice mail, caller ID (with name), call forwarding, call waiting, and three-way calling. For details on Vonage's three residential and two small business plans, go to the company's Web site.

By comparison, in my area (San Francisco), SBC offers unlimited local and domestic long-distance calls for $30 a month for residential customers. But that doesn't include voice mail ($8), caller ID ($6.17), call forwarding ($3.23), call waiting ($3.23), or three-way calling ($3.23). Add $10.69 (residence flat rate service) and local, state, and federal charges (about $8, in my area), and you're paying $72.55 per month--nearly twice as much as the Vonage plan.

However, other phone companies bundle some of those services with their unlimited long distance plans. AT&T One Rate USA, for instance, costs $42 a month and includes unlimited local and domestic long distance calling plus a choice of four features, including caller ID, call forwarding, call waiting, and three-way calling. Voice mail is an additional $5, so your total would be $47--plus the various regulatory and flat rate service charges. Assuming those charges equaled about $19, that brings AT&T's total to about $66, compared to Vonage's $37.54.

Also, unlike mobile phone service providers, Vonage doesn't require that you sign a contract. Vonage does charge a $30 set-up fee, however, though the company does not charge for the phone adapter.

Voice mail delivered via e-mail. Vonage subscribers can opt to have voice mail messages copied to their e-mail address as audio file (.wav) attachments. Or you could elect to automatically receive an e-mail notification when a new message appears in your voice mailbox. That's a nice convenience for those of us who check e-mail more often than voice mail.

Pros and Cons

In my tests, voice quality on the Vonage VoIP service was slightly below that of a traditional landline. For instance, I heard occasional, mechanical-sounding "burps" in the other person's voice, and no doubt, they heard a few in mine. But the quality was far superior to, and more consistent than, any cell phone service I've used. And with the attractive rates Vonage charges, a little hiccup now and then may be a worthy trade-off.

Adding the Motorola digital phone adapter to my home network went smoothly. But a colleague, PC World writer Jeff Bertolucci, encountered incompatibilities between his DSL modem and the digital phone adapters from Vonage and VoicePulse, another VoIP service provider. Jeff solved the problem by upgrading the DSL modem to the 2Wire HomePortal, a gateway/DSL modem. Jeff's VoIP review will appear in the May issue of PC World.

My experience wasn't flawless, however. I returned to my office one afternoon to discover that the Motorola phone adapter had simply stopped working. Rebooting my DSL modem, the phone adapter, and my computer brought the Vonage service back online. A technical support representative told me this problem should be fixed with the latest firmware upgrade, which he said would be automatically downloaded to my Motorola adapter.

Other shortcomings: The Vonage user guide is really a brochure in disguise, with more emphasis on explaining the service features than on how to use them. Online help at the Vonage Web site wasn't all that helpful either. Toll-free technical support is available 24-7, however.

You must include an area code for every number you dial, even local ones. Also, you may be unable to get a phone number in your own area code. But you can transfer your existing phone number to a Vonage account.

The Bottom Line

The two-week trial period, coupled with the conveniences and cost savings, make the Vonage VoIP service awfully compelling. So why do I hesitate? I don't mind making occasional business calls on my cell phone. But high-quality phone service is extremely important to my business, and at this moment in time, I'm not ready to potentially sacrifice quality on an ongoing basis.

Then again, call me in another month or two, and you may just hear me emit a little mechanical-sounding "burp."

Your Call

Have you tried Vonage or any other VoIP service for consumers or small businesses? If so, tell me about it.

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Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it.

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