As a Vonage subscriber for six months, I've found that Internet phone call quality can be wildly variable. One call is crystal clear, but on the next voices sound as if they're coming from the bottom of a swimming pool. Since I didn't have time to live with CallVantage for as long as I have with Vonage, I simply can't say whether its impressive performance holds up over time. In fact, the inconsistent call quality of VoIP is just one issue. To understand others, see the "Hidden Costs" sidebar. And if you opt to use VoIP and you have trouble, try these tips:
Check the connection: If your VoIP service is on the blink, first check your modem status to see whether your PC can access the Internet. When your cable or DSL access goes down, so does VoIP.
Upgrade your modem: Older cable modems--specifically, those that lack DOCSIS 2.0 capability--can struggle with efficient packet delivery. You may need a new modem to improve call quality.
Move the telephone adapter: To eliminate crashes try placing your network router between your modem and your adapter, which allows the router to block intrusions. To improve call quality, place the adapter between the modem and the router, where it can set aside voice-call bandwidth.
If Internet phone service can be so difficult, why are customers flocking to it? In a word: savings. For instance, Vonage recently reduced its $35 monthly fee for unlimited local and long-distance by $5. And for as little as $20 per month, you can find flat-fee, all-you-can-use local and long-distance dialing plans with advanced features like conference calling, call forwarding, voice mail, and caller ID. (Go to "Internet Phones: Clear Winners" to read our review of eight Internet phone services.) Similar services--though often lacking some advanced features--using a fixed-line connection from your local Baby Bell cost $50 per month or more.
More-advanced networking hardware should minimize future Internet phone service installation problems. Then we could look for one smart handset to do it all: act as a VoIP cordless phone in the home, as a cellular phone on the freeway, and as a Wi-Fi Internet phone while you're sipping coffee. But it will take another two to three years, VoIPWatch's Abramson expects, for that vision to be realized. "We are only scratching the surface of what is possible with Voice over IP," he says.