AT&T's CallVantage: Excellent Phone Service on the Cheap
Tired of being nickeled and dimed by your local phone company? I am. When I realized that I was paying more than I had to for my basic, local landline service, I decided the time was right to test out one of the slew of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services that are popping up like mushrooms.
Most VoIP companies offer feature-laden packages, which include unlimited local and long distance calling, plus extras like voice mail, call forwarding, and online access to your account. But how do you know which company offers reliable service and tech support? After all, an Internet phone can involve fiddling with your network settings.
My editor asked me to try out AT&T's CallVantage Service. I figured that if anyone knows phone service, Alexander Graham Bell's original telco should. (Of course, I kept my landline phone service running.)
Like many other VoIP services, such as Vonage and 8x8's Packet8, AT&T promises unlimited calls anywhere in the United States and Canada for a set monthly fee. AT&T's package costs $30, while Vonage's and 8x8's cost $25 and $20 respectively. Because calls are digitized and sent over broadband DSL or cable Internet connections instead of regular phone lines, the VoIP fees include extras such as voice mail, caller ID, call forwarding, and three-way calling.
Ordering the service online was delightfully easy and convenient. Between the well-designed CallVantage Web site and the immediate follow-up e-mails I received after signing up, I felt well taken care of.
Using the CallVantage site, I was able to select the area code and prefix of my new Internet phone number--a particularly handy feature of VoIP phones. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, but my immediate family resides in south Florida. CallVantage allowed me to select a phone number that would be based in my family's town. That way, they can dial a local number to call me.
Follow-up e-mails from AT&T notified me of my new number and let me know when I would receive the analog telephony adapter (ATA) box that I would connect to my broadband modem and phone handset.
Installation Woes: Mr. Watson--Come Here, I Want You
Talk about misleading advertising: AT&T described the installation procedure as an easy four-step process, but the whole setup experience turned into a lost weekend. Because everyone's network system is configured differently, there is always the risk of startup difficulties with VoIP.
The startup package, which arrived within five days of my placing the order, consisted of the telephone adapter ( ATA box), the power cord, ethernet and phone cables, and installation instructions. Basically, with your equipment turned off, you connect the adapter to your cable or DSL modem and then connect the supplied Ethernet cable from the adapter to your PC. You also can connect the adapter directly to your router. You then connect the phone cable to a standard phone handset. (After the initial setup, your PC does not need to be turned on to send and receive calls.)
Then when you power up all of your equipment, the adapter should connect to the Internet, upload any necessary firmware updates, and voil
So I picked up my landline phone to call tech support. My call was answered on the first ring--no waiting, folks--and the extremely polite woman who answered graciously tried to help me, but only as far as her computerized script could take her. When I mentioned that unlike most broadband users I had a static IP address instead of a more common dynamic IP address (which changes each time you log on), her script seemed to end. She hemmed and hawed and finally put me on hold while she scrambled to find help.
She walked me through the old routine of rebooting my DSL modem (which higher-level tech support personnel told me later was necessary only with cable modems), adapter, and PC. Still no service.
I was promised a callback from a higher-level support technician. As it was a Saturday, I was out of luck--and service--until Monday. But promptly on Monday morning, I got the call. It took an extensive trial and error process with the tech support rep, but I finally got VoIP service. My problem, it ends up, was unusual, and was due to the static IP address supplied by my DSL service provider. The technician helped me change the primary DNS address from the one supplied by my ISP to the one suggested by CallVantage support. After that, the ATA box was able to connect and perform its initialization, and I have my VoIP service.
And apart from a few dropped calls here and there, I haven't looked back.
Calling From Next Door?
I can imagine how ecstatic Alexander Graham Bell must have felt when his first phone call actually went through. That's how I felt when I finally got up and running and made my first VoIP phone call.
The first call was to my mother, the critic. It was flawless. "It sounds like you are next door," she said. For the most part, the calls I have made or received using the service have been of landline phone quality. Over a two-week period, I made more than 50 calls, of which 3 were dropped.
I was warned by tech support that for the first few days browsing might slow down my VoIP service. The service needed time to judge the type of throughput for data versus voice that I needed, they said. But this was never an issue: I streamed a video while talking, and found not a blip or hiccup in the video or the phone call.
Most of the time, the service was excellent. But I did encounter a few dropped calls, which were rather annoying--and because my ethernet cable was plugged into the ATA box (with its built-in router), when the calls were dropped so was my PC's Internet connection. AT&T told me to expect something like this in the first week of service as it adjusts your needs between data and voice bandwidth. And that's something to remember: With VoIP you are still at the mercy of the many Internet servers on which your Web connection relies.
The extra features were first-class. All of these were included with my basic VoIP service, but each would have cost extra had I ordered them from the local phone company:
- Call Management: You can see all incoming and outgoing calls, the time and date they occurred.
- Locate Me: On my account Web page, I was able to list numbers where I could be reached when I'm not near the VoIP phone. After a set number of rings, my calls were forwarded to my office phone and my cell phone, either simultaneously or in the order I designated. This proved to be a major convenience, since I never needed to be tethered to one particular phone to get my calls. And if I am talking on the VoIP line, I can have other incoming calls redirected to other phones.
- Voicemail: Full-featured voicemail can be set up either via your account page at the CallVantage Web site or via voice menus on the phone. You can create a personalized greeting and also set up e-mail notification of incoming messages--either from select phone numbers or all numbers. I was most taken with the ability to forward voicemail messages to my e-mail with the actual voice message attached as a .wav file. This too can be activated either for numbers you select or for all calls.
- Do Not Disturb: I was able to set the phone to "do not disturb" for set periods of time and all calls were diverted silently to my voicemail. On my account page I could even schedule future or recurring do-not-disturb times.
- Standard features such as speed-dial, call waiting, call forwarding, three-way calling, and even conference calls for up to ten people (at 35 cents per minute), can all be set up online or triggered from the phone itself. Speed-dialing for up to nine numbers did, however, require dialing A-T-T and then the memory number. While shorter than dialing a ten-digit number, this sequence was not exactly speedy.
- Emergency 911: Because VoIP services, like cell phones, are not always fixed at one physical location, 911 calls have been difficult to place. AT&T CallVantage offers 911 service, but has recently begun offering E911 service, also known as Enhanced 911. Without E911, 911 calls may be routed to a dispatcher who can't see where you're calling from. E911 gets around that limitation and provides your physical location, which can be vital information in case of an emergency. E911 works only with the physical address you register with the phone when you sign up for your service. If you take your adapter with you, to, say, a vacation home, you would need to call 911 from a different phone since the VoIP service would only direct emergency services to the local responders near your registered address.
Is It Worth the Price?
Other than my particular installation hassle (which shouldn't be one for the majority of DSL and cable modem users), AT&T's CallVantage service has been superb, generally speaking--and the company is generous with its features, particularly when you consider what you get for $30 a month. While cellular phone service includes many similar features, landline service charges extra for every one of them and most do not offer the Internet-based features at all. For a landline equivalent, to get the entire package of features included in the CallVantage $30 plan, you would have to pay about $30 to $40 on top of your basic landline rate. And that's before any toll and long distance calls you make. I figured I have saved and will be saving at least $40 to $50 a month compared with what I pay for my landline service.
As mentioned, Vonage's VoIP service costs $25 for unlimited U.S./Canada calls (or $15 for 500 minutes). International rates on CallVantage are about 4 cents a minute and up, depending where you are calling. Calls to mobile phone numbers overseas cost more. Vonage charges a range of 3 to 9 cents per minute to most locations. Upstart service Lingo offers unlimited U.S./Canada service plus calls to Western Europe for $20 a month. Calls to the Middle East cost 8 cents and Japan 3 cents. Calls to Antarctica are 70 cents a minute. Both Vonage and Lingo match the extra features offered by AT&T.
While I did not try out the other services, I can say that I am extremely pleased with AT&T's service and consistent call quality, and even though other VoIP plans may be cheaper, AT&T's overall package is worth the cost.