Mobile Computing: Avoid VoIP Gotchas

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Feature: Voice Over IP: Steering Clear of the Gotchas

Vonage's Voice over Internet Protocol service, which I recently reviewed, saves its subscribers a lot of money, provides mostly good-quality telephone service, and is easy to install and use, according to the reader e-mail I received.

But as with any emerging technology, VoIP technology is not without a few gotchas, according to readers. Here's a look at some problems you may face if you switch to a VoIP service, along with tips for how to avoid those issues.

Also, this week I've got news on the latest Vonage service as well as AT&T's continued push into the consumer and business VoIP markets.

Gotcha: Number Portability Can Take Time

Kenneth Gregory of Pontiac, Michigan, reports that the "only hiccup" in installing his Vonage service was trying to get his local phone company to transfer his phone number to Vonage. The process ended up taking nearly five months, Gregory reports.

When you sign up for VoIP service, Vonage asks that it handle your phone number transfer. If you call your phone company to initiate the process, you run the risk of having your service disconnected and losing your number. The process is supposed to take 15 to 20 days, according to Vonage's Web site.

Gregory had to continue paying for his landline service during the long transfer process, though he had stripped it down to the bone (for about $20 a month). Though no explanation was given as to why the phone company took so long to transfer the number, Vonage gave Gregory two months of free service as partial compensation.

During that period, Gregory took advantage of Vonage's Call Transfer feature, which automatically routed incoming calls to his SBC phone number to his temporary Vonage number. "It worked flawlessly," Gregory says.

It's possible you can't transfer your landline number at all. At the moment, not every area code and phone number exchange is available as a Vonage number, according to the company. For example, when I called Vonage about transferring my landline phone number, I was told my local prefix wasn't currently available as a Vonage phone number.

Gotcha: Your VoIP Service May Go Down

VoIP phone service for consumers and small businesses typically runs over a DSL or cable modem Internet connection. The problem is, either one of those broadband services can go down, sometimes for hours or even a day or two. Or your power may be knocked out due to a storm or other reason. When that happens, your VoIP phone service goes out, too.

Because his cable Internet connection has been known to go out of commission, Vonage subscriber Keith Henwood of Sacramento, California held onto his landline telephone service as a backup. Should the cable service go out, he has the landline phone to fall back on. Henwood discontinued all landline service features except for call forwarding and primarily uses the service (at $20 a month) as a dedicated fax line.

Henwood takes advantage of Vonage's call forwarding feature, which allows you to have all incoming calls to your Vonage phone number automatically forwarded to another telephone number. That way, should the Vonage service go down because of a cable or power outage, Henwood doesn't miss any calls. Calls to his Vonage number are automatically routed to his cell phone, in the event of an outage.

Gotcha: Discontinuing Your Landline Service, Then Going Back, Can Cost Money

For those who are intrigued by VoIP but aren't quite ready to cut the landline cord, having both services--at least for a couple of months--makes a lot of sense. Should you be dissatisfied with VoIP after, say, a month or two, you can easily return to your landline service because you never discontinued it.

The downside? You're paying for two phone services while you try VoIP. But there can be other gotchas, too. If you go this route, be sure to carefully compare your current landline service features to what the VoIP service offers. Many of the services you've paid extra for on your landline account--such as voice mail, call forwarding, and caller ID--are included at no extra cost in the AT&T and Vonage VoIP plans. To minimize your total monthly phone charges during your VoIP trial, consider eliminating as many features as possible from your landline service.

In addition, before you discontinue any landline services, ask your phone company what it would cost to resume them. For example, as an SBC landline customer, it would cost me $20 to reinstate my voice mail service and $4.75 to reinstate caller ID.

I also subscribe to SBC's Value Plus 200 Promo plan, which gives me 200 long-distance minutes per month for $5 (that's 2.5 cents per minute). Calls that exceed that allotment are 5 cents a minute. When I called SBC about dropping and then potentially resuming that plan, I learned it was no longer available to new subscribers. So if I were to drop that plan in order to reduce my monthly landline charges while I tried VoIP, I couldn't reinstate the plan later. The nearest equivalent SBC offers is JustCall 200 Standard, which provides 200 minutes a month of long-distance calls for $10, and 7 cents per minute thereafter. Of course, like most long-distance providers, SBC offers other plans, too, such as unlimited long-distance for $30 per month.

Your Gotchas

Have any of you experimented with VoIP, then tried to switch back to your landline provider? Have you had any problems using VoIP? If so, tell me about it.

A Show Without Drama?

And now for a completely unrelated topic: Do you often give presentations with your notebook or other device?

If so, I'd like to hear your best tips for putting on a smooth, sweat-free show. For example, what kind of backup plan do you have in case your notebook--with your Microsoft PowerPoint extravaganza on it--is stolen, lost, or damaged en route to your presentation? Have you ever given a presentation using a PDA? If so, how did it go?

The best tips on how to take your presentation on the road with as little (unintentional) drama as possible will be shared with readers in a future column. Please send me e-mail.

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