America Online today joins the parade of companies offering Internet telephone service.
Initially the availability of AOL's Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service is limited to 22.2 million AOL members who live inside the 40 major U.S. markets where the launch is taking place. For a complete list of these cities, visit AOL KeyWord: Internet Phone Service if you are a subscriber or AOL.com.
In coming months AOL expects to make its AOL Internet Phone Service available in more markets and to open it up to non-AOL members as well.
I've tested the AOL service in its beta incarnation and, in many ways, I like it better than other VoIP services I've looked at. Setup is simple, and AOL brings some unique extras to a very crowded field. Though the service does have a few drawbacks, overall it works as AOL describes it.
What Makes It Unique?
Nate Kettlewell, AOL product manager for voice services, calls the company's VoIP offering easy to set up and use. He adds that, unlike other VoIP services, AOL tightly integrates the phone service with online components such as e-mail, contacts, and instant messaging.
"Everything about AOL is easy to use, and the AOL Internet phone service is no different," Kettlewell said. Another big differentiator is what AOL is calling "true e-9-1-1 service," which always connects 9-1-1 emergency calls directly to local emergency dispatchers.
Traditional telephone companies have resisted bringing VoIP services into the enhanced 9-1-1 system. Vonage, an early VoIP provider, has been involved in a number of disputes, most recently with regional carrier SBC, over how to implement e-911 services for VoIP.
To attract new AOL memberships, AOL is offering current nonsubscribers a $30-per-month introductory rate to sign up for an unlimited plan that covers calling within the United States and Canada. This monthly fee includes access to the AOL service over your existing broadband connection. (You must have broadband to use the VoIP service.) At the end of six months, the price of the entire package jumps to $40 per month.
People who already subscribe to AOL have a choice of plans: A basic $19-per-month Local Plan gets a current subscriber unlimited local and regional calls plus long-distance calls at 4 cents per minute anywhere in the United States and Canada. The Local Plan has an introductory price of $14 per month for the first three months.
For unlimited local, regional, and long-distance calls in the United States and Canada, current subscribers would pay $30 per month. The introductory rate is $25 per month for the first three months.
And AOL's Global Calling Plan runs $35 per month with reduced international rates. The three-month introductory rate in this case is $30 per month.
AOL Internet Phone Service appears pricier than the plans offered by some existing competitors. Vonage, for example, has a comparable unlimited calling plan priced at $25 per month, as well as a basic $15 plan that covers 500 minutes of calls made within the United States and Canada each month.
You've Got AOL VoIP!
To get you started, AOL provides a small black adapter box that's designed to plug in between your phone and your Internet connection. Or you may plug the adapter directly into a free ethernet port on your router, as I did. I then plugged a regular telephone into the adapter--and immediately I could make phone calls that sounded exactly like calls made using a traditional telephone. This new AOL VoIP service works with AOL 7.0 and above.
AOL Internet Phone Service has some unique features. For instance, its Call Alert function allows you to route calls placed to your AOL VoIP phone to anyone on a user-created list of preset phone numbers. When your AOL VoIP phone rings, an AOL pop-up message appears on your PC displaying caller ID information--if you have the AOL software running. Next, the alert message window gives you the option of routing the call on the fly directly to voice mail, or you can forward the call to any phone number you wish.
The Call Alert feature works regardless of where you are. If you use your AOL VoIP service at home and you are online at work with AOL running on that PC, you'll see the same Call Alert pop-up window with routing options that you'd see at home. And if your PC has the right equipment (a headset or USB handset), you can answer the call right at your PC.
Other VoIP services offer similar call-forwarding features, but they don't allow you to direct the call on the fly as AOL does.
I also liked AOL Internet Phone Service Dashboard, AOL's online control center for its VoIP service. Here you have access to e-mail addresses, AIM handles, and phone contacts all in one place. You can manage your phone account, see a record of all your calls, and even check to see whether you have any voice mail messages. You can pick up such messages through your AOL inbox in the form of e-mail messages with sound files attached.
Once you set up your contacts--which means associating phone numbers with e-mail addresses and AIM screen names--you can choose how you want to communicate with someone through the Dashboard. If an AOL buddy is online, the AOL Running Man icon shows up next to his or her name. If you wish, click the icon and shoot your buddy an instant message. If your contact uses Yahoo or Microsoft instant messaging software, however, this online presence feature won't notify you that your contact may be online and available.
A clever click-to-call feature lets you click any phone number in your Contact list to have AOL dial the number for you instantly. AOL rings you first. When you pick up your phone, it rings the number you clicked to dial.
Another big positive is AOL's knack for keeping things simple. Buttons and features are clear, and I easily customized the service with my forwarding phone numbers and contacts.
On the downside, I was disappointed that the slick AOL experience is chained to the AOL client software. At least for now, AOL says, AOL client software is required for accessing advanced communication features and for customizing the VoIP service. AOL says that this will change later this year when the company rolls out an update to its stand-alone AIM client, which will include VoIP features. When that happens, you'll able to access AOL's full set of features through standard browsers.
In the meantime, a limited number of features are available through Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Netscape. In my tests, browser-based access to the AOL Internet Phone Service Dashboard didn't offer Call Alert features or access to tools for easily listening to voice mail. To pick up voice mail, I had to access the Web-based AOL e-mail service.
Because AOL Internet Phone Service is so closely intertwined with AOL and AIM, it will initially appeal primarily to AOL users. Until the service is opened up to nonsubscribers, you'll have to become a paying member to get the most out of its VoIP service.
Other drawbacks relate to the nature of VoIP itself. Like all other current consumer VoIP offerings, the phone service is only as reliable as your high-speed Internet connection. When your cable modem fails, so does your VoIP phone.
Traffic on AOL's network may also affect the quality of AOL's phone service. I can't vouch for the real-world quality of AOL's voice service because I used it at a time when only beta testers were on board. Only under the stress of normal use--with thousands of users making calls at the same time--will you be able to gauge the true reliability of AOL's VoIP service.
While VoIP technology is not new, AOL's new service does bring ease of use and some clever technology to the table. The only problem is that you'll have to pay a little extra for it.