Reviewed by Jon L. Jacobi
Reviewed June 3, 2003
Spend a week with Vonage's PC-to-PC broadband phone service, and you'll find that its clear quality calls and unique features make your regular phone service look somewhat passť. Vonage, like competitor iConnectHere, uses Voice over IP technology and a phone-to-broadband adapter to let you make calls over your high-speed Internet access. In this case, calls sound like a dream, but alas, for every perk there's a mild annoyance. With Vonage, you must dial an area code for every call (even local calls), and the company's monthly rates are expensive unless you make lots of out-of-town calls. If you do, Vonage's domestic and international long-distance rates are as cheap as a phone card's and far more convenient. But the $39.99 that Vonage charges for disconnecting its service after a 14-day grace period is a deal-breaker, and Vonage isn't quite ready to replace your traditional phone service.
Setup and interface
After you sign up for service, Vonage ships you a Cisco ATA (analog telephone adapter) to serve as a bridge between your regular phone and your network router. There's no charge for the ATA, but there is a $29.99 activation fee (by comparison, iConnectHere charges much more for its ATA, but there's no activation fee). Vonage then preconfigures the ATA with your number, so after plugging in the included AC adapter, telephone cord, and Ethernet cable, you're basically good to go. You just make calls normally, by picking up the phone and dialing, and receive them the same way. Vonage will also give you a sweet deal on a NetGear RP614 router if you need one--$39.99, which is $10 cheaper than we could find it anywhere else. You could plug the ATA directly into your broadband connection, but then you'd have no broadband connection left for your computer.
If you purchase your ATA through a third party or already own one, you'll have to go through a rather extensive configuration process that involves entering various information, such as your IP address, subnet masks, and so forth using the phone's keypad or via your Web browser. With the phone, the process is about the same as wading through a corporate phone menu. All told, you'll probably need some time with the manual and some knowledge of your IP settings.
Why an ATA box? So you can make broadband calls without turning on your computer and for better quality than you'll get with a headset connected to your PC. With the ATA and Vonage, you can use your regular phone as you normally would, with a couple of exceptions: you must dial an area code for local calls, and a few features such as 0 for operator, or 411 for information are missing. Vonage does provide 911 service, but it must be set up and activated first by entering your location and other data at the company's Web site.
CNET itself uses a VoIP system internally, so we know that the technology is capable of excellent sound quality, but we weren't sure if Vonage calls traveling across the Internet would measure up. They did, generally equaling the quality of what you get with POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). We noticed an ever-so-slight time lag between speaking and being heard, but on average, it was so short that we either didn't notice it or it didn't interfere with conversations. By comparison, iConnectHere suffered such long latency in our tests that conversation was a trying experience.
Vonage's Web site lets you manage aspects of your account and set up a Virtual Phone Number--our favorite feature.
Vonage offers straightforward service plans, but they're a bit pricey unless you make good use of the included long-distance service. In addition to the $29.99 activation fee, Vonage also charges a $39.99 deactivation fee if you cancel your service after the 14-day tryout period. Most likely, both charges are to cover the cost of the "free" ATA box.
In terms of pricing, residential users can choose between two major monthly plans: $39.99 for unlimited local, local long distance (a.k.a. regional calling), and nationwide long distance (Canada included); or $25.99 for unlimited local and regional, plus 500 minutes of nationwide calls. International long-distance rates vary, but are generally in line with the cheap rates you get with a calling card, such as 6 cents a minute to Mexico, 5 or 6 cents a minute to Europe, and so on. On the whole, iConnectHere is a quite a bit cheaper if you can endure that company's poor call quality, but even Vonage can be cheaper than standard long-distance rates (calling cards remain, generally, the cheapest way to go).
For DSL customers who might consider ditching their regular telephone service for Vonage, there's a catch-22: you'll probably need to retain POTS to keep your DSL. You may be able to reduce your current phone service to emergency service only and still use Vonage, but at that point, you may not save any money. If you're a broadband cable subscriber, though, you face no such constraints and may even be able to retain your old number. Vonage's home site offers more information. Note: Your Vonage number isn't available through directory assistance, either.
One Vonage service that we found particularly attractive is the Virtual Telephone Number (VTN). For $4.99 a month, you can create a number in any area code that acts as a gateway to your main Vonage number. This feature could save faraway loved ones a ton of money--say your mom lives on the other side of the country. Just create a VTN in her area code, and all her calls to you are local. Nice.
Service and support
We were quite pleased that our test calls to Vonage's toll-free, 24-hour tech support were answered almost immediately--a rarity in the telecom field. Of course, Vonage doesn't have the huge customer base that the major companies deal with, but the experience was a breath of fresh air all the same. Online support includes a number of useful FAQs and e-mail support, and the home page itself contains answers to a lot of first-timer questions, such as whether you'll be able to ditch your POTS. You can also access your account, check call records, make adjustments to your service, and so on, by logging on with your user ID.