Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

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If you make long distance calls and are sick of sending the phone company big checks, consider signing up for Vonage's VoIP service.

In the last few years, technology has transformed almost every household item; practically every product someone owns has made leaps and bounds. Televisions now come in plasma models, AC units are extensively programmable, microwaves come with voice reminder features. Yes, everything has changed dramatically, with one exception: my phone.

Until now. A company called Vonage has begun to provide the home user with easy access to voice over IP (VoIP) technology, at ridiculously low rates. And they offered to let me try out the service.

I received my package from Vonage, which contained a Cisco voice over IP router, a small binder with my phone number and some instructions and a 900MHz cordless phone. The phone was a courtesy; they do not typically include it in the package. The package had arrived late in the afternoon, and I did not expect to have everything working that day. My computer is behind a Netscreen 5 firewall that goes through an older HP hub with its own security features and a separate wireless network to boot. I figured I'd plug in the router and have to figure out what ports to punch into my firewall.

But when I read the instructions, it said I should pick up the handset, push a button on the router and dial #80. When I completed this, the router read back an internal IP. Next I tried to make a call, which went through beautifully. Somewhat amazed, I tried calling it from another phone, and that worked cleanly as well. So much for my firewall, I guess.

Nevertheless, the point is this: setup is easy and the system works out of the box. For the next few weeks, I simply used the phone whenever I had to make a long distance call or whenever I had it handy. In so doing, I found one annoying drawback, but it was easily fixed.

When sitting on the couch or at a desk, how many people are willing to go get the cordless phone that's connected to Vonage in order to call a friend, instead of simply picking up the phone next that's right next to them? It may sound like a case of terrible laziness, but after a while, it does become annoying. So what do you do?

You buy one of the base-station phones such as the latest Sony or Siemens models. You plug the primary phone (a non-cordless base station) into a wall--in this case, the Vonage router--and pick up a few cordless phones. The cordless phones communicate with the base station and do not require their own phone jacks. With this configuration, any phone in the house can communicate through Vonage.

With my particular base-station phone model (Sony QuadraStation 2.4), however, you cannot pick up one of the cordless phones while the base handset is picked up. Therefore, you cannot have someone in the house join a call, nor can you those " Whazzup" television commercials. This lack does not bother me too much, but if you go this route, you may want to check into that before you buy a whole phone system.

For the most part, the on-line interface is great. Being able to see incoming and outgoing call activity at any moment is a nice feature. Real-time on-line billing is a big plus--no more sudden surprises when the bill arrives by mail.

But this is not to say that the on-line system doesn't need a little work. Specifically, the voice-mail interface is sub-par compared to the rest of the site, and the UI for that section seems less refined than for others. I've also had some problems accessing it without turning down my IE security settings, which I don't like to do. You also cannot download your voice-mail; it streams. However, you can have up to 45 messages in your voice-mail, and each message can be up to five minutes in length, so there's plenty of space.

That being said, the drawbacks I mention are mostly trivial. When it comes to sound quality and general ease of use, the Vonage is hard to beat. Simply pick up the phone and dial, just like any other phone. In fact, most people cannot tell the difference between a regular land-line and this phone. It doesn't works perfectly all the time, though. For instance, if I happened to be downloading something and using all my bandwidth, the sound sometimes would distort or there would be long pauses or echoes.

For the record, I have a 1.5/768K DSL line. Vonage says the minimum speed required is 90kbps, so it should work fine on slower lines. And it did work fine on a slower 384/128 line. The system also comes with the usual phone system feature set, including voice-mail, caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, In addition, you can pick any area code you want, provided they have it, for your phone number. As of this writing, they have a limited selection of available area codes in New York, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts. They will be adding several large cities in 2002, including Chicago.

So is the Vonage system worth the $19.99 (500 minute package) or $39.99 (unlimited) a month? It depends on your calling pattern. In my case, I looked up my last five monthly long distance bills: $72, $68, $51, $228 and $169 for a total of $558 in long distance charges over five months. In each case, I spent more on long distance than Vonage would have cost me, particularly during the months where I called Europe. My most recent phone bill just arrived, and it does a wonderful job of illustrating how much money Vonage can save you--my long distance bill was $25. In fact, 10 of those 25 dollars were for a five minute phone call to Italy, at three in the morning. With Vonage my calls to Europe have thus far totalled 124 minutes, nearly twenty five times the minutes in the $10 call, for almost the same price: $11.16. In other words, the long-distance minutes I've logged with Vonage for $11.16 would have cost me $248 if they'd been on my regular long distance service. If that isn't impressive, I don't know what is.

Of course, you've probably noticed that I pay $2.00 a minute for calls to Italy (trust me, it shocked me as much as you). I'm guessing this is because I don't use long distance too often, and I haven't signed up for any special service plans. So in an effort to try to compare Vonage's rates to rates probably closer to what the average person receives, I contacted a close friend who makes a significant amount of calls to Europe and Africa and has shopped around for rates with various carriers. Pouring through his latest bill--a $400 monster--I sat down and meticulously calculated what each call cost and what it could have cost on Vonage. Roughly speaking, about 1,000 minutes of calls were made at a rate of 32 cents a minute, and roughly 150 minutes were made at a rate of 64 cents a minute. If made through Vonage, these rates would have been 9 cents and 18 cents a minute, respectively. Plugging through the math, all of his calls could have cost about $120 if he'd made them through Vonage--a savings of almost $300. You can probably guess his reaction when I showed him my math. Yes, he's now a Vonage customer.

In detail, the international calling rates are a flat fee, regardless of the time of day you place a call, meaning you don't have to worry about "night rates", "evening rates" or "peak times". At 9 cents a minute to Italy (and 5 cents a minute to certain parts of Italy), it's a steal. A full list of long distance prices is available on their web site. In most cases, the savings are substantial. It should also be noted that you can call practically anywhere with Vonage, they don't cover only certain cities. You can call Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and everything in-between.

I also found another interesting use for Vonage: tote it with you to Europe. Although you may have a tough time finding somewhere to hook it up, it will work. And anyone who has ever visited or lived in Europe knows that international calls are much more expensive there than they are in the US. So I suggest you take your Vonage along with you and stay in a hotel with Internet access. Vonage's international rates are going to be lower than the hotel's, but the real advantage comes when you call the US. These calls are completely and entirely free, because, as far as Vonage is concerned, it is a US to US call--your actual physical location does not matter.

Along these lines, note that if you happen to have two Vonage units (i.e., multiple family members), calls from one phone to the other are free. These calls also do not deduct from your monthly minute allocation.

I cannot recommend this product enough. Although the system is only as reliable as your ISP's line, the savings are quite substantial and more than offset the occasional hiccup. I signed up. My parents signed up. My friends signed up. None of us have any complaints.

Cosimo Leipold is an analyst for DiamondCluster International in Chicago. He spends his free time skiing, scuba diving and trying to take as much vacation as possible.

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NO service from Vonage

Anonymous's picture

I purchased the Vonage service and device from Best Buy in July 2004. They offered a $50 rebate which I promptly mailed. The last response from Vonage on 1/9/05 was that the rebate had "processed on 12/31" and that I should "receive it in the near future". It is now 2/2/05 (6 months later) and I still have not received the rebate.

In addition, the MTA device crashed and Vonage's technical support does not respond to email messages. I have sent 5 messages to technical support, 1 to billing, and 1 to installation. In each case I receive an automated response and a ticket number, but nobody contacts me. I have called them numerous times and stay on hold for more than 45 minutes without ever talking to a representative. I have now been without telephone service for over 2 weeks.

Bottom line... Vonage cannot handle their growth and provide service to their customers.

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

Vonage says their service is the same or better than your current telephone company. This is absolutely false! After several months of calling Vonage technical support trying to obtain a clear line we were told that they could not guarantee the quality.

Here

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

I have been with Vonage about 8 months now.

They Suck!

When speaking with someone over the Vonage line the other person breaks up all the time.

There website with all those cool features is the slowest site i have ever been on.

The Customer Service really sucks. They transfer you to the next person who is supposed to help you and I usually get a message telling me to call again cause there too busy. Basically answering other complaints.

Our 800# with them is regularly down. Unfortunatly thats the only number our customers have. Basically the $100/month vonage is saving us is costing us literally thousands a month right now and were going to switch.

Somemight say I have a slow connection... LOL...nope... 1500/256K and I have tried there system at more than one location.

Stay away from Vonage,

Kevin Zernickow

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

I would like to offer that there are always alternatives and any good consumer should take the opportunity to check out who else offers VOIP. The best way to search is to type in a search engine: "Vonage Vs" or "Vonage versus" to see which alternatives exist. There are cheaper providers who offer the same quality!

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

Very Bad Customer service. Extremely Unfriendly.

Recently, I was charged $50 for a call which didnot go through. This was an international call and I am trying to talk to somebody who could make sense. All the customer service personal seems to agree that it is a fault on their part but couldnot provide any further assistance. They try to not to understand that they are stealing my money.

There is no proper tracking of anything on you case.

I am willing to file a consumer complaint in the next day or so if I don't receive any proper response.

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

Other people have reported a problem with long distance billing, but it always seems to get resolved. I've had mostly pretty good experience with their tech support, but have read stories of people like you who have had problems. I'd suggest checking out broadbandReports.com in their VOIP forum for similar accounts. Also, I wrote a full review of Vonage at: vonage review

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

Based on the reviews here I gave Vonage a try.

I'll try to be as objective as possible here in reporting my experience, which has been anything but satisfying.

1. Customer Service is non-existant. Be prepared to spend hours listening to the same Muzak loop over and over before you ever talk to a person.

2. Technical support is clueless. I had some setup problems with the Cisco adapter and my DLink router settings. The tech support rep had no idea what to tell me, other than to look on their web site. I did in fact find the info I needed, but it was buried on the vonage.com web site.

3. The vonage.com web site is one most painfully slow sites I've ever encountered.

4. Voice quality varies randomly. Sometimes is is clear and excellent. Other times you can an echo of your voice 1/2-second after you speak, which makes having a conversation impossible. Several times I picked up my line that is connected to the Vonage IP adapter and it was dead. I reset all the hardware, etc., but it made no difference. I think Vonage's routers are seriously overloaded and tend to have a high frequency of outages. I would definitely not recommend Vonage for a SOHO or small business where voice communications are critical.

5. I'm now trying to cancel the service. Customer Service says "We are not authorized to cancel an account. You must call this other number." The number they give you does not answer. It rings and rings and rings. Finally I called Customer Service back; got a live rep after waiting 27 minutes on Muzak, and asked them to have the cancellation people call me.

Vonage.com is not remotely close to best in class at this point. It's okay for those who like to try new things, and some of their product concepts are very cool (such as domestic and International virtual numbers), but if you value voice commuication reliability and quick, knowledgeable support Vonage is simply not an option.

Bill Thomas
Senior IT Consultant

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

I'm not sure if Vonage has this problem, but when Dialpad was free, I used it all the time. At time I had 1.5/128K Cable connection and 1MB/s SDSL line. Whenever I was on cable and would make a call, it would break-up all over the place because of poor upload but DSL would be just fine.

For SDSL with over 200K or so upload, I'm guessing calls will be fine, but for high-speed cable, I am somewhat sceptical.

Vonage DigitalVoice vs. Packet8

Anonymous's picture

Why not try Packet8 - same but cheaper!
http://younevercall.com/packet8

Re: Vonage DigitalVoice vs. Packet8

Anonymous's picture

try packet8, just use http://www.gateshare.com/ to save $21

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

CYBERPETE's picture

COSIMO!! PLEASE HELP ME !!

I have the same exact phone as you (Sony SPP-A2480 2.4 Ghz Cordless Phone QuadraStation 2.4) but I was told by VONAGE that the CALLER ID built into this phone is incompatable.

Here's what happens...when someone calls me from say the following number:

1-716-555-1212

It appears on my caller ID with an additonal 1 at the begging and leaves off the last digit so it looks like this:

1-171-655-5121

This is very agrevating..as I have only a partial working caller ID service.....DO YOU HAVE THIS SAME PROBLEM? Do have any suggestions how I can get it to work??? I love my SONY phone..and I hate Verizon...I don't want to lose the SONY nor do I want to ditch VONAGE..

Thanks in advance....

Vonage Review

Anonymous's picture

Hi All,

I have recently switched to Vonage (VoIP through your home analog phones!) at home and so far I love it.

If you have not seen it, you can check out my review at:

http://home.earthlink.net/~m_schaper/

I freely admit that I wrote the above review hoping that someone will use me as a reference so that I can get some free months but I stand by my review 100 percent. I will post the bad with the good. Right now the good far outweighs the bad.

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

Vonage is a great asset I am not sure what I would do with out it. I run a home based Company, vonage has saved me almost 2,000 a month.

PS.

There is a forum dedicated to vonage user

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

ircgeeks's picture

Hello,
I actually wanted to throw some other interesting information
about vonage out there. Vonage is a SIP based voice over ip product, using a
Cisco ATA 186 device

www.vonage-forum.com  for or a more detailed description of the product

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

Extremely bad experience with Vonage Voice Quality:

The conversation, at best, has been choppy for me. Words get dropped, you think you are cut-off, etc. I have tried both peak-times and non-peak times, calling different states and in-state (CA). Echoing can be horrible.

This technology is at best close to what international calling to a third world country used to be 30 years ago.

Customer service: Right from the beginning, they think I am the problem and, no, I will not get my activation fee back.

How can they charge money when the system does not work ? I was about to get all my friends and family signed up but if I do that I will die friendless.

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

Hi,

I am a vonage customer for about 7 months now. My family lives in Canada. I used to spend 250-300$ per month. When I heard this service, I enquired about sending the instrument to Canada and make a call from there. The response from the Customer service was "yes". Now I am a happy customer of Vonage and happily saving nearly 200$ per month. I recently changed the phone no. to my local area code (At the time when I ordered the service, my local area code was not listed in the selection list). Customer service response was really good. I never had to fill any form or anything. It was just 2 mins phone call. Over all, I am really happy with the service I am getting from vonage.

Sankar S.

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the review. However, the customer service is terrible and the service people we spoke with were rude and uncooperative. Initially, vonage sales people told us we

could keep our current number so we ordered the equipment. Then we learned we needed to fill out a special form to keep our number and shouldn't install the system until that had been done. 3 weeks later no letter. We called to inquire and were told that we were being billed for the time since the equipment was shipped and that we could not keep our phone number. Moreover, as I mentioned, the customer service person with whom we spoke was extremely unpleasant.

Re: Product Review: Vonage DigitalVoice

Anonymous's picture

Author comments:

I did mention the travel aspect! (though in a slightly different perspective). The refer a friend program didn't launch until after I sent in the article, hence why it wasn't mentioned.

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