Hitting Snags with Vonage


The VoIP service offers user-friendly features and decent customer service, but it has more than its share of glitches

In case you're not among the 3.25 million people in the U.S. who will have joined the voice over internet protocol (VoIP) revolution by the end of the year, chances are you'll at least consider it before long. VoIP technology transmits calls the same way e-mail travels over the Internet, so it's more efficient than the method that has handled the bulk of voice calls for the better part of a century. More to the point: It can help cut your phone bills in half.

Interested yet? If so, there are a growing number of VoIP providers to choose from, and I'm embarking on a series of reviews aimed at helping you find the one that's best for you. My first installment takes a look at -- or rather, listens to -- Vonage. While the initial setup was a breeze and Vonage boasts some promising features, my experience was marred by a series of frustrating technical glitches. As a result, the service didn't make the top of my list.

But first, a look at what worked. The Vonage service was surprisingly easy to set up. I simply had to plug a modem-like contraption into my router and let it charge for a bit. Then, I unpacked the two Vtech cordless phones sent by Vonage and let them charge overnight. That was it. The whole set-up took a matter of minutes.

DOWNTIME.

It seemed so easy that I placed a call to Vonage customer care just to make sure I had done it correctly. I got through to a representative right away, without having to listen to even a minute of annoying music. The rep was polite and very helpful, and confirmed that, yes, I had done it properly.

If only the rest of the trial had gone as smoothly. On the first day, some of the company's Internet systems were down. So while my phone had a dial tone and I could make calls, I was unable to use some of the Web features that are meant to make VoIP calling more convenient than conventional wire-line communications.

Then, when the system was up and running, I hit snags with the handset. The Vtech broadband phone, one of four offered by Vonage, is supposedly the top of the line. It's also the most expensive -- $99.99, after a rebate. Even so, the phone lacked basic features, such as the ability to turn off the ringer. It also kept displaying confusing messages about the calls I received.

AWKWARD PAUSES.

Broadband phones are still very new, and the companies making them are still working out the kinks. As an alternative, Vonage can provide an adapter (typically within five business days of signing up for service) that will allow you to use your regular phone without any extra expense or hassle.

When I started making calls, I noticed that Vonage suffers from a slight time lag between when a person speaks and when the other party hears what's said, a problem known as latency. It was made plain when I placed a call to my dad, who happened to be in the same house.

Even when we were in the same room, there was a noticeable delay. It lasted less than a second, but it was long enough to make communication difficult. And it happened in conversations with people outside the house as well.

A Vonage engineer told me it might have resulted from a network problem on my end. If, say, a computer accessing the Web through the same connection as my phone happened to be downloading a big file, it could clog the line. (I wasn't downloading anything at the time.)

NETWORK BURDEN.

Other glitches: I got cut out of a conference call on one occasion and I was dropped in the middle of checking voice mail another time. I'm not sure what happened, but Vonage blamed it all on network problems.

Whatever the cause, the episodes illustrate one of the larger problems with VoIP services: If your network connection is down, your power is cut off, or your computer happens to be downloading a movie or other large file, the phone connection can be affected. You may not even be able to reach 911. This applies not just to Vonage but to most VoIP services. On the bright side, in case of disruptions, Vonage lets you forward all incoming calls to another number.

I also wasn't happy with Vonage's 411 service. For 99 cents a call, Vonage 411 provides advanced features such as movie listings and horoscopes, in addition to plain old directory assistance. But when I dialed 411 and asked the rep for movie listings, she seemed stunned at first and then passed me off to another rep. The second person was very nice and helpful, and the transfer was handled quickly. Still, I found it annoying to be passed between two people.

TRAVELING CONNECTION.

Vonage charges $24.99 a month for unlimited local and long-distance calling, and an extra one-time charge if you want one of the high-end phones it offers. Other VoIP services I tried charge between $19.99 and about $50 a month. You'll also need a high-speed Internet connection, such as digital subscriber line sold by a phone company or a modem from your cable provider.

Vonage has a handful of redeeming qualities. The sound quality was generally good, though not quite as good as with a land-line connection. I used the phone to call relatives in Russia, and we could hear each other perfectly. Note, though, that international calls aren't included with the plan -- in fact, they cost a little more than if you used a calling card.

I was also impressed with the number of nifty features. For one, you can take Vonage with you on a trip. All you need is your broadband phone or the Vonage adapter and a broadband connection at your destination. If you want to receive calls placed to your home while you travel, this feature is for you. Not every VoIP service offers it.

LITTLE IRRITANTS.

You can also manage most of the service's features through the Vonage Web site, which is super user-friendly. You can order call waiting, forward calls to your cell phone for free, make your phone ring at two numbers simultaneously, view a log of all the calls made over the past seven days, and request e-mails notifying you of new voice mail. You can even receive the voice mails themselves as an e-mail attachment (although at first glance I thought these messages were spam and inadvertently deleted several).

Another cool feature is called Click-2-Call. Using a bit of software on your computer, you can dial numbers right from your PC. When you dial the number, your Vonage phone rings. Then, when you pick up, the other party's phone rings. Few VoIP outfits offer this feature.

Indeed, Vonage includes capabilities that separate it from the pack and help show why it has been able to snag more than 1 million lines, making it the largest of its kind, measured by paid subscribers. Yet I found using the service frustrating in several little ways. None by itself was a big deal, but taken together, they resulted in a mediocre user experience.


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