Good Call, Comcast


Digital Voice costs more than many rival VoIP services, but quality, reliability, and professional installation make it a standout

Comcast Digital Voice, the Internet-based calling service offered by the biggest U.S. cable provider, provides a lot like the service you would get from a traditional phone company. Most of the time, that's a good thing.

I tested Digital Voice for the latest in a series of reviews of call services based on voice-over-Internet protocol, or VoIP (see BW Online, 11/28/05, "Skype Has People Talking"). Comcast's (CMCSA) service stacks up well.

HOUSE CALLS.

Setup is a breeze -- because you don't have to do it. Just as telcos send a workman to put in your phone line, Comcast believes in professional installation and typically offers it at no charge. A friendly technician named Mike came over and in less than an hour installed the adapter that functions as an intermediary between my Comcast broadband cable hookup and phone line.

Me, I sat on the couch, feet up. With some other VoIP services you need to install the service yourself, and it's not always easy.

Digital Voice immediately worked on all the telephone jacks in the house. Even though my Comcast adapter was installed only in the computer room, I could plug a handset into any phone jack in the house and talk over the VoIP line. This is yet another important feature not offered by all providers.

PAY THE PRICE.

Comcast isn't cheap. It costs $54.95 a month for unlimited local and long-distance calling if you don't subscribe to other Comcast services. If you've already signed up for Comcast cable and high-speed Internet, the price drops to $39.95 a month. That's still more than the $20 to $30 most other providers charge, but when it comes to VoIP you get what you pay for.

Digital Voice's sound quality was comparable to, if not better than, my regular phone line. That's not the case with most VoIP service providers, which route calls over the public Internet. Comcast sends them over its own network. As a result, it can prioritize voice traffic over all other data pulsating through the network, such as e-mails and video, and your calls sound better.

The Comcast service is also more reliable than most other VoIP offerings. Just like traditional phone service, Comcast VoIP comes with a backup battery, designed to last five hours to eight hours in case of a power outage in your neighborhood. Even when the street goes dark you can still call 911 -- or just order out for pizza. Most other VoIP phones die if the power shuts off.

WEB-SITE WOES.

Speaking of emergencies, Digital Voice is more reliable than competing VoIP services in a crisis. Many VoIP services have been slow to implement features that let emergency services providers know exactly where a caller resides -- although the Federal Communications Commission requires them to include this capability as of Nov. 28. When you call 911 from Comcast's Digital Voice, your information is automatically provided to responders.

An advantage of many VoIP packages is that they include Web-based services, such as call forwarding, that are not offered by traditional phone-service providers. But this is an area where Comcast Digital Voice let me down. For example, you have to set up many of the service's features over the phone -- and we all know programming a phone takes a long time.

Comcast's Web functions are very limited. You have to go to one Comcast site to see your bill and another to manage your voicemail. I've used other VoIP services' Web sites to change settings so I would receive new voice mails as attachments to e-mails. Comcast didn't offer that. It didn't even let me set up call-forwarding online.

WORTH IT.

While Comcast execs say they plan to update the site and rectify the situation shortly, today the Comcast Web experience is sadly lacking.

Still, there are a variety of useful functions. You can forward calls from a particular person to a cell phone. You can block calls from certain numbers. You also get call waiting and caller ID for no extra charge. Three-way calls, speed dials, and an anonymous call blocker are also included.

When you combine that with the superior call quality, Digital Voice is worth the premium Comcast charges. And when Comcast debuts that updated Web menu, it will truly be a stellar service -- offering the quality of traditional phone service as well as the cool features we've come to expect from VoIP.


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