By August 16, 2005

I.P. … phone hoooome

I’d heard of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and had even perused a guide on Ars Technica about Asterisk and VOIP, but never really giving the voice-over-IP technology much actual thought. Sure, I’d see a shitload of Vonage banner ads, but why did I need a home phone when I used my cell all the time?

So, part of my new job requires me to work 99% with folks on the west coast. Living on the east coast, this poses some potential long distance phone call problems. Meaning, working from home = Doc pays up the ass for used cell minutes.

Or so one would believe.

The way that VOIP works (for most people) is that you get a piece of special equipment from your provider. In most cases, that’s a broadband phone adapter that you plug your phone into, or a broadband phone router, that you plug into your cable/dsl/FIOS/etc modem and then route to the rest of your network. You also hook your regular phone into your broadband router.

I decided that I had a few default requirements. My provider would need to give me:

  • A San Francisco-area phone number
  • A Rockville-area phone number
  • A Richmond-area phone number was optional; but I wanted a provider who would allow me to have at least three lines/virtual lines
  • Call forwarding in case I was away from my desk and wanted the call to go to my cell or other call forwarding scheme
  • Web-based account administration
  • Cheap as possible

Some things that a lot of the VOIP providers offer that is of little importance to me was international calling. For my friend Jackal, who has family and friends in Brazil, it’s a big deal.

The Contenders
I checked out Vonage, and according to the forums over at Ars, so have a lot of people. They seemed to serve nicely as a benchmark for all other North American VOIP providers. They have the best marketing, the best product placement (go to your closest Best Buy and you’ll see a Vonage display) and out of all the companies I looked at, the highest prices. However, they have a pretty robust Web administration interface and phone numbers in all of the areas I wanted. However, the fees for the additional numbers were pretty hefty: $24.99 for the base plan, plus $4.99 a month for additional dial-in only “virtual” numbers or $24.99 for each additional phone line for local outbound calls. There is also a $42 setup fee, which includes a broadband phone adapter. There is no contract requirement.

Next up was BroadVoice. They were mentioned on the Ars forum as a cheaper alternative to Vonage. BroadVoice’s bottom tier offering is only $10 a month, with a one time setup fee of like $65 which includes a broadband router. Broadvoice features and unlimited plan for $19.99 a month, plus $1.95 a month for “virtual” numbers. I don’t believe BroadVoice offers additional lines ala Vonage. They had a SanFran and a Rockville area phone number, but no Richmond number at this time. Since I had my cell phone, I figured that I could wing it without a local number. There is no contractual obligation, but a $49.99 termination fee.

The last company I evaluated was Packet8. Like Broadvoice, their plan is $19.99 a month for unlimited minutes. They had the heftiest set-up charges of all three providers — $94.75. They also provide a broadband telephone adapter. They offered virtual numbers, but at $4.95 a piece with a one time setup fee of $9.99 per number. My total setup cost if I went with Packet8 would have been almost $115 with a monthly cost of $29.89 before gubberment fees. They had a Richmond-area number, but the whole cost of doing business with them was too much to stomach. If you do voice-only service (they have video phones also) there is no contract or termination fee.

The Decision
I chose BroadVoice because they were in the middle of the road pricewise and had a good Web-based administration screen. I went with the bottom-most $10 a month offering, which was a metered 500-minute a month plan. I discovered that I was going to exceed my monthly allotment of minutes within four days, so I upgraded mid billing cycle to the unlimited plan. My broadband voice router appeared in two business days after I signed up via FedEx.

Setup and First Opinions
Setup was easy, although the directions wanted me to put the broadband voice router outside my other router. I put the BroadVoice router inside my other router, which made it easy to retain my internal DHCP network and NAT settings. BroadVoice wants you to hook their router up to a hub/switch, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing that or losing my 802.11g access point. Plus there doesn’t seem to be a Web admin interface for the BroadVoice router to tweak things like MAC enforcement, DNS servers, etc.

The performance left a little bit to be desired. If you try to dial a number there’s a slight (less than a second) pause before the dialling goes through. The voice quality suffers just a bit, and people in SanFran have a hard time hearing me if I’m on a cheap desktop speakerphone instead of a Polycom or similar. Futhermore, faxing at speeds less than 9600 baud results in a failed or faulty handshake. I scrubbed about 10 sheets of paper with “TRANSMISSION FAILED” printouts from my Brother fax machine. That’s about 20 failed attempts, with a few attempts only partially transmitting.

So I moved the BroadVoice router outside of my other wireless router. I ran a pass-through back to the wireless router so I could still use my Tablet PC and other crap. This seemed to work fine until we lost power one day. My main desktop renewed its IP address with the BroadVoice router instead of my wireless router. This makes sense in retrospect, but was a total pain in the ass. My work computer and Lady Jaye’s computer both lost the printer share since my desktop now had a different IP block than the rest of the network. My other network shares, like my music, were unavailable.

This would not stand, so I moved the BroadVoice router back behind my wireless router, which is where they exist today until I finish this entry, then back out they go for another switch. I’ve been having problems receiving and placing calls, and I think it’s due to the added latency and quality loss from my current network topography.

Second Thoughts
Since I’ve signed up with BroadVoice I’ve told a lot of my friends about VOIP (it’s most of my readership here, if you guys are even reading!), and my friend Bond wound up getting Packet 8. If I had to do it over again, I would probably stay with BroadVoice or getting Vonage. I’ve wound up using my cell phone too much even for local non-work calls, especially when we were coordinating all sorts of shit with local companies like Best Buy’s delivery service, the lawyers who jipped us on closing costs, etc. Plus since we live in a single area code part of the state, people get their panties in a twist when I give them an out of area phone number. The librarians really stroked out when I told them I had a NOVA area number. BroadVoice says they’ll eventually get 804 numbers, but they don’t have an ETA. The virtual number price isn’t all that different from Vonage — $6 a month for a local number and a Rockville number. And while I thought I was going to save a lot with the $10 a month plan from BroadVoice, I wound up switching to the $19.99 a month plan.

Good Points (about VOIP in general and BroadVoice in particular):

  • Stick it to the man!! You’ll still pay some bullshit government fees, but you’ll pay more with a landline or a cell phone.
  • Easy signup process
  • Super fast delivery from BroadVoice
  • Simple setup for a simple network topography. Your parents could do it.
  • Still cheaper than a regular landline and long distance, less hassle than a calling card.
  • Amaze your friends and co-workers! I freak the people in SanFran with my 650 area code. And to think I work in the software development arena 😛

PINGING [THINGS THAT SUCK] WITH 32 BYTES OF DATA: * * * * * *

  • Setup and extra feature costs add up
  • Early termination fees are heinous, shame on you, BroadVoice!
  • Local (to you) numbers not always available
  • If you have a complex network topography you might have some wiggity wiggity whack performance or NAT problems
  • QOS not high enough to run faxes at speeds higher than 9600 baud

VOIP and BroadVoice, I give thee:
Four out of five STFU mugs

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1 Comment on "I.P. … phone hoooome"

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  1. configuratrix says:

    Someone else I know has good things to say about VOIP, but I believe she is currently using skype — I’m not sure if that runs on top of another service such as Broadvoice.

    FYI, here’s a Wired column about Phil Zimmerman’s prototype program for encrypting VOIP: http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,68306,00.html