Phone Companies Granite Falls NC
winston salem, NC
Making Calls from the Computer
With just a little extra equipment and minimal computer savvy, you can take advantage of broadband telephone rates that are often drastically lower than those of traditional carriers. After my regular long-distance provider told me that calling my son in Paraguay was going to cost me $1.60 per minute, I choked. Then I researched the problem and discovered voice over Internet protocol, or as it's affectionately known, VoIP. VoIP sends phone calls over data networks, and it is beginning to challenge traditional phone companies. Businesses of all sizes are making the switch, and home users are quickly following their lead. The basic operation of VoIP is largely imperceptible to users. With VoIP, conversations are broken up into small data packets and transmitted, like email, via the best possible route. Traditional phone systems, by comparison, create a dedicated link between parties for the length of the call. The advantage to both consumers and companies is the ability of the VoIP system to eliminate long-distance charges and make calls appear to emanate from the home or the office - no matter where they are actually made. After surveying the possibilities, I found Vonage (www.vonage.com), a broadband phone company based in Edison, N.J., that has pioneered consumer VoIP. Vonage claims nearly 30,000 customers - a drop in the bucket compared with even the smallest conventional phone company - but Vonage is growing quickly, adding more than 1,500 lines a week. And the company recently signed partnerships with Earthlink and some regional cable companies to offer VoIP to their broadband customers. Traditional phone companies are getting into the business. Sprint is now offering VoIP services to business customers. SBC and AT&T also have announced plans to launch IP telephony services, while Verizon has partnered with GoBeam, which provides services to businesses, including home-based ones. But overall adoption is slow. "Big providers are reluctant to cannibalize their businesses," says Julia Mermelstein, senior consulting analyst for Allied Business Intelligence. "But once people understand the advantages, it's going to be hard to ignore the demand." When Vonage launched in 2001, the typical customer was a computer geek who wanted to be on the cutting edge, says Louis Holder, Vonage's executive vice president for product development. Then as major businesses like Ernst & Young, Burger King and Cisco switched all their office systems to VoIP, Holder says Vonage's customers were increasingly employees who first saw the advantages to VoIP at work and wanted it at home. Now, he says, the average new customer is simply someone who heard VoIP is less expensive than standard systems and decided to give it a try. If you already have a DSL or cable connection, the best thing about VoIP is what you get for the price. For $39.99, a Vonage user gets free long distance anywhere in Canada and the United States and the services that have become standard on many systems - caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, call transfer. Plus, users get services that are premium on many systems like voicemail, call return (∗69), call block (∗67), web-based call management and repeat dialing. Then Vonage throws in some features that aren't available anywhere else. For instance, Vonage users get to choose the area code in which they would like their phone located. One area code comes with the deal, and for an additional $5 per number per month, you can get as many virtual numbers as you want. Why would you care? If you have a home-based business that you would like to have located in New York City, for example, Vonage will assign you a 212 area code. But let's say you live in New Jersey and want your kid's friends to be able to call without dialing long distance, so you get a second, 201 virtual area code on the same line for $5 a month. You can even keep your current phone number. Then suppose your mother lives in San Francisco and doesn't have broadband (so she can't get her own Vonage phone), so for another $5 a month, you can have a 415 area code as well, allowing Mom to call whenever she wants, at local rates. If you need a second fax line, Vonage will throw that in for another $10 month. International rates are very competitive; my Paraguay call is $0.13 per minute. There are other options besides Vonage. Deltathree (www.iconnecthere.com) offers much cheaper per-month rates for limited minutes that are particularly attractive if you're calling outside the United States. For instance, for $4.95, you can make 100 minutes worth of calls in much of South America. Deltathree will sell you the necessary equipment, or you can buy it yourself at RadioShack or on eBay. Expect to pay about $200 for everything. Dialpad (www.dialpad.com) will sell you a handset that hooks to your computer via USB that allows you to make calls using your Windows sound card. The USB phone is about $90, although you can find a cheaper one on eBay. When I tried a USB phone, the call quality was similar to a really lousy cell-phone connection - or maybe just a tin can. If you are really tech savvy, and you're talking to someone else who has a VoIP connection or even just a microphone and a sound card, you might try Free World Dialup (www.pulver.com/ fwd). The instructions are minimal; you're completely on your own when it comes to purchasing equipment; and both you and whomever you want to call have to join to use the service. But once you have it all sorted out, the calls are free anywhere in the world. To make any of this work, first you have to solve the equipment issues. After surveying the possibilities, I went for the Vonage solution. For a $30 setup charge, Vonage supplies you with a Cisco ATA-186 handset-to-Ethernet adapter that interfaces with any regular analog telephone you might have lying around. You have to plug the ATA into a router that you provide. The largest maker of routers is Linksys (which is owned by Cisco). An adequate Linksys router sells for about $25. Besides managing your telephone calls, this basic router will allow you to share Internet access among three computers. Configuring the router is the trickiest part of setting up a VoIP system. If you buy a Linksys router, the instructions are straightforward. Follow them, and you should be OK. But if you have trouble, Linksys customer-service options are minimal, and Vonage may not be much help either. Configuring a Linksys router with an Apple computer is more difficult than with a PC and Windows, so if you have a choice, go the Windows route. But either operating system will work. Once the router is operating, then it's just a matter of plug and play. You'll be up and calling in seconds. I find the sound quality to be clearer than my landline - unless I am using my broadband connection simultaneously to do something bandwidth-intensive, like downloading. Then the sound quality deteriorates quickly, and I get lots of echoes and fuzz. Vonage says this problem is fixable by allocating more bandwidth to the phone. The other issue that stops some people from considering VoIP is the inability of most systems to interface with 911. Vonage says it has solved that problem by linking your assigned phone number to its computer, routing 911 calls automatically to the proper emergency number. But even that doesn't work if you take your VoIP phone traveling - a nice perk if you make many calls from hotel rooms. As long as you have a broadband connection - increasingly available at even mid-priced hotels - you can plug your ATA into the hotel's connector, your computer and hotel's phone into the ATA, and make and receive calls just like you were at home. Just one drawback: It makes working while on vacation a little too easy. Jennie L. Phipps is a freelance writer based in Farmington Hills, Mich.