Taking the Plunge into VoIP

I recently went through the unpleasant experience of moving my home. Added to the general annoyance of such a move is the fact that I work at home, so I also had to move my home office--which contains a significant amount of computer hardware and networking equipment. Planning and a little help from a friend made the home-office move go smoothly, but the single most annoying thing to move was something I had no control over: my telephones.

Although I was moving a fairly short distance, I was leaving the telco exchange I'd had for the last 8 years--so I'd have to change my business phone numbers. Changing those numbers is a big deal; I get quite a few phone calls every day from vendors and PR people, and I'd have to alert hundreds of contacts to the new number and make sure they used it.

Because taking my number with me wasn't a simple option from my local telco provider (Verizon), I decided to take a chance and move my office numbers to a Voice over IP (VoIP) provider. I evaluated offerings from the three major players in the consumer VoIP market: Packet8 (http://www.packet8.net), DeltaThree's iConnectHere (http://www.iconnecthere.com), and Vonage (http://www.vonage.com). Although Packet8 and Vonage tout their local-number-porting ability, I selected Vonage based on the combination of price and features found in their Unlimited Business package. (I couldn't determine whether IConnectHere offers local number porting.)

After I signed up online for Vonage's service, I soon received a confirmation email message that included a new temporary phone number that I'd use until the process of moving my number from Verizon to Vonage was completed. I received the digital phone adapter the next business day. (Vonage is in New Jersey, I'm in Pennsylvania; the adapter was sent by regular shipping.) The adapter is required to use VoIP on a regular phone; the vendor includes it in its VoIP service at no extra charge.

My sole concern was that the vendor's recommended configuration for the digital phone adapter was to connect it directly to my cable modem, thereby putting it in front of my router/firewall/gateway. Because I use Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2000 for testing and to protect my network, I didn't really want to put the DPA Network Address Translation (NAT) in front of ISA Server. I did a quick Web search for "Vonage reviews" and, based on the Vonage-user comments I found, I determined that the digital phone adapter should work when it's plugged in to any Ethernet port on my network. I simply plugged the adapter into one of my switch ports and found that it worked just fine.

So far my experience with Vonage's VoIP service has been positive: Call clarity has been excellent, and I've had no service interruptions. Vonage provides two customer service channels: email and telephone customer support. Response via email has been fast; telephone support has been a mixed experience. I found Vonage's phone support employees to be helpful; the downside was a 20-to-35-minute wait to talk to a support rep.

I can easily obtain detailed information about all my phone calls, inbound and out, through the user control panel on Vonage's Web site. Adding features and phone numbers is simple, straightforward, and inexpensive ($4.99 per month for a virtual number). Given the number of clients I have in California, I'm considering adding a virtual phone number in the Bay area to give my clients a local number to call.

Although it seems that the consumer VoIP vendors are experiencing some growing pains, my impression is that the VoIP technology is mature enough for consumer use. I'll report back in a few months when I've had a chance to fully wring out the service and its features.

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