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February 04, 2005

VoIP: It’s The Features

We have two Vonage phones (personal and Evslin Consulting) as well as a Skype account.  This post is about some Vonage VoIP features that we’ve found compelling.  By 2010, I believe, all phones will be VoIP phones (unless there’s an even better successor taking market share).  The migration to VoIP started because of price but will be completed because of compelling features.

Portability:

The most important feature to us is portability.  We first subscribed to Vonage when we were spending all the time we could at a beach house.  When we went from our main house to our beach house, we just unplugged the Vonage adapter at one place and plugged it into the router, the phones, and power at the other.  There is no setup involved in this.  The box identifies itself and its new IP address to Vonage over the broadband connection.  The phone number that used to ring in Princeton then rang at the shore or vice versa.  No more separate numbers; no more two voice mails to check; we present the same Caller ID no matter where we call from.  And no more two local and long distance accounts (but that is mainly a price issue).  With the business line which includes fax, faxes get to us no matter what location we’re at.

Sure, mobile phones also provide portability although at a higher price.  Doesn’t work for me because I don’t like to give out my mobile number (I don’t want to be that reachable) and because there are still too many places in the US where neither of our mobile phones work well.  Of course, the Vonage portability also works “free” with international broadband connections although hotel rooms with Wi-Fi or Ethernet which requires a logon are still a problem I haven’t solved as far as getting the adapter connected so that’s why the Skype account.

We’ve now got a winter place in Vermont and it’s taken a while to get broadband good enough for VoIP (there’ll be another post on that).  However, to our delight, we’ve been able to take advantage of Vonage for incoming calls even here.  Vonage has a Simultaneous Ringing feature. We make it ring our Verizon land line in Vermont at the same time as the phone in New Jersey.  If we don’t answer either one, the call goes to Vonage voice mail.  That means our one phone number works here as well.  We don’t give out the Verizon land line number.

Virtual Numbers:

But it’s strange to give a New Jersey phone number to people in Vermont.  Hard for them to realize that it reaches us here.  So, for $4.99 a month, we got a virtual phone number in our town in Vermont.  Still rings through the same Vonage device wherever we are; still goes to the same voice mail. But it is a recognizable local number and a local call for those who are calling us “locally”.  When we’re back in New Jersey, of course, we’ll still get the calls from the people who are calling the Vermont number.

“Aha”, says wife Mary, daughter Kate and her husband live in London.  For another $4.99 a month we have a local number in London.  Kate can reach us with a local call no matter where we are.

There are no usage charges for either of these virtual numbers although there would be if they were virtual toll free numbers which are also available.

Standard PSTN Features:

Our Vonage account costs $24.99 (actually $28.89 with taxes and fees) and includes unlimited calls to the US and Canada.  It also includes all of the PSTN features that traditional phone companies usually charge extra for:  Caller ID, Call Waiting, Voice Mail, and Call Forwarding. However, the implementation of Call Forwarding and Voice Mail is far superior to Verizon – my previous provider.

Call Forwarding can be done through a web interface from anywhere.  I have to use my Verizon phone physically to activate or deactivate its Call Forwarding or to change the number I’m forwarding to.  This is a huge limitation.  Forwarded calls to US numbers are free on Vonage; they are toll calls on Verizon; but, of course, this is just price.

There are three ways to get my Vonage voice mail: the traditional call to the VM server with a phone, through email, or by accessing my account on the Vonage site.  In the latter two cases, the voice mail is in the form of .wav files and so is easy to listen to on most PCs.  Despite the lack of privacy, I find myself listening to voice mail in Internet cafes when we travel to places where I can’t get an Internet connection for my PC.  In both the case of email or access to the Vonage site, the file is downloaded before you listen so you don’t need a broadband connection.  Setup of voice mail features including the ability to force the phone directly to voice mail is also available through the web interface.

Once, on a recent trip to Belize, I couldn’t find an audio-equipped PC in an Internet café and had to call through the local monopoly telco to get my voice mail.  Ten minutes for $37.50, it turned out.  The rest of the time I was paying $1.50/hour at Internet cafes to get my email and voice mail.

Looking Ahead:

Note that all of the features I list are features which do not depend on anyone else having a VoIP phone.  That is appropriate now when VoIP phone penetration is low; features which depend on both parties having VoIP phones don’t have sufficient value to matter – yet.

But my prediction is that, as soon as VoIP phone penetration passes some magical tipping point around 20%, VoIP phone to VoIP phone features which are unlike anything else the PSTN can offer will appear.  Then people will get VoIP phones because, without them, they will not be able to communicate fully with their more advanced friends.  This is similar to what is happening with residential broadband: when your friends have it, you need it too because they are sending you huge files and playing games you can’t join.

Conclusions:

Bellheads, if there are any left, will argue that all of the features I’ve listed could have been, even probably were, implemented on the PSTN (public switched telephone network).  That’s technically true but irrelevant.  Probably because these features including web access to setup are almost impossible to shoehorn into the over-complex “intelligent” networks of the traditional carriers, it is the VoIP providers like Vonage who are making these features practically available.

This is not meant as a particular endorsement for Vonage.  I chose them because they were there when I decided to try VoIP and I clicked through one of their omnipresent ads.  They have not been perfect; they don’t have the fabled six nines of reliability.  There have been a few problems; the instances of poor voice quality are more frequent than on Verizon.  I like their customer service but some people have complained about it. I have not done a competitive study and it is possible that a Vonage competitor – there are many now – offers even more or offers better service.

But, what is clear is that VoIP has moved beyond price differentiation to feature differentiation.  The migration off the PSTN is gathering steam.

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