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An Alternative to the $*£=&%! Phone Company

From day one I was skeptical of telephony over the Internet. It was not just the poor audio quality of those early calls, but I never felt comfortable that the Net's infrastructure was robust enough to support reliable telephone service.

Then, last summer at a trade show, I was lured into the booth of a small New Jersey-based IP telephony company called Vonage. I was offered a free phone call and took up the offer. To my surprise, the call sounded just fine -- no different from the best connection one normally gets on a standard telco landline.

I suspected it was some kind of trick, but a lady from Vonage offered to let me try out the service at no cost. At the time, I declined but kept it in the back of my mind, mainly because the service is priced so much less than that of the phone company. Then, slowly over time, I kept reading praise in the news media for Vonage's quality of service.

The moment of truth came several months ago when I finally got fed up with the poor quality of my Verizon DSL service and the outrageously high prices of landline services in New York City.

My DSL service, much too sluggish to begin with, kept turning itself off, demanding that I reset it. Verizon's tech support, after keeping me on endless holds several times, assured me this was "normal." If I wanted more reliable service, I was told, I should move up to more costly business-class DSL.

My second landline -- used mainly for outgoing calls -- was costing an arm and a leg. Not only was I paying for the line, a litany of "extras," and an amazing layer of federal, state and local taxes, I was also being charged 10.6 cents per call plus an average of nine cents a minute for dozens of regional calls. It was time for a change and I decided Vonage's moment had come.

ADIOS, VERIZON

Vonage works through both cable and DSL broadband connections. I prefer DSL and decided to begin this transition on a reliable DSL foundation. Saying goodbye to Verizon, I switched my DSL service to Earthlink. Even though Earthlink uses Verizon's lines, my DSL performance improved dramatically. It's much faster, no longer randomly "disconnects," and the helpful Earthlink people actually answer their phone.

Feeling secure about my DSL connection, I ordered the Vonage service. There's a choice of two residential plans: The premium plan costs $39.99 a month for unlimited calling throughout the U.S. and Canada. A monthly plan at $25.99 allows unlimited local calling plus 500 minutes of U.S./Canada long distance. Beyond 500 minutes, it costs 3.9 cents a minute. (For business lines, the unlimited plan is $69.99 a month, or $39.99 a month for 1,500 minutes of long distance.)

The Vonage service works with standard analog phone equipment. There are no per-call charges, regional fees or excessive taxes. Your number is truly "portable" and is not based on your permanent location. Instead, it moves with you wherever you access a broadband connection. You can even have one or more area codes that don't reflect where you physically reside.

Included with all plans are voicemail, caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, call transfer, call return, caller ID block, repeat dialing, area code selection and Web-based account management, voicemail retrieval and a bunch of other features. International calling is also discounted; for example, London, Tel Aviv and Hong Kong costs six cents per minute.

I ordered the $25.99 residential plan. To my great surprise, the entire package arrived overnight. To enable the service, Vonage sends a Cisco ATA 186 box -- a small handset-to-Ethernet adapter that turns traditional telephone devices into IP devices. If you don't have a home network and want to share your phone service with a personal computer, Vonage offers a Netgear RP114 router at a discounted price of $39.99. There is also a one-time activation fee of $29.99.

Assembly went smoothly, though the Netgear router came with poor documentation that made it tricky to install. Some scenarios are included for configuration with various ISPs, but Earthlink DSL was missing. With a little experimentation, I eventually set up the router with my Apple iBook through the OS X DHCP network panel. Installation of the Cisco device was as simple as plugging in the power, telephone and Ethernet cables. I turned it on and, presto, it worked perfectly.

VIVE LA VONAGE

As I write this, I've been using the Vonage service for nearly a month. It has performed far beyond my expectations. Occasionally, there will be a little echo or momentary distortion, but no more so than with standard telco landline service. The voice quality has been excellent and not one caller has suggested any degradation.

One downside of IP telephone service is its dependence on AC power. One day we had a brief power failure. When service resumed, the Cisco device rebooted itself and telephone service came on almost instantly. I like the security of having at least one landline, if for nothing more than not having to rely on electric service.

I've incorporated the Vonage service as the second line on a two-line phone. Now, it's out of sight and out of mind and -- as it should be -- I no longer distinguish between standard telco and IP telephony.

I expect this to change, however, when my next phone bill arrives. I estimate Vonage will save close to $175 a month in my overall phone charges. And that's the best news of all!

For more info: www.vonage.com

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.