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E-mail, chat, & VoIP forum: The advantage and disadvantages of using VoIP

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) October 11, 2007 12:49 PM PDT

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The advantage and disadvantages of using VoIP

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 10/11/07 12:49 PM


Hi, I need some opinions for the members who currently use VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) or who had previous used this service and discontinued it. My cable and broadband provider Comcast has been pushing this service and I'm really curious as to why. The deal sounds amazing, it's cheap and has many features that I would take advantage of like unlimited calling anywhere, and offers inexpensive additions for international calls. Currently I pay a hefty amount for my landline service and VOIP seems to be the solution. However, I don't really know anything about the service except that it is cheap and it uses my cable lines to make calls rather than using the telephone line. Also if it's such a great deal, how come none of my friends and family use it? I'm currently only getting one side of the story of how great it is from the VOIP companies (checked out Vonage and others also). What's the real deal here? Is there a catch to all this hype? Will I regret switching? I would love to hear from the people who use VOIP and tell me exactly how it works and what are the advantages and disadvantages of the service, so that I can make the right choice for me. Thank you.

Submitted by: Maria M.

Answer voted most helpful by the CNET Community newsletter readers:

Switching from cable to VoIP

I've used both Vonage and our cable company (Time Warner).

There is nothing wrong with VoIP and it might save you a lot of money. I am using it, I've had it for years, and I like it. But read my comments below. I had Vonage for a year-and-a-half, switched to the cable company only because they offered me a pacakge deal that they are now about to reneg on, and I might go back to Vonage.

When you get VoIP, you will get a "VoIP Box" that provides your VoIP phone service. If your provider is the cable company, they may give you a separate box, or they may give you a new cable modem that has the VoIP box in it. If you go with Vonage or another VoIP provider, it will definitely be an external box (sometimes combined with a router, but I really recommend keeping it separate, see below).

The VoIP box has a "phone jack" (technically known as an RJ-11 jack) on it, and that becomes your new source of phone service. You can plug a phone or phones into that jack (the same phones you use now), and they work just like they did before. But with a bit of rewiring (one of my items below), you can also drive your entire house's phone wiring from this jack, and then your entire house has VoIP phone service that works just like your wired "phone company" service did. You can also keep your existing phone number. But while it all works just like your phone service does now, there are a lot of things to consider, and many of them are not at all obvious to people who don't really understand this stuff.

Here are a list of things to consider before making this decision:

First, your phone service will be only as reliable as your internet service. Now that can vary a lot, but if your internet service is not reliable, you will have a problem with any VoIP, regardless of the VoIP provider (and, conversely, if it is reliable, you shouldn't have a problem). One question to think about: When your internet service does go out, how will you call the cable company to tell them it's out? (the usual answer is either "go next door" or "use a cell phone" .... but what is YOUR answer?)

Second, 911 service MAY not work the same with VoIP as it does now with wired conventional phone service, the 911 operators MAY not know where you are, who you are, or where you are calling from UNLESS you take some extra steps to "register" your phone number and address together (which should always be possible). The cable company MAY do this for you if they are your VoIP provider. But be sure you know what the story is, and if an extra 911 registration step is required .... definitely be sure that you take those steps. Such extra steps were REQUIRED for Vonage (whose VoIP box was portable), they were not required for the cable company (whose VoIP box is part of the cable modem and is NOT portable). VoIP box portability in and of itself may be higly desireable, sometimes it is even the entire reason for getting VoIP (which rules OUT the cable company as a VoIP provider for those applications), but it definitely merits some extra attention with respect to 911 service.

[Postscript to this item: It is ok to dial 911 to TEST this issue ... just tell them immediately after they answer "there is no emergency, this is a test call ...." and then verify that they know who you are and where you are calling from (or, possibly, that they don't). Test calls should be made at odd after-hours (2am in the morning is good), because there have been situations in which VoIP 911 service worked properly during "business hours" but did not work properly during non-business hours.]

Third, do you need unlimited calling? My cable company rate is $39; Vonage is $25, both with unlimited service. BUT, Vonage has (or at least had) a $15 per month rate with limited 500 minutes per month of service (and a few cents a minute surcharge for any time over 500 minutes). Note that this is not "long distance", this is ANY outbound calls (even local). Still, the Vonage $15/500 rate was by far the least expensive rate for me, we never use over or even close to 500 minutes per month (but families with teenage girls will probably find that a different set of rules applies to them).

Fourth: Vonage is facing a patent lawsuit injunction that could shut them down, totally, lock stock and barrel. I'm giving serious thought to going back to Vonage, but won't do it until/unless this is resolved (they just settled a patent case with Sprint, but their case with Verizon is the really big issue).

Fifth: If you use VoIP from a provider other than your cable company, the impact on your cable Internet speed while talking on the phone may be significant. If you use VoIP from your cable company, you MAY get "extra" bandwidth as part of the package, so that your Internet bandwidth is less impacted by use of the phone. This may be an issue if anyone in your household is a "gamer". It is unlikely to be a serious issue otherwise.

Sixth: If you use VoIP and want to have all of your phones in your entire house just like you used to with no changes, someone is going to have to disconnect you home's phone wiring from the [wired] phone company and connect it to the VoIP provider's VoIP box (either a separate box or part of a new cable modem that the cable company will give you if you use their VoIP service). If you go with Vonage or a non-cable company VoIP provider, you are on your own in getting that done. If you go with your cable company, one of three different situations may exist: A.) The cable company will send out a technician to do it at no cost to you ...or... B.) The cable company will send out a technician and bill you ...or... C.) You are on your own. This is a one-time thing, in any case, it's not difficult, but the average layman can't do it themselves. So maybe you talk to some kind of "Geek squad" or "Fire Dog" or "Nerd Herd" type outfit about doing it for you if you can't do it yourself (for a fee). If you are "semi-game", Vonage may have some instructions to help you take a stab at doing it yourself. HOWEVER, this is not a major issue if all of your phones are "cordless" phones that run from a single base station that will be plugged directly into the VoIP box. But, in that case, seen the next item.

Seventh: In the event of a power failure, you lose your phone service ..... UNLESS you install a UPS on ALL of your networking equipment. This means the cable modem for sure, at a minimum. It may also involve other equipement as well, whatever is required to keep your Internet infrastructure running. Things that might need to be kept powered would include the cable modem, a router, the VoIP box and any "distribution amplifiers" that the cable company may have installed (these could be in your basement or other odd places and you might not even know about them), not to mention your telephones themselves if they require AC power (cordless phones usually need power for the "base station"). Note: you do NOT need to keep your computer runnning, although if you are going to buy a UPS anyway, most people would configure it to do so. This might mean multiple UPS' (I now have EIGHT UPS' in my house .... UPS' are not just for computers any more). Also, if you have to buy one or more UPS' for this purpose, get BIG ones, and note the next few sentences. The issue here is not UPS capacity .... none of this stuff needs more than a very small UPS in terms of actual VA or watts capacity. The issue is the size of the batteries and the duration of service while on batteries. You want UPS' with BIG BATTERIES, or multiple batteries, e.g. lots of run time. However, you only get that in large capacity UPS'.

Eighth: You can keep your phone number, but in both of my experiences in doing this, getting the number switched took a LONG time (4 months and 6 months, respectively (by the way, it was supposed to take 10 days .....)). In both cases I kept the old service until the switch was complete, and there was no charge from the "new" carrier until the number finally moved.

Ninth: If you go with a VoIP provider other than the cable company, OR if the cable company gives you an external VoIP box rather than an integrated combination cable modem and VoIP box, you will need a router (and possibly a wireless router if you need WiFI wireless internet). If you find yourself in this situation, do NOT get a router with a built-in VoIP box, keep the VoIP box and the router separate. It means one more box, but it will cut down on a lot of hassle if you change your phone service or VoIP provider in the future.

Tenth: If you make international calls, be sure to check the International rates. I don't make such calls, but Vonage was dirt cheap for International calls (free to many countries and a penny or two a minute to others) while the cable company charges between 40 cents and $1.00 per minute depending on country. Obviously, that is a huge difference .... for people who make international calls.

There, I think I've covered everything. Hope that this helps.
Barry Watzman

Submitted by CNET member watzman

If you have any feedback for Maria, let's hear them! Click on the "Reply" link to post. Please be detailed as possible in your answer. Thanks!

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