Voice Over IP woes

September 27, 2007 at 12:30 am Leave a comment

I’ve been using VoIP for a couple of years at home. For me, it was always about the savings. My BellSouth line was costing about $21 a month if we did not use long distance service at all. Typically, we did a little, and the resulting bill was close to $30 each month.

In my family, we don’t actually use the phone very much, so I opted for the Vonage $14.99 a month plan. That gave me 500 minutes per month anywhere in the US. We never even came close to using the phone for 500 minutes in a month. Their $14.99 plan wasn’t really $14.99 either. It was more like $16 something when I first got it, and it gradually moved up to a little over $19 a month, coming within a few dollars of what I had previously payed for my local BellSouth line. Quality, you ask? Vonage was very good, with only occasional clicks, pops, etc. (On some calls – Not all)

Enter VoicePulse. I switched to them after spending a year on Vonage. I had to stay with them that long because of their stupid mail-in rebate. VoicePulse’s $14.99 a month plan was really $14.99 a month, until they had to add in a Federally mandated fee, bringing the total to $15.89 a month. This is for unlimited incoming minutes, unlimited local (within your area code) calling, and 200 minutes of long distance per month. In the approximately 8 months I have had VoicePulse service, we never came close to eating up the 200 minutes. Quality? I’d have to put them on par (or perhaps better than) Vonage.

What’s cheaper than $15.89 a month? Why, $0 a month! I recently heard about a device called Magicjack that costs $40 and includes a free year of service, with additional years only costing $20. Too good to be true, right? I bought one, figuring the $40 risk was worth it. Let’s just say that I’m glad I didn’t cancel my VoicePulse service. To be honest, it actually worked very well on my test calls. It has one big drawback, though. It is a USB device that needs a Windows PC to run. This means the PC has to be on all the time and has to have proprietary software running on it constantly. For most people, I can’t see it being a full time telephone replacement, but since the PC I had in mind was up all the time anyhow, I figured it would be worth a shot. The PC that I used it on is essentially a VM server. This machine does almost nothing except run a virtual machine or two. It’s just an old Celeron 1.8 Ghz box with 1.5 GB of RAM, but it has always been rock solid. After having Magicjack attached to it for about 2 weeks, it mysteriously locked up. This was the first time this machine locked up in… Well, I don’t remember when. Was it Magicjack’s fault? Who knows. But, putting this together with what I’ve heard and read elsewhere about Magicjack, I don’t think this is a good fit for me. If I was on the road with a laptop, it might be a really good fit, though, with the increasing number of hotels offering free Internet access.

One really good thing did come out of my Magicjack experience. Since Magicjack has a very limited number of area codes to select from when you sign up, they have suggested a workaround if you can’t get a local number. Get a GrandCentral account. What’s that? I’m glad you asked! It is a free service offered by Google (they recently bought the original company). Basically, you get a phone number just about anywhere you want. You can have that phone number forward to whatever phone numbers you like. Notice that I said numbers, plural. When someone calls your GrandCentral number, it will ring all of your phone numbers. Home, Office, Cell, etc. depending on how you have it set up in their web interface. It also includes free voicemail. You can record incoming calls with the touch of a button, listen in on voicemail, etc. It screens your calls and even has a way to block suspected telemarketers. What if someone gets your number that you don’t want to talk to? (Bill collectors??) Easy, just mark them as SPAM in the web interface. They can call you all they want, but your phones won’t ring.

So, why does GrandCentral appeal to me so much? Because I want a phone number that doesn’t change. I ported my Vonage number to VoicePulse, and I just have to say that the number porting game isn’t all it is cracked up to be. I have had multiple calls where another Vonage customer was trying to call their daughter in another country. Apparently, when she signed up, Vonage tried to assign her my phone number. I think I ended up taking calls from two or three different Vonage reps about this problem. I also ended up getting called probably no less than a dozen times by PeoplePC. Apparently, my Vonage number was used by one of their customers (this problem only started after I ported the number to VoicePulse). Even though EACH time they called me I calmly explained that the person they were looking for did not now, nor ever before live at my address and that I do not have any idea who they are, they kept calling. After about 3-4 months of this, they finally stopped calling.

Anyhow, back to GrandCentral. I don’t care so much for the “one number to rule them all” aspect since I’d rather not be bothered at home when someone is trying to fix a problem at work, but rather the “one number forever” aspect is what really attracts me. No more porting numbers. And did I mention that GrandCentral is essentially free? They do have a few “pay” features, but are giving everyone credit for those during the beta. What’s the catch? Well, one of the pay features is to “Make a call” with GrandCentral. You put the phone number to call into the website (or return a call via the website to someone who has already called your GrandCentral number) and your phone rings as they call the recipient. Both you and the one GrandCentral called on your behalf are joined to the same phone call, and you can chat away. On their caller ID? Your GrandCentral number. This is really nice, as just about everyone has caller ID now and they’ll see where you are calling from and call you back at that number. This works out really well for cell phones, as most people simply store your number in their cell based off of the caller ID when you call them. If the caller ID number they see is your cell number, they’ll only reach you by your cell. If it’s your office number, they’ll only hit your office. In my case, this isn’t a major issue, since I’m mainly interested in just keeping the same number though I may change services many times. But, I still want people to see my GrandCentral number on their caller ID when I call them. Since that’s a pay feature, and since I don’t want to bring up a web browser when I want to call someone, I need another way… More research…

Research leads me to other VoIP providers. After looking around, I decided upon CallWithUs. They claim to be a small family-run business, and I believe them. I emailed them with a question (not yet a customer at this point) on a Saturday afternoon. Within about 15 minutes, I had the answer sitting in my in-box. Awesome service! Any time I’ve emailed Vonage or VoicePulse, I have been lucky to get a reply back the next business day. They charge you per minute for each outgoing call you make. For incoming calls, you select a DID number. Depending on the number you select, you get so many minutes free (many include ZERO free minutes), and that number costs you so much each month. My area code had numbers from $4.99 with no free incoming minutes, and $6.50 for 3000 incoming minutes free. So, my monthly bill would be under $10 most likely with CallWithUs. Oh – The answer to my support email I sent on Saturday? Why, yes, I can present any Caller ID number that I want to the people I call. (Though it does need to be a number capable of reaching me.) See where I’m going here? Yea – Present my GrandCentral number!

With CallWithUs (as with most other small VoIP providers), you need to bring your own device. After looking around a bit, I settled on the Linksys SPA-2102. It was only after the order was complete that I realized that this unit also included a router that I didn’t need, but hey… If I have any QOS issues with it behind my firewall, I can potentially move it to the outside of my firewall and let it take priority.

My Linksys SPA2102 arrived. Configuring it was pretty easy, though I did experiment a bit with placement on my network. I finally settled with it sitting behind my firewall, just like my Vonage and VoicePulse adapters had been.

I got to thinking about my monthly fee. $4.99 with no minutes seemed a bit pricey. $6.50 with all those minutes seemed like overkill. Since the rates are very dependent on where the number it out of, perhaps I could use GrandCentral as my only number and the REAL number people would end up calling wouldn’t matter. So, I posed another question to the good folks at CallWithUs. They suggested a phone number in a completely different area code that costs only $2.99 a month with 3000 free incoming minutes. What a deal! With this setup, I fully expect my monthly phone bill to be less than $8. Some months will probably be as low as $5 or $6, depending on usage.

This solution is a bit more tech heavy than Vonage or VoicePulse. For example, there is no 7 digit dialing with CallWithUs, but if you know how, you can modify the dial plan setting on your ATA box (like I did on my Linksys SPA-2102) and make it prepend 1 + your area code whenever you dial only 7 digits (that don’t start with a 1). I also programmed my ATA to call my local Sheriff’s office dispatch should I dial 911. (CallWithUs doesn’t currently offer E911 service) Do note that I have “naked DSL”, which won’t let me make outgoing calls, but I understand will allow me to make 911 calls. I haven’t actually tested it yet, but plan to soon, and if it works, I’ll probably stick a phone or two on it around the house for E911 service. I’ll look to see if I can find any nice RED phones, like my own bat phone. Or maybe I’ll make my own bat phone?

I’ve been happy with the service so far. All my calls have been crystal clear. Perhaps it is because they are a smaller shop, so their lines and servers aren’t clogged.

Since signing up with CallWithUs, I’ve found CallCentric. They offer the “all you can eat” plans like VoicePulse and Vonage, and they offer the budget plans that could get you to a sub $5/month phone bull, depending on your use, plus they offer E911 service. I don’t know anything about the quality of the service or how quickly they reply to support inquiries.

One of the great things about using a “Bring Your Own Device” provider is that if you don’t like the service, the people, or you just have a bad day, you can hop to another provider with a minimal loss in terms of cash. If I have issues with CallWithUs, I’ll probably try CallCentric next (assuming they advertise whatever I give them for my Caller ID info). Since I’m using GrandCentral, changing phone numbers is no big deal at all, so no number porting charges either.

Anyhow, I’m giving this a trial run for another week or two and if things go smoothly, I’m kicking VoicePulse to the curb and saving $8 to $10 bucks a month.

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Entry filed under: Networking.

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