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VoIP Evolves

You’ve just networked all of the computers, printers and Internet cameras for your client. You’ve installed a residential gateway and now everything successfully connects to each other and a broadband Internet connection. You’re ready to pack up your crimping tools and software disks, proud of having completed another successful home network installation.

As you head out the door your client asks, “Can I also connect my existing phones to my home network and the broadband Internet connection to save money on long distance calls, and add computer telephony to my home network?” What would your answer be? Read on and you’ll be able to give your client exactly the answer he or she would like to hear.

Vonage, an early voice over IP (VoIP) pioneer, founded in Edison, New Jersey, has been offering VoIP services since 1991. Vonage is currently handling more than five million calls per week. In the late spring of this year, AT&T announced that it was launching its CallVantage Voice over IP services in the San Francisco Bay Area. Less than a month after introducing VoIP services in New Jersey and Texas, AT&T expanded CallVantage’s availability to major markets in California, New York and the San Antonio area of Texas and plans to quickly expand to 100 major markets by year’s end.

I’ve been experimenting with VoIP services over the last couple of years, because it was a very logical extension of services for anyone with a broadband-enabled home. The challenge with the voice over IP services that I tried in the past was that the voice quality was never as good or reliable as my traditional circuit-based phone line. That has now changed with Vonage and AT&T’s improved VoIP offerings. After several weeks of usage I am extremely impressed by the voice quality and reliability of these services, and my dream of moving voice services over a broadband connection are finally being realized. With VoIP calling I can now enjoy phone-based services that can easily be controlled from my own personal login-based phone portal. Services included with the present Vonage and AT&T CallVantage programs include:

Unlimited calling for one flat rate. AT&T is offering the full range of local and long distance CallVantage services for a six month introductory rate of $20/month, and then will increase this rate to $40/month. Vonage has a similar monthly plan for $35/month. International calls can be made at significantly reduced per minute rates.

Online voicemail. All messages that I receive on my VoIP line are recorded and can be retrieved by listening to them from my computer or from any phone with standard voicemail retrieval prompts. AT&T also has a feature that will automatically forward all voicemails to my e-mail address as an e-mail attachment. This gives one the ability to have a single mailbox for all text and voice messages and to save and forward voicemail messages.

Locate Me. Vonage and AT&T has a page on my personal phone portal that will let me specify up to 10 lines that I want an incoming call to ring. If I’m not at home I could have the call ring to my cell number and then to my work office. The search could be done in succession, or all of these rings could occur at the same time.

Call logging. Call logging lets me see at a glance all of the calls that I have placed and received over the last 60 days. This database includes phone numbers and date/time information.

Do Not Disturb. Tired of getting telemarketing calls during dinner-time? There is a Do Not Disturb feature that prevents calls from getting through during a time of day that one can specify on a daily or weekly basis.

How These New Services Work. When you order the CallVantage service from AT&T, they will send you a broadband router with built-in voice over IP services within a week of your order. This router will work with any of your standard home wired or wireless phones and a DSL or cable modem (but not with satellite broadband services-satellite’s upload speed is too slow). Also, your cable or DSL modem must be physically separate from your existing router, because the AT&T broadband router will effectively replace your existing router. If you have an integrated cable or DSL modem/router, then you will need to disable the routing functionality of your product and attach the new AT&T router. The technically attractive part of this solution is that your VoIP calls are not affected by traffic within your local home network since the call goes directly from your home phone to the router where it is transformed to IP packets and broadcast over the Internet. Vonage, on the other hand, will ship an analog to voice over IP bridge that is installed behind the router where calls are subject to your home network’s traffic congestion, potentially causing voice transmission and quality issues.

The disadvantage of the AT&T solution is that you may have enabled some virtual server applications from your home, such as online gaming or a virtual private network connection that may or may not work with the new AT&T router. (Vonage does not have this issue because you will keep your existing router and install the analog bridge behind the router on the home network.) In my experience, the ability to establish a Virtual Private Network from my work office to my home office was adversely compromised by this exchange of routers. AT&T claims to have a client software patch to resolve this problem, but it highlights the potential issue one may face when exchanging your existing router. To resolve this problem, you could order an additional IP address from your broadband Internet service provider (usually about $5/month) and use this new address to service AT&T’s VoIP router while keeping your existing IP address for your current router and home network. Because all of your interaction with your IP phone service is over the Internet-based phone portal, it does not matter that your VoIP router and your home router are on the same private home network.

Other limitations are the inability to use these lines for fax capabilities and a difficulty downloading electronic program guides to personal video recorder products (such as TiVO). Therefore, it is still prudent to have a traditional analog secondary line for these services.

AT&T’s introduction of VoIP services for the residential market, complemented by Vonage’s three-year track record in this industry, represent a giant step forward in the acceptance and deployment of digital voice services for the home. While the movement to residential IP-based phone calls is still in its infancy, those that participate in this service will enjoy the benefits of phone enhancement services that were previously only in the domain of very expensive commercial phone-based systems. For professional custom electronics installers, IP telephony represents another valuable billable networking service to offer
your broadband clients.