Holly Morris
Express Features Editor
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; 2:00 PM

VoIP (Voice-over Internet Protocol, pronounced "voyp") services let you talk over the Internet with a regular old phone and a broadband connection -- and it's cheap. The Washington Post Express tested six providers, including AT&T, Verizon and Vonage, plus a handful of free computer-to-computer services.

More Information:
Convergence Emergence
Review: Paid VoIP Services
Review: Free VoIP Services

Express features editor Holly Morris was online Tuesday, Dec. 14, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss VoIP and the Express' special report.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Potomac, Md.: If I use the Internet for my home phone service, if my power goes out(as it does after a storm) won't I also lose my telephone service? Right now, I can almost always call PEPCO on my regular phone to tell it the power is out. I don't want to crimp on that safety feature. Is there any way around that problem?

Holly Morris: Besides a cell phone, not much. If you're hardcore, you could keep your networking gear plugged into an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). If power in your home goes out, but your Internet service suffers no interruption, that should work (in theory, at least). If your Internet service goes down, it's back to the cell phone.


Wilton, Conn.: What do you all think of service from "Packet8" one the VOIP providers? I've heard it was good and inexpensive?

Holly Morris: I would recommend Lingo over Packet8. Lingo was similar in voice quality (not the best) and international offerings, but cheaper and fuller-featured.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a Mac person and have always been frustrated to find new technologies treating us Mac users like second-class citizens -- having help desk people who don't even know how to use a Mac, for example. How Mac-friendly are these companies? Is there one in particular you'd recommend for a Mac loyalist?

Holly Morris: None of the pay VoIP services require any software installation -- you're just hooking things up to your modem and possibly also your router. So they're equally Mac-friendly. (The most you might have to do on your computer is configure one of them to talk to your DSL modem.)


Arlington, Va.: I have cable service right now but don't use a wireless router. I'm planning to go wireless. If I get VoIP, can I expect any drop-off in voice quality?

Holly Morris: I tested all six services on a cable network with a wireless router -- no difference.


Arlington, Va.: Have you sampled the voice service offered by Sun Rocket?

Holly Morris: Nope. Express tested AT&T, Verizon, VoicePulse, Lingo, Packet8 and Vonage.


Arlington, Va.: My DSL provider, Speakeasy, provides VoIP service. However, they only provide one phone adapter. Their FAQs say that they recommend a cordless phone with multiple handsets for homes with multiple phones. This seems like a terrible (and expensive) idea.

Is there a "whole house" phone adapter that can be installed in my whole-house media distribution center (where all my data and phone lines terminate) so that all my phones can use the VOIP connection?


Holly Morris: I know it can be done in some cases. My understanding is, unless you're real handy, it would probably involve an electrician.

AT&T's VoIP starter kit comes with instructions for doing it yourself, btw.


Alpharetta, Ga.: Which service were you most pleased with?

Holly Morris: AT&T had the best sound quality and the second-coolest features for a pretty good price: $30/month for unlimited long-distance. (VoicePulse had the coolest features.)


New York, N.Y.: Are any of the paid VoIP providers working to improve the 911 service to allow automatic routing to a local 911 dispacther and automatic address recognition?

Holly Morris: I'd expect so. Once VoIP gets more mainstream, I'd guess that the prospect of being off the phone company's grid would start to deter potential customers. Services would have to add such capabilities to keep growing.

Packet8, for example, offers a 911 service that acts like a 911 call made on a regular phone line. Only in certain areas, though.


Columbus, Ohio: Thanks for hosting this discussion.It seems like VoIP providers are marketing their services as a substitute for traditional telephone service (even though some consumer protection and public safety issues may not be resolved). However, don't most DSL customers need to keep their existing traditional telephone line?

Holly Morris: Yup.


Alpharetta, Ga.: Did you test using a wired phone connected to your VOIP, or a wireless phone? Would it make any difference?

Holly Morris: Cordless. Shouldn't make any difference.


Fairfield, N.J.: I want to use VoIP on the road on my PC with a softphone. Why do many VoIP companies make it difficult (charge extra) to do this and why do they not offer good quality USB equipment to improve the PC user interface for voice?

VoIP should be independent of endpoint wherther ATA, IP phone or PC! Or even forwarded to a cell phone!

Holly Morris: I don't know why they charge extra (like Vonage). But have you looked into Pulver's Free World Dialup or Skype? We really liked the USB phone we got through the latter.


Alpharetta, Ga.: Does VOIP support caller ID?

Holly Morris: Yup.


New York, N.Y.: What do you think demand for videophones will be? Have you tested any? How much are the ATA devices?

Holly Morris: The only videophone I recall was offered by Packet8. But we didn't test it.


Washington, D.C.: I tried an Internet phone connection some years ago, like in 2000, and found that the voice quality was very bad. It wasn't static so much as it was dropping out bits of sound, so you couldn't clearly hear the complete words the other person was saying. Are the new services like that, or do they provide voice quality that equals land line phones?

Holly Morris: My techie chat consultant says he thinks at least six months to a year before we see a shakeout or the RBOCS move in.


Washington, D.C.: Why isn't the TECHnext special report on VoIP that appeared in today's Express in the downloadable version of the paper?

Holly Morris: Our inserts never show up on our site. I don't know why. But the package is on the regular Washington Post site in the technology section.


Brownfield, Tex.: We use the free Firefly computer-to-computer connection and it works well for talking friends and relatives through new computer applications. We installed it on a new cable connected computer and have not been able to access the Firefly service. Can Cable companies filter so that VOIP cannot be used unless it is theirs? Thanks!

Holly Morris: Tech consulting buddy says that's pretty unlikely.


Herndon, Va.: I have had VoIP through Vonage since this past July and have been disappointed in its reliability. Several times a week when using this service, I have a problem that can be equated to drop outs similar too using a cell phone. In other words, the calling party sometimes cannot hear me or I cannot hear them like when a cell phone goes through a bad zone of coverage. Is this a problem with my VoIP carrier or my Cox high speed cable provider? How can I rectify this issue? Many thanks.

Holly Morris: In my experience, that's par for the course with these services. Have you tried Vonage's bandwidth saver option? It compresses voice data more, and can sometimes help.


Bethesda, Md.: Friend has VoIP. Clarity seems to be an issue, as does one person cutting another off if a sentence is interrupted. When two people talk at same time, VoIP has a problem handling that.

Holly Morris: Sometimes it does. It's really annoying. Like bad cell phone service.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: If VoIP still goes over traditional phone lines, why does such poor quality? That's long been known as several of your responses show.

Holly Morris: It doesn't travel like a traditional phone call. (Except in the sense that both phone companies and Internet companies are using the same wiring a lot of the time.)

A VoIP call gets broken up into packets and sent out every which way over the Internet, then gets reassembled. Packets may drop or be delayed, depending on network traffic, or whether you're online, etc. That's one contributor to lower quality. Another is how well the company is compressing the voice data.


Re: power outage: I don't think you're out of luck if you use DSL. To have DSL, you need to maintain a minimal dial tone, which means keeping the cheapest service from Verizon. Then, if the power goes out, you can plug in the old phone to make any necessary calls, which would be billed by the call. What am I missing?

Holly Morris: Good point. That's the same as keeping a second phone line, which is another option.


Bethesda, Md.: How should I pick one provider over another? What're the main differences?

Holly Morris: The primary differences are sound quality and features. Price isn't a whole lot different. And some are slightly more expensive. A few are notable for better international calling plans.

If you like talking on cell phones, VoIP sound quality probably won't bother you that much and you can focus on other factors.


Holly Morris: Chat's over, folks. Cynthia Webb's column on washingtonpost.com has lots about the business and regulatory side of VoIP, if you're interested.


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