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Let's Talk About VoIP

By Holly J. Morris
Express
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; 10:56 AM

Are we ever sick of talking on the phone. (Sorry, Mom!) After trying out six VoIP services on both cable and DSL lines, on workdays and weekends, while surfing the Web or staring at the ceiling, this VoIP tester is turning on Do Not Disturb for the rest of December.

A few traits united the six:

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Express features editor Holly Morris discussed a special VoIP report.
_____Related Coverage_____
Convergence Emergence (washingtonpost.com, Dec 14, 2004)
Live Free or Buy (washingtonpost.com, Dec 14, 2004)
_____Related Links_____
Express Newspaper

Every service except AT&T CallVantage deteriorated at least a little during Web browsing on the DSL line, and were essentially useless when uploading large files. These problems usually went away on the cable line, which has more bandwidth. Unless otherwise noted, 911 calls are routed according to a service address you specify. Callers must give their address and phone number to the operator.

Finally, all prices are for online orders, not retail starter kits.

AT&T CallVantage
(callvantage.com)
AT&T's combination of voice quality, features and price made it the best service we tested.
* Installation: Starter kits are available in stores and from CallVantage's Web site. We received a Linksys router (a wireless version is available, too), which can either replace your current router or plug into it. The included DIY home-wiring guide shows ambitious types how to wire a home's phone jacks to use CallVantage.
* Sound Quality: As good as a landline, though with a slight metallic tinge. But what really set AT&T apart was how little conversation deteriorated during Web browsing and even heavy file transfers.
* Notable extras: The Locate Me feature will track you down via a list of numbers: If you're not at home, it calls work, then your cell and so on. Scheduled Do Not Disturb can block calls at set times (like during "Lost"). Coming soon: Sub-accounts will allow family members to each manage their own voicemail, virtual numbers and more.
* Availability: 212 area codes including 202, 703 and 301.
* Price: $29.99 per month gets you unlimited long-distance in the United States and Canada; $19.99 buys long-distance at 4 cents/minute.

Lingo
(lingo.com)
The McLean-based Lingo wants to be an international player, and offers several pleasantly cheap plans geared toward overseas callers.
* Installation: Starter kits are available in stores and from lingo.com. Installation got confusing: The instructions don't mention that some DSL modems need special configuration. And only by visiting the Lingo Web site can you discover that the company recommends installing the adapter before your router for the best sound. (A Lingo rep said they'll be updating their docs soon.)
* Sound Quality: Voices could be a bit scratchy or burbly; at times they lagged enough (about a second) to affect conversation.
* Notable extras: Lingo offers international virtual numbers ($10/month), so folks abroad can call without paying long-distance. You can also set up different rings for each of your virtual numbers.
* Availability: 220 area codes, including 703, 202 and 240.
* Price: Lingo Link ($7.95 per month) gives you free calls to other Lingo users; the Basic plan ($14.95) offers 500 free minutes to the United States, Canada and Western Europe; and the Unlimited plan ($19.95) offers unlimited calling to the same. The Unlimited Asia plan ($34.95) and International Unlimited ($79.95) add several other countries to the mix. Every plan has a $29.95 activation fee.

Packet8
(packet8.com)
Though it lacks bells and whistles like online voice mail, Packet8 can brag about one thing the others can't: 911 that works like a traditional phone line.
* Installation: Documentation is a folded sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper, and that's all that was needed to guide the simple, five-minute process.
* Sound Quality: At times, a delay of about a second interfered with conversation. One fast-talking friend was particularly hard to understand.
* Notable extras: Packet8's 911 service works as it does on a traditional phone line: The operator can see the address and phone number from which you're calling. 911 isn't yet available in all of Packet8's service areas, however, including Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. If it were, it would cost $3 a month with a $9.95 activation fee.
* Availability: 240 area codes including 202.
* Price: The Freedom Unlimited plan ($19.95 per month) offers unlimited calling to anyone in the United States and Canada (and any Packet8 customer, anywhere); Freedom International, also $19.95, is for those living outside the United States. Plans offering unlimited calling to Asia or Western Europe are $49.90 each; to both is $79.90. All plans have activation fees of $29.95.

Verizon VoiceWing
(voicewing.com)
It's the most ex-pensive service we tested, and far from the best.
* Installation: You'll need a router for this one. After a few hours of plugging and unplugging network components, it was time to call tech support.
* Sound Quality: VoiceWing managed to deliver most forms of minor vocal annoyance: echoing, delays, dropped words and syllables, distortion, clicking. Listeners on the other end were spared these issues, and said it sounded as good as a landline.
* Notable extras: Scheduled Call Back is cool, if a little creepy. It calls someone at a preset time and rings your phone when they pick up.
* Availability: 167 area codes including 202, 301 and 703.
* Price: $29.95 a month if you have Verizon DSL or order it at the same time; $34.95 a month otherwise. Plans include unlimited long-distance. The $39.95 setup fee is waived through Dec. 31.

VoicePulse
(voicepulse.com)
With options within options and a powerful, well-organized Web interface, VoicePulse has much to delight those who love to twiddle and customize.
* Installation: You'll need a router (VoicePulse will throw one in for $50). The tiny, feather-light adapter was the only one of the batch that truly felt portable, and installed in about five minutes.
* Sound Quality: Voices sounded fabulous - full and nuanced, with no robotic edge. Sound broke down more during Internet use, however, even on the cable line. The Bandwidth Saver option, which squeezes voice data (and reduces quality), helped some.
* Notable extras: There's plenty to please both phone-philes and phone-phobes. Like AT&T's Locate Me, Call Hunt sends callers to a sequential set of numbers. If being chased by a phone call sounds like a nightmare, get this: Call filtering allows you to send all calls or a specific number to a busy signal, endless ringing, even a Not in Service message - perfect for dodging that special someone. Privacy controls let you reject anonymous callers and telemarketers, too.
* Availability: 150-plus area codes, including 202, 703 and 301.
* Price: The America Unlimited Special offers unlimited long-distance for $24.99 a month with a one-year commitment and an $80 equipment fee. Local plans with 600 and 200 minutes of long-distance (3.9 cents/minute after) are $25.99 and $14.99 each.

Vonage
(vonage.com)
The first big brand name in VoIP, Vonage offers services other providers are still getting off the ground.
* Installation: Various starter kits are available at stores and vonage.com; we received a Linksys router. (Vonage also sells a wireless version.) It took a call to customer service to get going, as the device turned out to need several software upgrades.
* Sound Quality: Other than a robotic twang and an ever-present background hum, Vonage sounded good.
* Notable extras: Vonage sells add-on fax lines for $10 a month and toll-free virtual numbers for $5. It also offers international virtual numbers for $4.99 a month. Another thoughtful perk: Most services require callers to dial a one and an area code, even when calling next door. Vonage supports seven-digit dialing in the same area code as your main number.
* Availability: 197 American area codes (including 703, 202 and 301) and 13 in Canada.
* Price: The Premium Unlimited Plan is $24.99/month for unlimited long-distance in the United States and Canada; the Basic 500 plan is $14.99 for 500 long-distance minutes (3.9 cents/minute thereafter).


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