Telephony and VOIP services
Not everything we write about is religious/ethical/political. Here is something just to try to help out.
When The Rosary Shop began in about 1996 we ran it off of a Macintosh computer and a dedicated dial up telephone connection; we didn't have a separate business phone number and didn't accept telephone orders. It worked pretty well. But many things have changed in the last decade. The web site has become immense and complex, requiring more computing power and more bandwidth. Our telephone needs have changed as we went from being online-only to now accepting phone orders and providing phone-based services. Eventually we switched to a high speed DSL connection, then to a T-1 line, and are presently using Comcast Business Cable (as of the time of this writing).
We've had phone service from Verizon (along with DSL), and later the local company that provided our T-1 line. When we were with Verizon for DSL and phones, the monthly cost was in the $200 - $300 range total. With the T-1, data and phones ran about $450 per month. Recently it began to sting a bit to write that $450 check each month, so we switched to Comcast for the data service ($180 per month) and changed our phones to "Voice over IP" (VOIP). The Comcast service has been fine -- it is faster than the T-1 we had, but slightly less reliable. The VOIP has been an adventure.
There are two kinds of VOIP service; softphone and, well, hardphone or conventional. A softphone is a program that runs on your computer. With a headset it turns your computer into a telephone. A "hardphone" is a telephone or adapter device that allows you to use conventional-type phones and wiring with the VOIP service.
First we tried a company called Sunrocket. They provide a small adapter box that you connect to your high speed internet connection and installed phone lines. It doesn't have to go through your computer, but connects directly to your conventional phones. Their service was fine, but we ran into a general service problem ("complete incompetence") when it came time to try moving our old phone numbers to them. 10 e-mails and faxes later, they were still confused, so I gave up on them and moved on. We have four numbers, and one has yellow pages paid advertising, so it was important to me that the numbers get moved.
I tested Skype, the 800 pound gorilla of the VOIP world. You can't port numbers to it, and it can't really be tied in with existing telephone wiring without some real expense and a dedicated computer. But if you want cheap, decent service that just plain works, I really don't know that it can be beat for simple needs. We ended up not staying with Skype because we wanted to be able to tie in with our installed wiring and have the phone service be independent of our computers. You must get a good headset if you use a softphone service like Skype. Otherwise, you and your callers will hear all kinds of nasty echoes and background noise, and you'll wrongly blame it on the software.
To connect to installed wiring, you need an adapter that connects your data line to your phone wiring, like the one provided with Sunrocket service. I purchased a Linksys PAP2TNA. It is called an "unlocked" adapter because you, the end purchaser, can configure it to work with any compatible service. Many VOIP providers send this or a similar device to you when you order their services, but in a "locked" way that doesn't allow you to change the settings. By getting my own, I can configure it to work with any of a few dozen different companies; if one goes dead or lets us down, we can switch to another in a matter of minutes.
The service portrayed as a good competitor with Skype, but that can be integrated with installed wiring through the use of such a device, is Gizmoproject.com. We signed up with them, configured the PAP2TNA to work with them, and everything went great... for about six hours.
Most VOIP providers allow you to call and receive calls from other VOIP clients for free. To call someone who doesn't have VOIP, or for them to call you, requires that some money change hands. This usually takes the form of purchasing a phone number so that people with conventional phones can call your VOIP system, and purchasing credits that can be applied to fees for calls made to conventional phones. The good news on these fronts is that the rates are so low as to be practically irrelevant. One conventional, standard package phone line with Verizon costs about $45 to $90 per month, depending on whether it is a business or residential line, plus long distance charges. This gives you a phone number that other people can call, the ability to call other phone numbers, plus a variety of perk items like caller ID, call waiting, etc. You can get all of these same services from a VOIP provider for about $5-$15 per month!.
But there are a few obstacles:
- VOIP providers are not as "big" and reliable as conventional phone companies.
- VOIP sound quality can vary significantly.
- VOIP does not support faxes.
- Some VOIP services do not include 911 support; those that do are a little more expensive.
- VOIP phone providers are being sued out of existence by conventional phone companies.
Reliability: Gizmoproject turned out to be a real problem for us. Like Skype, it is presented as a free service, and you can call any other VOIP clients directly using their software phone for free. Our problems started when we bought a phone number so that our neighbors, family and customers could call us using standard phones, and "Call Out" credits so that we could call them back on their standard phones. Within a few minutes, one of our Gizmoproject accounts went dead. I tried to contact them via their support web site four times. Several days passed with no answer. They don't provide a support telephone number, and their discussion forum system is broken. In other words, they took our money, shut down our account, and provided no means of communicating with them to remedy the problem.
Call Quality: It is bad enough to try to use normal phones to talk to someone who is using a flaky cell phone. If you throw VOIP into the mix, it is almost impossible. Otherwise, most calls are fine, and much of the time the person on the other end doesn't appear to notice any difference.
Faxes: I've been able to send faxes up to about 3 pages long via VOIP, but it is really hit and miss. To some companies I can't get a single page fax to go through. To others, it isn't a problem. If you rely on faxing, VOIP is presently not the way to go.
911: Smaller and less expensive VOIP providers do not provide 911 service.
Release the Lawyers: The recent news is that Vonage is about to be shut down due to a lawsuit from Verizon claiming that Vonage is infringing upon various patents. Maybe so. Maybe not. History demonstrates that judges are far from infallible. If Vonage did knowingly infringe on patents, then it should pay a price. But either way it does bode ill for VOIP in general. The conventional phone companies also offer VOIP services, but at a much higher price than the small VOIP providers ($20-$50 per month). I wouldn't be surprised if they choose to sue the small providers into non-existence so as to force consumers to purchase services at a higher price than they could otherwise get in a free market. Another approach they might take is to not allow VOIP traffic from other providers on their networks. They already did this with SMTP mail service, and they and other large companies have a tendency to engage in such activities.
In any event, I continued looking and am presently trying both ViaTalk and CallWithUs. I went with ViaTalk for the home number because it provides 911 service (if we have a babysitter and there is an emergency, I'd like for her not to have to think too much about what to do). Both are proving to be excellent in terms of services, price and call quality. It only took a few minutes to recongifure the PAP2TNA to work with both services. ViaTalk is a little more expensive, but simpler to set up. CallWithUs costs less, but you must have your own adapter device and sufficient knowledge to configure it. CallWithUs is unique in that it allows multiple lines and adapters under a single account. Most services presently require that you purchase a separate account for each physical phone line/number you are installing.
So my recommendations (as of March, 2007) are:
- If you are happy with your present service and don't mind spending more than you have to, if you don't want to deal with moving or changing phone numbers (or don't like change in general), stay with your present service.
- If your phone needs are simple -- a single line and only one location, for example -- and you don't mind making and receiving calls via your computer, Skype is great. It just works. Buy a call-in number and some call out credits. It will probably cost you a total of $50 for a full year of telephone service, plus whatever you pay for your headset. For most people, that is about a 90% savings over what they are presently paying for similar services.
- If you want to go with VOIP but use your conventional phones and wiring, find a "SIP-compatible" adapter and company like Sunrocket, ViaTalk (easier, turn-key type service) or CallWithUs (less expensive and technically more complicated). There are a lot of them out there. The adapters start around $50, and are provided free with some accounts. Total cost per month can run $10 - $20 (or more) depending on the level of service you select and your calling habits.