There are possible perils in switching to a VoIP service

People do stupid things. At least that’s what VoIP services provider Vonage would have us believe in its TV ads. I signed up online for Vonage service recently to lower the total cost of ownership of my remote office. Now I’m wondering if I might wind up as the star in one of those Vonage commercials.

Save lots of money on your phone service. That’s the promise at the heart of The pitch is intoxicating. Unlimited phone service for US$24.99 monthly.

For a small business or remote corporate user shelling out upwards of almost US$150 monthly to a local carrier for two lines, the US$35 you pay Vonage for a primary line plus a fax line sounds like a no-brainer.

The last week of April I took the Vonage plunge. That’s when all the fun started.

Well, it actually started about five days after I logged my online order and Vonage got around to shipping me my Linksys router. Setup wasn’t bad; I was up and dialing within an hour of unpacking the box.

I started making my VoIP calls, and I was impressed. The voice quality was very good; perhaps as good or better than BellSouth’s. But the strangest thing happened. People calling me weren’t getting through; they kept getting my voice mail — my BellSouth voice mail. Oh, on-net Vonage callers got me alright. I’m guessing because Vonage maps my BellSouth phone number to a temporary virtual phone number for on-net calls only. But callers on carrier networks couldn’t get me unless they called my virtual phone number. I didn’t even know I had a virtual number. The order page that came with my router only mentioned my BellSouth number that is being ported to Vonage. It didn’t mention any virtual Vonage number.

So I did the unthinkable. I called customer assistance. Or, I tried to call. I got lost in a labyrinth of call distributor hell, gave up once and eventually called back. (If all VoIP service providers fail as miserably at customer service, VoIP is doomed.) Finally, I got through to “Wayne.”

He told me what I feared: Calls to my normal business phone number were still routed to the jack in my wall, not to my new Linksys broadband router. His solution? “Put another phone into the wall outlet and answer calls on one phone and make calls on the Vonage line.” Ah, thanks, Wayne.

Suddenly, the “save lots of money on your phone service” promise evaporated from my head faster than you can say G.711. I realized we’re now paying for Vonage service on top of the exorbitant BellSouth phone bill. When I rang Vonage back and talked to “Mark” to make sure I’d heard Wayne right, he told me I might not have my BellSouth number ported for a month.

So now I’m stuck in VoIP limbo, and I feel like I’ve done something incredibly stupid. The call quality is pretty good, but I hear occasional dropouts, and today on a conference call I hosted, midway into the call a bandwidth hiccup resulted in the loss of my Citrix session, my instant messaging session and half of my VoIP call. Yup, half. I could hear other parties speaking but they couldn’t hear me. The router was decoding but not encoding voice traffic. Swell.

My advice? If you’re thinking about VoIP services for remote offices, take a long, hard test drive and gather as much hands-on data as you can before you make the leap.

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–Bruno is executive editor at The Tolly Group. He can be reached at [email protected]

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