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VoIP and the Leap of Faith

I knew Verizon was no longer interested in having me as a customer when I returned from vacation to find zero messages on my desk phone?s answering machine. And so began a long series of events that culminated in the termination of my land-line account. My two phone lines are now served by different technologies, one of which is Verizon?s number-one source of fear and loathing: VOIP!

The decision to cut my land line was not taken lightly. I am a Bell Baby?my father worked for the Bell System back when that was virtually the only phone company in America. I had been a Verizon customer for 25 years. The first time I wrote a check to the company it was called the New York Telephone Company. Then it became NYNEX, Bell Atlantic, and finally Verizon. I?d always assumed I?d be a Verizon customer for life. But life has a way of overturning assumptions.

Verizon was right to silence my dialtone and ignore my pleas for help. After all, I was a rather dull customer?I do business almost entirely by email and rarely used my two unlisted land lines. In an average month I talked for an hour, got charged $55, and invariably paid my bill on time. What strapping, ambitious phone company would want a steady customer who pays an average of a buck a minute?

Now I pay $15 a month to Vonage for VOIP service and $35 to Sprint for cell service. That?s a total of $50 a month, $5 less than I was paying Verizon. For years I avoided getting a cell phone, but it?s not so bad?it?s like having an electronic hamster?and only the nearest and dearest are allowed to make it ring. Vonage gives me 500 minutes per month (plus 3.9 cents per additional minute) and Sprint 200 (plus 10 cents per additional minute). In the first month I used a tiny fraction of my allotments. I?m just not a big talker.

Calling Verizon?No One Home

Let?s backtrack to that moment when I came home to find a dead phone. A kindly neighbor let me use her cell phone to call Verizon. This was the third time in my 25 years with Verizon that I?d asked for a service call?but the first time, to my dismay, that Verizon would not let me speak to anyone. I navigated the menus attentively, and pressed zero for operator several times, but no dice. Verizon: the phone company that refuses to come to the phone.

So I persevered with the voice-activated menus while my neighbor?s dog barked merrily. Verizon?s computer asked me to locate a signal box and run diagnostic tests. As an apartment dweller, I have no access to such things?and anyway, I thought, isn?t that Verizon?s job? It took 10 minutes of agony before the computer finally agreed to send a breathing human being the next day. Hooray!

The man came on time. He checked out everything and said there was no problem with the ancient wiring in my apartment or in my building (those Bell System folks built things to last). The problem was in a central switching station. Then he went away and that?s the last I heard from Verizon.

Two days after that a drinking glass shattered as I was washing it and blood started running into the kitchen sink.

You Can?t Call 911 with a Dead Phone

For the first time in my life I needed to call 911, but I couldn?t, because my phone was still dead. I wrapped a handkerchief tightly around my bleeding hand, took a cab to the emergency room, and received 10 stitches. I?d always believed a land line was the most reliable way to call 911. That illusion shattered along with the glass that gashed my hand. I am no longer willing to trust Verizon with my life.

A day later, with my right hand in a splint, I was standing at a pay phone to make arrangements for follow-up medical care, feeding in quarters with the left hand and holding the phone with my face. By the time I was done, the December chill had turned my good hand numb, and the injured one, wrapped in a scarf, wasn?t too happy either.

Faced with the prospect of calling Verizon again?standing in the cold for another 10 minutes, talking to a machine?I just couldn?t do it. I could have emailed, but why? Verizon had already heard about my problem both from me and its own service man. Call me impetuous, but that was the moment when I decided I needed a new phone provider. Maybe two.

So I converted my secondary line to Sprint?s lowest-cost Fair & Flexible plan and got a free LG camera phone in the process. The screen is too small for comfortable net access but I love everything else about it. Sprint promised to port my old number within a week and kept its promise. I could have gotten a new number sooner, but my pair of 212 numbers are valuable beachfront real estate, and I?d rather cut off my thumbs than let someone else get hold of them.

VOIP, Pro and Con

That left my primary 212 number in Verizon?s hands?but not for long. I retreated to the warmth of my apartment and started researching VOIP. Did you know that stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol? Just checking. Vonage?s Basic 500 plan seemed a good deal for $15 a month. After reading dozens of user reviews, I hesitated. The company is not without critics.

In its early days, Vonage did not offer 911 service, and got plenty of bad publicity in the process. It must be scary to find out your phone can?t call for help in a medical emergency (it certainly was for me). However, Vonage now accommodates 911, and can automatically relay your location if you input the information while setting up your account.

Inadequate customer service is a frequent complaint of Vonage customers, but it couldn?t be any worse than dealing with Verizon. Skimpy service is easier to accept when you?re paying 15 bucks a month than when you?re paying 55.

Some user reviewers complain of hiccups and lost connections. Others defend Vonage, pointing out that splitting your cable or DSL feed several ways is a recipe for VOIP disaster. The free Vonage converter works best when installed between your existing modem and router?that way, it can prioritize call traffic over other data traffic. An extra-cost converter includes a built-in router, reducing the number of boxes on your desk.

Finally, some customers who transferred their old phone numbers into or out of Vonage lost their numbers. In some cases they had canceled their old account before completing the transfer. The service contract specifies how transferring out of Vonage should work?you must explicitly tell Vonage you want to keep your number.

I weighed the risks and chose Vonage.

Slow Start, Happy Ending?

Vonage got off to a bad start. A week after placing my order I?d received no confirmation that my converter had shipped. I emailed customer service and got action the next day. A week later, with ground shipping, the converter arrived.

I installed it after the cable modem, and before the router, as Vonage recommended, and within five minutes I had VOIP service at a temporary 315 number. My main 212 number?the one friends and family know by heart?was ported 20 days after the converter shipped.

In the month I?ve used Vonage, it?s worked perfectly?almost. A 20-minute conference call was cut off the day after my number ported, but Vonage had already sent an email warning of first-day glitches, and since then I?ve had no problems with incoming or outgoing calls. The Vonage VOIP signal is louder and more abrasive than the Verizon land line but equal in clarity.

Vonage gives me features that I never got from Verizon (because I wasn?t willing to pay extra for them). Among them are Caller ID, Call waiting, Call Forwarding, and Voicemail. I use only Caller ID; I guess you can take the phone customer out of the stone age, but you can?t take the stone age out of the phone customer.

The Bandwidth Saver lets me adjust the data rate between 30 and 90kbps; the middle setting of 50kbps is working fine. The Network Availability Number forwards calls to my cell phone when an Internet outage interrupts my VOIP. I can block international calls, though Vonage?s international rates are not bad. If my friend from Japan calls home, it?ll cost me just six cents per minute if he calls a land line, or (here?s the catch) 29 cents if he calls a cell line.

Extra-cost features include Virtual Phone Number ($4.99/month), which lets your mom dial you within her own area code; Toll-Free Plus ($4.99/month), which makes your number work like an 800 number; and SoftPhone ($9.99/month), which lets you speak through a PC.

One thing Vonage can?t do is cope with an Internet outage. If my cable modem goes down, I lose both net access and phone service. The cell phone provides an effective Plan B for voice communication. But without a land line, I can?t use my free ad-encrusted NetZero account for emergency dial-up. I guess I?ll be haunting Starbucks with a wi-fi equipped laptop from time to time.

Have I mentioned that Verizon offers VOIP too? It?s called VoiceWing and it costs $35 for DSL subscribers and $40 for everyone else (minus $5 for the first six months of service). Do I want to pay more than twice as much and still depend on Verizon?s nonexistent customer service? No thanks.

If VOIP doesn?t work out, I might move my main number to Time Warner Cable. Like most cable companies nationwide, TWC currently offers a Triple Play package combining unlimited phone, broadband, and standard-basic cable for $99/month. It would reactivate my existing phone wiring, restoring the emergency dial-up option.

But for the time being, Vonage has given me a working phone at huge savings. And between VOIP and cell service, the next time some part of my body is gushing blood, I?ll reach 911 one way or the other.

Bring Out Your Dead (Phones)

How?s your local phone provider doing?. Do you use VOIP, cable, a Baby Bell, another land-line operator, or are you cell-only? Give me the good, the bad, and the ugly about reliability and customer service. I?d welcome your advice. The way things are going, I might need it!

Mark Fleischmann is the audio editor of Home Theater and the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.