VoIP and me

When I edited an article about a new-fangled service that let you talk over the Internet in the fall of 2004, I never imagined that a year later I’d being living without a landline.

After all, Skype’s Mac client —in beta at that point—didn’t have the greatest sound quality. It was better than iChat’s audio and you could call a regular phone for a modest price. But voices also dropped out, got fuzzy, and occasionally callers sounded like they were talking through the blades of a fan. I’d heard about dedicated services—such as Vonage and SIPphone —that let you use an adapter to plug a phone into your broadband line. But these companies were just gathering momentum. Voice-over-IP (VoIP) was definitely a novelty.

Then, a few months ago, a friend declared that she’d signed up for VoIP. She travels between a house in Portland, Oregon, and another near Eugene and was tired of paying through the nose when she forwarded her lines. Now she carries her Vonage telephone adapter and hooks it up to her DSL line at either end. Her number is the same wherever she goes.

When the next phone bill arrived at my house—filled once again with random services my family hadn’t ordered—we decided enough was enough. We left the landline behind.

The good, the bad, and the… “what’d you say?”

What tipped the scales for us—besides a general hatred of our phone company—was price. Before I switched to VoIP, my business line cost $40 per month, not including long distance. My VoIP line from Speakeasy costs $28 a month and includes unlimited long-distance calling. We have three phone lines in our house. It’s not hard to do the math. (Of course, we already paid for DSL, so that wasn’t part of our equation.)

Going digital also meant lots of new bells and whistles. My old-fashioned cordless phone doesn’t have a voice mail light on it, which means I never have a clue whether or not I’ve received messages. How nice, then, that I can set up my VoIP service to e-mail me when calls come in… and even send me a .wav file of the message itself (pictured below).

VoIP email notification

To get an idea of the quality, listen to an example here. This gives me another alternative for keeping up with messages when traveling and means I can even archive important ones.

That’s one of many options, all included for free. My service will e-mail only when a particular person—say, the boss—calls. I can forward calls on a schedule. For instance, I could set it to forward calls to my cellphone every Tuesday between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. when I edit at a local cafe. (OK, I don’t actually do that, but it’s nice to imagine.) A few of Speakeasy’s contact management features exclude Mac users (the ones that integrate with Microsoft Internet Explorer and Outlook), but there’s no shortage of others to explore. Below, you can see all the things I can do with incoming calls alone.

Speakeasy features

As for sound quality, my Internet phone usually doesn’t sound much different from a regular phone, and certainly no worse than a cellphone. But it does have its quirks. Occasionally, there’s an echo similar to what you might hear when talking with someone overseas. Typically I can fix that by hanging up and calling again.

My biggest mental adjustment has been remembering that when I talk I’m using bandwidth, and bandwidth is limited. If my husband decides to upload a huge file to his Web server while I’m on the phone, conversation cuts in and out. If our network goes down, the phone stops working. We made the mistake of getting two Internet phones. Even with our respectably high-bandwidth DSL connection (1.5 mbps downstream, 384 kbps upstream), we can’t talk on them at the same time. Likewise, using iChat video and the phone simultaneously results in a pixilated, choppy-voice mess.

VoIP’s quality isn’t as reliable as a regular phone, especially if you talk and use the computer at the same time. But I’m spending roughly half as much money for many more features. Even if it stutters occasionally, in the end, money talks.

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