What: Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone service
How Much: $19.95/month
When I moved from Atlanta to Charlotte, I wanted to be able to keep in touch with family and friends as much as possible. To that end, Lisa and I signed up for MCI’s “The Neighborhood” plan, which gave us unlimited local and long distance calling for around $49.99 a month. This worked well for us for a couple of years, but two problems cropped up which made the plan less attractive: for starters, I simply lost touch with many of my Atlanta friends, which made the plan seems less necessary. Also, MCI raised the monthly fee, so that with taxes one month of “The Neighborhood” ended up costing around $76.
Lisa really wanted to find some other phone plan. I can’t say that I blame her, actually. But still – I had become enamored with the idea of unlimited local and long distance. Honestly, in the year 2007, why would anyone continue to pay extra for long distance calls? And although there were many cheap offers out there, once tax was included it wasn’t that great of a solution. For example, BellSouth tempted us with a $29.99/month plan that offered no long distance but included all of the phone features you’ve come to expect from your service – caller ID, call forwarding, voicemail, etc. But once you tack on taxes and a couple of long conversations with my family back home, you’re just not saving that much money. It’s the same story with “Digital Phone” from Time Warner. Although they advertise plans “as low as $39.99 a month” (a price you can only get if you also get digital cable and Internet from TWC), there is some considerable fine print to the offer… namely taxes and fees that make the plan even more expensive than BellSouth’s option.
So… the next step seemed to be Voice over IP (VoIP). This is a technology that uses your existing high-speed Internet connection to make calls. Although the call quality is sometimes only as good as a cell phone call (or worse), VoIP has two great features: low cost and nifty features. As far as the “nifty features” go, most VoIP companies provide you with a small box that you connect to your cable modem or router. You can attach this box to any high-speed Internet connection, so traveling salesmen can have their phone line follow them to any hotel that offers high-speed Internet access. Many (most?) VoIP providers allow you to have multiple phone numbers on the same line, so family and friends in Atlanta can call a local Atlanta number to ring your phone in Charlotte. Some VoIP providers – Vonage, mostly – even offer multiple international numbers, so you can have a local Charlotte number *and* a number in London! Pretty neat, huh?
As you probably know, Vonage is widely regarded as the market leader in VoIP. However, a visit to their site told me that they could not “port” (switch) our existing number to their service. We’d have to get a new number altogether, and Lisa didn’t want to lose our existing number… so Vonage was out. Two other VoIP companies then became candidates – Sunrocket and VoiceEclipse. Sunrocket seemed like a pretty good deal, but I was wary of paying up front for a year’s worth of service (even if $12.99/month seemed to be a steal!). Plus, many Internet message boards seemed to be full of hate for Sunrocket. Now, I know that most people only go to such boards to complain (as opposed to writing about their months of trouble-free service), but the sheer quantity of complaints worried me. VoiceEclipse, on the other hand, is owned by US Lec, a company that I had dealt with many times in the past (they’re popular “business-class” DSL providers), and I most of their customers that I knew of were pretty happy.
And so… one night, almost on a whim, Lisa decided to sign up for their service. Here’s what you get for $19.95 a month:
Unlimited Local & Long Distance calling (within the USA, Canada and Puerto Rico)
2 Phone Numbers (within VoiceEclipse’s service area)
2 Phone Lines – you can opt to have both numbers ring the same phone if you prefer
Keep Your Number – no charge for porting your number
veFax – All faxes to your number are sent to an email address
Various phone features including: Call Blocking, Anonymous Call Blocking, Call Forwarding, Call Return (*69), Voice Mail, Speed Calling, Caller ID, Call Waiting, “Find Me” (call forwarding to multiple numbers)
There are a few other features which might interest a select group of folks, like insanely cheap international calling rates (3-4¢ per minute to most Western European landlines; 22-27¢ per minute to European mobile phones). They also offer a “basic plan” which includes 500 minutes of local and long distance calls and a single phone line\number for $12.95/month. Oh, and although the VoiceEclipse website doesn’t display this fact prominently, all “in-network” calls (that is, calls from one VoiceEclipse customer to another) are free, regardless of their location or plan. So if you and your family three states over sign up for VoiceEclipse, none of your calls to each other would count against your 500 minute limit for the basic plan. And if VoiceEclipse ever manages to get coverage in the UK, calls between VoiceEclipse customers in different countries would be free as well.
Signing up is an easy process. In many aspects, it’s as easy as ordering a book from Amazon. However, VoiceEclipse gets a couple of points off for when the time comes in the sign-up process to decide if you want to port your number. Instead of explaining the process clearly and concisely, the sign-up form instead relies on legal boilerplate and confusing acronyms and technological terms. For example, you’re asked to decide if you want “LNP” without being told that “LNP” stands for “local number portability”, which is transferring your existing number to your new phone service. I was able to walk Lisa through the process fairly painfully, but I honestly think that she would have given up otherwise. I know my parents would be wary of this too. Just read the screens thoroughly and you should be OK, although VoiceEclipse should really work on making that part of the sign-up process easier to understand.
One other thing about the sign-up process that I didn’t like was the “activation fee” of $59.95 that you’re required to pay. I hate paying screwy “activation fees” – “you mean I have to pay a fee to become your customer?” – but in VoiceEclipse’s case, the vast majority of this fee is for the Linksys hardware that you’ll need to send and receive calls. Had they simply called it a “hardware fee” or told us that we needed to buy a Linksys adapter from them for $59.95, it wouldn’t have bothered me so much. But alas, what are ya gonna do?
Two last things of note in the signup process:
You will be asked to print out a blank form that needs to be filled out and faxed (along with a copy of your last statement for your current phone company) to VoiceEclipse to assist them with the number porting. This is because some phone companies require a written (and signed) statement from you before they switch your number over. The form’s a breeze to fill out and fax, so no worries there.
The second thing you need to understand is that you will temporarily have three phone numbers: the original one you had with your current phone company, a temporary VoiceEclipse number (if you choose to have your number ported; if not this number will be your new permanent number) as well as a permanent second number in a location of your choosing. In our case. we had our original 704-825-xxxx number, a temporary 704-755-xxxx number to use until our number was ported, and a permanent 404-806-xxxx number. You will receive the two new numbers at the end of your signup and can being using them as soon as your hardware arrives a few days later. It’s also important to understand that you will need to maintain the first number until your current number has been ported. If you suddenly stop paying your original phone company the number will revert back to them, not you, so your number cannot be ported. Also, telephone companies are under no obligation to port a number if the account is in arrears, so keep paying your old phone company on time! As you might imagine though, this temporary setup can be somewhat confusing. Because our MCI plan didn’t have “traditional” call forwarding, we couldn’t just forward our calls to the new phone number. We had to keep two phone lines going for a month or so, which was a pain, but manageable.
A few days after signing up, the FedEx man rang my bell with a package from VoiceEclipse! Woooo-Hoooo – it’s new gadget time!
Unfortunately, much trouble was ahead for me. My home network is more complex that most, what with the Exchange server and various ports needing to be open for OWA (FBA) and OMA, in addition to the standard email ports. The Linksys PAP2 worked fine initially when I had it running under DHCP, but ceased working entirely once I changed this to the static 192.168.1.2 address I use at home. To make matters even worse, I completely screwed everything up by doing a “factory reset” of the Linksys unit. All of the VoiceEclipse-specific configuration was gone after this, so the box was nothing more than a brick.
And this is where VoiceEclipse’s excellent tech support came in. Maybe it was the semi-competent way I described the problem in my email, but when I called them up the next morning, the tech didn’t bother with all that basic “have you restarted it?” crap that you usually have to wade through when you call up support. The guy was friggin’ excellent, and if any VoiceEclipse executives are reading this… please giver Eric in tech support a raise! He stuck with me for a good hour and a half whilst we got the box reconfigured and in the end we finally had phone service!
Using VoiceEclipse is… well, like using any other phone service. You pick up the phone when it rings and say hello. To make a call, just pick up the phone and dial the number and press TALK (cell phone style) or press TALK and dial the number (old-school style). VoiceEclipse’s phone features work like most any other telephone company’s services – just press *69 to redial the last caller, or dial your own number and enter the password to get your voicemail.
There are two potential “gotchas” inherent with VoIP service (not just VoiceEclipse):
The first is that you’ll only have one phone jack from now on – the phone jack on the back of the Linksys PAP2 that ships with Vonage, VoiceEclipse and other VoIP providers. You can get around this restriction by purchasing a multi-handset phone, which allows several cordless handsets to operate from one base that’s plugged into the jack in the back of the PAP2. It is also possible to redo some of your home’s phone system wiring, although I don’t really recommend that anyone not familiar with the process doing so. It’s not dangerous (as in, you won’t fry yourself), but you can easily screw something up and not know it. It’s just easier to buy a new phone than screw with the wiring unless you know what you’re doing.
Also, know that you WILL NOT have phone service if the Internet or power goes down. The only thing you can do about Internet service is to pay your bill on time, but for the power you can buy a battery backup from Best Buy or an office supply store (it’s also called a “UPS”, pronounced “UPS” – the opposite of “downs”). You then plug your cable modem, router and PAP2 into the UPS and will get anywhere from 10-120 minutes of power from the batteries, depending on which model UPS you buy. We opted not to do this though, as our power tends to be off for hours if it goes out at all. Besides, you can always use your cell phone in the event of a blackout.
Both of the above complaints are about VoIP in general. One thing I don’t like about VoiceEclipse in particular is that voicemail emails (with messages attached as WAV files) and faxes can apparently be sent to a single email address only. With MCI’s “The Neighborhood”, email and SMS notifications of new messages could be sent to multiple addresses. So Lisa and I received notices of messages left on our home voicemail on each of our email accounts (and, for a while, as SMS messages on my Sprint PCS phone). I decided to sign us up for a Gmail account to handle this for VoiceEclipse, which presented me with yet another problem: Gmail apparently only allows messages to be “popped” (that is, accessed via POP3 or “downloaded to Outlook on a PC”) only one time per account. Currently I have Outlook set up on my PC to fetch POP emails from Google, which means that Lisa cannot do the same on her work PC; she can only access the messages via web interface. This sucks. I’ll have to figure something else out.
The first thing I learned about VoIP service is that it doesn’t play well with certain P2P applications, especially Bittorrent. Bittorrent hogs all of your upstream bandwidth, so calls made to your VoIP number sound like the worst cell phone call imaginable when you have a Bittorrent application up and running. It took me a few days to find a “sweet spot” which would allow me to use the phone normally and simultaneously upload (even if on a 10kbps basis). The handy-dandy SpeedScheduler plug-in for Azureus now automatically throttles my upload speeds during “normal” hours and jacks it up to unlimited during the wee small hours of the morning.
Aside from that. we do get the occasional call that inexplicably goes straight to voicemail or an inbound call where the caller hears nothing but static from our end. It’s bothersome, but not exactly a dealbreaker – especially since it happens less than 10% of the time. We’ll just have to see how it goes. As far as “normal” calls go, the quality is pretty decent – usually sounding like good cell phone call instead of a rock-solid POTS call. But for $19.95/month, who’s to complain?
Number Porting and 911 Service
One of the biggest headaches that comes with switching to any phone company is keeping your current number. Although the phone companies are required by law to switch your number on demand, they have no other incentive to do so. After all, they’re losing you as a customer, right? And with the explosion of “virtual phone companies” in the 1990s (that is, companies that lease phone numbers from the former Baby Bells and resell them to you as “Bob’s Phone Company”), things have gotten really complex. This is because Bob’s “owns” your number, even though all of the equipment your calls travel through is probably owned by a former Bell, in our case BellSouth. So when you go to port your number, you might have any number of companies involved. In our case, we had three: VoiceEclipse, MCI and BellSouth. Although most of the larger companies are pretty decent about getting your number ported, many smaller companies might not be. But even if the companies are dedicated to porting your number as soon as possible, dealing with so many companies can lead to screw-ups galore. One Vonage forum is literally filled with complaints about one company or another’s lost paperwork, unsubmitted or lost LNP requests and other customer service nightmares. It took about a month for our LNP request to be completed, which seems pretty decent compared to some of the sob stories you read about on the Vonage forums. Also keep in mind that we were dealing with three companies. If your current service is from one of the former Baby Bells, you can (hopefully) expect not to have to wait so long. Lastly, VoiceEclipse promises to “keep you updated on your LNP status via email”. Aside from one email early on (saying that the LNP process had been started), we received nothing in our inboxes. The only way we even knew that our LNP had gone through was because the POTS phone line we were occasionally (which received calls for our original phone number) went dead. I’ve gotta ding VoiceEclipse for that, even though it was ultimately good news.
Lastly, a note about 911 service: Since VoIP doesn’t work like traditional phone service, you have to “register” your address with your VoIP company. If you ever need to dial 911, the call will go from your cable modem to the company’s network, where your physical address will be matched to the corresponding 911 service in your area and the call will be put through. Although this doesn’t present a problem for most people, a traveling salesman should know that his VoIP box is going to send the police to his home in Detroit rather than his hotel room in Las Vegas if he dials 911. Likewise, if you move from your present location to a new home or apartment, contacting your VoIP provider should be one of the first things that you do, since emergency services will go to your old address… until you update your address with your VoIP provider, that is.
What I Like
– Low monthly cost
– Multiple numbers allows Atlanta friends and family to dial a local number to call me in North Carolina
– Tech support is awesome!
What I Don’t Like
– Occasional problems with calls
– Email notifications can be sent to one address only.
– Limited information available from your “Manage Your Account” page.
– “Activation fee”
MY RATING: B+