Voice Over Vonage

by Gerry Blackwell

Ever wonder if your small business could save money on long-distance or overseas phone calls? We consider the conjecture and consequence of Vonage's Internet telephone service in a complete review of a VoIP system setup.

Years ago, companies that did a lot of business in another city or region would buy an FX (Foreign eXchange) line from the telephone company. Customers in the distant city could dial a number local to them, but it would ring at the company's offices, even thousands of miles away.

FX lines were expensive. With cheap long-distance and toll-free lines, they made less and less sense. But there is often still a big benefit, especially for small businesses, in having a local number in a city where you don't have an office.

You get a local presence without the cost of establishing a local office.

Providing a virtual local presence is just one of the advantages that voice over Internet providers like Vonage, 8x8 and others offer small businesses. They also claim to have overall lower service costs.

And there are other potential applications for small businesses. A virtual company with employees or partners in different locations could all have Vonage numbers from the same area code and eliminate long distance calling between the locations.

If you have a supplier or customer overseas, set them up with a Vonage service and eliminate high overseas long distance costs.

What's the Catch?
We set out to find out, testing basic service from Vonage. We were pleasantly surprised — it works better than expected, though not perfectly all the time. In a future article, we'll look at new small business services coming from 8x8.

Note that in order to use these services, you must already have high-speed Internet access — DSL, cable or wireless. If you don't have it and don't need it for Internet access, the economic case for voice over Internet (define) becomes questionable at best.

The second point to keep in mind is that with these services, the digital voice signal travels at least part of the way over the public Internet. We'll explain in a minute why this could be significant.

Here's How It Works
Vonage subscribers choose to have a number assigned from among scores of available area codes in the U.S. and Canada. They can also have additional numbers with different area codes that ring on the same phone.

The service provider sends the subscriber — or the subscriber picks up from a retail outlet — a device called a voice gateway. Several manufacturers make them. They're no bigger than a hardback book, often smaller, and weigh only ounces.

You plug a standard phone into the voice gateway and, once it's connected to your high-speed Internet service or office network, it works like any other. It rings, you hear dial tone when you pick it up and you dial, for the most part, as you would with any other phone.

The voice gateway's function is to digitize the analog audio signal from the telephone's microphone and format it in IP (define) packets to send over the Internet. It also converts voice packets coming in the other direction into an analog signal the telephone can reproduce.

You connect the voice gateway to the high-speed Internet service in one of a few ways. If you only have one computer connected to the Internet service, it's simple. Plug the Ethernet wire from the high-speed modem directly into the gateway and then use the provided Ethernet cable to connect the gateway to your computer.

If you have a local area network in place, there are two possibilities. You could plug the cable from the modem into the voice gateway and an Ethernet cable from the voice gateway into the network router, gateway or bridge.

Or you could leave the network set up the way it is, with the cable from the high-speed modem plugged into the network device, and simply plug the voice gateway into the same router, gateway or bridge — assuming there's a port available.

The Vonage manual doesn't actually mention this latter option. We called technical support before attempting to set the service up and were told it could be done.

The recommended method offers a theoretical advantage, but one that in practice makes little difference, we were told. When you're making a phone call and also downloading files from the Internet or exchanging files on the local network, the Vonage gateway will give priority to voice packets. We'll see in a minute why this could be important.

The Vonage gateway is made by Motorola, but other voice gateways offer the same packet prioritization functions.

We opted to use the second method. Set-up was a breeze. It took less than 30 minutes. And the service worked flawlessly first time.

To ensure a trouble-free set-up with Vonage, you do need to follow the set-up and activation procedures to the letter — including waiting five minutes for automatic over-the-Internet activation before picking up the phone for the first time.

Go to Page 2: Pluses and Minuses >

Pluses and Minuses
Sending voice over the public Internet has an upside and some potential downsides.

On the upside, voice over Internet services are transportable. You can carry the voice gateway with you to another location, plug it into another high-speed Internet service — in a hotel or branch office — and make and take calls as if you were in your office.

This is because the voice gateway is identified on the network not by the telephone number but by its IP address — a unique four-part sequence of digits.

The downsides of voice over Internet all relate to connection quality and reliability.

The system sends the voice packets — discrete blocks of data — over the Internet from your office to the nearest point of presence (POP defined) of the voice over Internet service provider. In the case of Vonage, in most places in the U.S. this is not far.

At this first service provider POP, the conversation is switched on to a managed backbone network and sent to the POP nearest the destination point.

If the destination is a regular phone on the public switched telephone network (define), a gateway at the POP converts the signal and switches it to the phone network. If it's another Vonage phone, the call goes back on to the public Internet and stays as IP packets until it gets to the other party's voice gateway.

Whatever the receiving device — a voice gateway at a Vonage POP or a voice gateway at another subscriber's location — it must reassemble the packets received in order and convert them to analog, all in real time.

If packets arrive consistently late because they're held up by congestion on the Internet, even if it's less than a second, the voice will be delayed. This is called latency and makes normal conversation awkward, though not impossible.

The delay is similar in effect to what you experience talking on a satellite phone, though rarely as pronounced — or like overseas calls in the old days.

If voice packets are completely lost, which can happen, the voice may be garbled — jitter — or the person at the other end may experience clipping, tiny bits of sounds chopped off.

VoIP is by now a mainstay of corporate telecommunications, but in enterprise VoIP applications — either local area or wide area — the calls go over managed networks that can ensure that voice packets always get priority, virtually eliminating latency and jitter.

This is the downside of using the public Internet — there is no way to ensure voice packets get priority while they're on the Net. They're as subject to delays as any other Internet traffic.

Our Overall Experience
In most calls using the Vonage service — and we made many, including overseas calls — latency, jitter and clipping were not a factor. Volume levels were consistently higher than with calls on our telco line and voices often sounded clearer, though not as natural.

On a small minority of calls — usually the longer-haul calls — we experienced some very slight latency. We also noticed some jitter when the parties talked over each other. In a normal telephone call, you can usually make out what the other person is saying in these situations. With the poorer Vonage calls, the other voice was garbled.

On a very few overseas calls, Vonage could not connect to numbers reachable on a telco line. With Vonage, we received a fast busy signal. Later the same numbers worked fine on Vonage.

Whether this was due to problems with Vonage POPs, the PSTN long distance network Vonage uses or the telco at the other end was not clear. In any case, the percentage of calls on which there were problems was very small.

Do some cost comparisons — Vonage versus your existing telecommunications services. The pay-back for applications involving overseas calling in particular can be huge.

If the dollars make sense, experiment with voice over Internet — without taking out your regular phone lines. If the Vonage service isn't good enough for your small business, you can always go back to what you had.

< Back to Page 1: What's the Catch?

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980's. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine. Blackwells knowledge is vast and his wit eduring.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Mar 24th 2004
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