I’ve been eyeing up VOIP (Voice Over IP) services for quite some time. The technology seems like one of those areas that slowly becomes a solution that works its way into dominance.
At the very least it’s a wonderful way to keep competition alive and well. Phone service is one of the great success stories of the value of free market competition. What used to cost me literally thousands of dollars a month can now be had for $60 a month with Verizon. VOIP looked to save me even far more than that along with adding a myriad of interesting features to the mix.
I started looking into this seriously a few years ago when Vonage was first making their mark in the industry. However, at the time they didn’t seem up to snuff on several levels. Any time I called a Vonage customer, the call was often marred by echos, clicks, pops and drop-outs. More surprisingly their features were limited compared to what I already had with Verizon. At the time they had no 3-way calling. They had no *69. Their voicemail couldn’t take a message if you were on the line. Plus they wanted $50 a month for their service and it was laiden with “gotchas”. There’s no way I was going to pay even 50% for a VOIP solution that is mainly using the bandwidth provided by someone else.
Just recently I took a closer look and things seemed to have improved dramatically. I started seeing prices everywhere dropping to below $25 a month with some as low as under $10 for agreeing to pay up-front for 2 years of service. Now that’s a major savings and worth looking into.
Comcast has recently begun offering phone service but they think $40 a month is a competitive rate. See you later Comcast. Get a clue. Verizon offers it via a product they call VoiceWing but it was recently overpriced and under-featured and required payment only by guaranteed credit card plans (I’m a fan of controlling my payments, thanks.) On the plus side Verizon recently dropped the price down to $25 a month. Vonage is now at about $25 a month along with many other providers.
The two that looked the most compelling to me, however, were ViaTalk and VoicePulse. Both are very different but similar in ways that interested me. ViaTalk has essentially two payment plans. They have a flat monthly plan priced about the same as the rest but their main plans are all heavily discounted offers that you pay for in total up front. Until just last week they had a deal for 2 years of unlimited service for $199. You could even get that down to $164 with some searching on the Web. That’s $6.83 a month for unlimited phone service. At those prices, the service would have to be pretty bad to pass up. It doesn’t hurt that their CEO is also visible, active and responsive on one of the top VOIP forums on the Internet.
VoicePulse is a flat monthly service at the same $25 a month. Their major draw is that everyone seems to have nothing but praise for them. Their line quality is always discussed in glowing terms and their feature set is second-to-none. Their customer service is also always mentioned by fans as being the best available. Every issue is followed up with an e-mail and a phone call. It sounded like a company that understands the concept of service.
In the end I decided to take a chance with ViaTalk under an initial 3-month plan at $21.95 a month to see how things go. ViaTalk has been extremely aggressive with rolling out new features and seem to be closing the gap in that regard with VoicePulse. VoicePulse makes their home in New Jersey and, as a result, I’d end up having to pay an additional $1.75 a month for their service. At this prices that’s a big increase. I figure if ViaTalk doesn’t work out, in 90 days I can just move over to VoicePulse.
The one thing that annoys me about ViaTalk is that, like several other competitors, they change their pricing structure almost as often as the wind changes direction. I would check their website on a Monday to find them offering a plan for $15.95 a month and then on Tuesday it would be $199 a year. One Wednesday it’d be $15.95 a month with 3 months of free service, etc. Adding to the confusion is that, as I mentioned, all of their plans but one require the customer to pay for the total up front. However, their website is clearly designed to give the impression that the pricing shown is monthly when it’s really just the average monthly price.
I got on the website and signed up for the 3-month plan. I used a $35 coupon they had and my bill ended up being $70.75. That included the 3 months of phone service, a $30 setup fee and a shipping and handling fee for the phone adapter they give you. I pay that much to Verizon now for one month of service on the one line I’m moving over.
The website made signing up a breeze, even though some of it could be complicated if not presented well. If you’re moving an existing phone number over to a VOIP service there’s a paperwork process that has to take place. In a few minutes I’d finished all the forms and immediately got a couple e-mails telling me I was signed up. Within about 10 minutes my entire process was complete including the shipping out of my phone adapter (which I’m still waiting to arrive so I can’t be sure yet that the adapter actually shipped when they claim it did). This speed was unexpected as there were countless customers posting experiences of having to wait weeks for their phone adapters and service to be set up.
As part of the process you receive a phone number. For many this number is just temporary while you wait for your existing phone number to be ported over (a process that takes about 3 weeks on average). I got mine along with all the other information right away.
I then decided to go have a look at the various features offered on their website. Most everything for the phone is handled through an account management support website. You log into your account and view or change settings through it. The myriad of options are pretty compelling. Call alarms, the ability to ring multiple phones on incoming calls, advanced call filtering capabilities and many others.
On an extremely disturbing note I went into the call logging feature and was surprised to find a fully populated screen. It contained countless inbound calls along with full details. Names, times, phone numbers, etc. Clearly I was looking at the call details of the person who had this number before me. I then looked at the outgoing side and saw the same level of detail. Now I could see every call this person made. I knew who he called, when he called and for how long he called. This was very unsettling so I dug deeper. I found his address under the 911 settings. Under Voicemail I could listen to messages he’d received and not deleted. In the Custom Caller ID section (where you can define how you want incoming callers to show up) I found numbers for people that weren’t in the call logs for the period covered. I also could see who his girlfriend was, his parents, friends and so on.
I then posted this information to a popular VOIP forum (www.dslreports.com) and several people responded that they too had experienced this. A few noted that the problem has gone on for months (at least as far back as April) without being fixed. The CEO also posted a note of clear concern and stated that this now had his attention and that he was looking into it.
I called ViaTalk the next day and went over the problem. No one seemed concerned. Did they not understand the implications of privacy concerns and what could happen in some worst case scenarios with this? I called back and spoke to a manager. He seemed to get it. I explained that not only did this concern me but that I now had real concerns with adding my information to this service because I’d have no way of knowing if my private information would be given to the next person who got my temporary number.
The manager listened and seemed to concur. He promised that he’d send me a new, clean number and personally promised that my temporary number would be fully wiped when I was done with it.
About an hour later I received an e-mail with a new phone number. I went into the features again and found the same problem now with a different set of information. Are they joking? They send me another number with the same problem? Did they even bother to check this before dealing with such a sensative issue? Apparently not. I called again and, while on the phone, the rep I spoke to got an engineer on the line and he immediately, in steps, removed the private information. The rep also said that engineering was now in full debugging mode on a search to find this problem. Meanwhile I still have my doubts.
Another concerning item was shared with me regarding Comcast. I use their broadband service and pay an extra $10 a month for premium connection speeds. The rep informed me that Comcast is notorious for “throttling” the portions of the service that are used for VOIP service. That means that even though I pay for a specific level of service, Comcast, if true, is limiting my speeds where I am most concerned about it. I’ll be calling them later today to find out how true this is. I personally can’t wait until Verizon gets their much more competitive FIOS service out to my area. Comcast needs a strong dose of competition.
I’ll post more on this whole situation I’m sure. The phone adapter is due here today or tomorrow so the experience should be rather enlightening.