Smooth Operators

Which Internet phone service is best?

I’m sitting in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. I just spoke with my girlfriend in New York for an hour. Per-minute cost: $0. That’s because my trusty Internet phone came along with me. An Internet phone is nothing more than an inconsequential-looking electronic adapter with blinking lights on the front and a few jacks in the back. Plug a normal telephone into its phone jack, then plug the adapter directly into your router, which is hooked up to a broadband Internet connection. Some Internet phone carriers also let you make calls through your computer; others, like Skype, require it. But the genius of most Internet phones is that your computer isn’t involved at all.Increasing competition from tech upstarts like Vonage and anxious traditionalists like Verizon has led to insanely low prices for VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) service. For flat rates as low as $20 per month, you can get a U.S. phone number with unlimited domestic calling—and several services also throw in Canada and parts of Latin America, Asia, and Europe, too. Moreover, because the little Internet phone adapters plug into any broadband Internet connection, your beloved 212 number will follow you to Abu Dhabi.

Competition has also led to a proliferation of newfangled Web features, many of which have spread to most carriers. You can have your voice mails e-mailed to you or check them online. You can forward your calls to several numbers—like your work or cell—simultaneously. And many have some kind of online address book that can enable call blocking and call filtering, too.The downside of VoIP is that it’s not real phone service. You may pay fewer taxes, but you don’t automatically get, say, 911 service, and the thing won’t work in a blackout. Reliability also is not always up to land-line snuff. Sometimes there’s no dial tone, your outgoing calls don’t go through, or the other party can’t hear you. I also have a nagging suspicion that I am missing important calls, a fear stoked by scattered complaints like, “Your Internet phone sucks” and, “Why does your damned phone never pick up?”

Still, VoIP marketing has become so ubiquitous that even my dad wants in. To find out if VoIP is really mature enough to replace your land line, I performed a series tests on seven services. Keep in mind that these results are hardly scientific: The quality and reliability of these phones depends in great measure on the quality and reliability of your Internet connection. While my setup—a cable modem—is very common, it does not mean my experience was typical.


Sound quality (15 points): Does it sound as good as a land line? I called a tester with no Internet phone experience (my dad) and asked him to blindly judge each phone. To hear how each system performed with limited bandwidth, we had conversations while I uploaded and downloaded enormous files on BitTorrent and played Xbox online. To find out how well each phone distinguished my voice from background noise, we spoke while I blasted OMD’s Architecture & Morality.

Reliability(15 points): Do outgoing calls always go through? Does each incoming call actually ring? I set up a computer to make and receive one call every 10 minutes for a little more than nine hours straight. The idea was to see how many of the almost 60 calls were actually placed or received. Each missed call led to a one-point deduction from the maximum score of 15.

International (5 points): Some newer phone services include unlimited calling to certain countries. Many others charge very low per-minute rates. I averaged the per-minute rates from the United States to London, Paris, Shanghai, and Tokyo, then plotted the costs on a five-point scale. The most expensive service got 1 point, the cheapest 5 points. (To be fair, the highest average—AT&T’s 6 cents per minute—wasn’t terribly high.)

Portability (5 points): I lugged every one of these devices on a plane to Los Angeles, and none of them set off any red flags with baggage screeners. Two of them went with me to Abu Dhabi, where they passed through customs without a problem. The score, then, is based solely on size and weight. They vary from the size of a deck of cards (GalaxyVoice) to that of a George Foreman grill (AT&T).

Bells and whistles(5 points): These days most VoIP providers have the same suite of features, but some are missing big ones (online voice mail), and others stand out with intuitive Web interfaces that allow you to make call-forwarding schedules or even program music to play while your friends are on hold.

Number selection (5 points): With local number portability, you can bring your own number to your Internet phone. But half the fun is choosing your own area code, and sometimes your whole phone number. Points were awarded for ease of selection and availability of the coveted 212.

Results (from worst to first):

$39.95 activation fee and $24.95 per month for unlimited calling in the U.S. and 34 countries.

I tested BroadVoice as the geek option. It advertises the ability to BYOD (i.e., “bring your own device”), meaning you’re in luck if you’re one of the few who has something like the ZyXEL P-2000W v.2 Wi-Fi phone. For the rest of us, the most appealing thing about BroadVoice is the promise of unlimited calling to 35 countries. If only it worked consistently. During the reliability test, the phone got stuck on a fast busy signal for more than two hours when making outgoing calls. It didn’t fare so well in voice quality, either. When I uploaded a few big files to test the response to limited bandwidth, my dad grew frustrated with the garbled sound. “This one is the pits,” he said.

Sound quality: 9.5
Reliability: -2
International: 5
Portability: 4
Bells and whistles: 4 (sleek Web interface, but awesome-sounding new features like e-mail notifications for calls from specific phone numbers have been listed as “coming soon” for months)
Number selection: 2 (no 212; international numbers are available)
Total: 22.5

0.017 euros per minute (approximately 2 cents per minute) to the U.S. and many countries (10 euro minimum purchase, plus 30 euros for 12 months of incoming calls and voice mail).

The free computer-to-computer phone service has recently made a play to be your everyday phone. Skype now offers the bare minimum that you need to replace a land line: outgoing and incoming calls to and fromregular telephones, plus voice mail service. You’ll have fun choosing your phone number through a snazzy interface that searches for specific sequences of digits or letters, but the selection isn’t very big. (Also, for some reason your number shows up on other peoples’ caller ID as a weirdo foreign number.) In the automated test, all but one incoming call came through. But several times when I called on my own, calls wouldn’t connect and I’d have to try again. The hollow voice quality wasn’t nearly up to land-line snuff on my older PC laptop, either.

Sound quality: 6
Reliability: 14*
International: 3
Portability: 5 (no adapter required)
Bells and whistles: 1
Number selection: 2 (no 212; international numbers are available)
Total: 31

*Only tested incoming, as I couldn’t figure out how to automate a batch of outgoing Skype calls.

Verizon VoiceWing
Free activation and $34.95 per month for unlimited calling in the U.S.

Verizon’s “VoiceWing” service raises a key question: Why dilute a recognizable brand by inventing a stupid name for your VoIP service? (Also see: AT&T CallVantage.) In any case, VoiceWing’s top-notch Web site features integration with its online yellow pages and lets you coordinate simultaneous ringing of your VoIP line, cell phone, and work number. But even in the normal conversation test, my dad thought VoiceWing sounded a little too tinny. When I made business calls, one source told me I sounded “fuzzy” and told me to call back. Can you hear me now? Not so well.

Sound quality: 8
Reliability: 10
International: 1 (even Canada isn’t free)
Portability: 4
Bells and whistles: 5
Number selection: 4 (no 212; nice selection otherwise)
Total: 32

$29.95 activation fee and $19.95 per month for unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada.

I’ve been a Packet8 customer for more than a year now. Packet8 once lapped the field by offering a flat, $20-per-month rate for unlimited long distance when everyone else charged around $35. But in the last several months, everyone’s lowered their prices while continuing to offer features that Packet8 doesn’t have—like online voice-mail retrieval, which I desperately covet. Instead, Packet8 has invested its time making an optional $250 videophone that at least works pretty well (even between Abu Dhabi and New York). The good news: The voice quality was perfect when I wasn’t uploading anything, and not so bad otherwise. “It’s better than a regular phone,” says dad.

Sound quality: 11
Reliability: 13
International: 3
Portability: 3
Bells and whistles: 1
Number selection: 2 (no 212)
Total: 33

$29.99 activation fee plus $24.95 per month for unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada.The most prominent VoIP provider did fine: good reliability and pretty good voice quality. It has the de rigeur online voice-mail retrieval and multiple-phone-ringing ability—what it calls “SimulRing.” But Vonage doesn’t quite rise to land-line replacement level—it doesn’t sound as good as Packet8.Sound quality: 9
Reliability: 14
International: 1
Portability: 4
Bells and whistles: 5
Number selection: 3 (no 212)
Total: 36 GalaxyVoice
$24.95 activation fee and $19.95 per month for unlimited calling in the U.S. and to 20 other countries.

The cheapest option turns out to be a very good value if you’re willing to sacrifice some voice quality. GalaxyVoice offers 212 numbers, the smallest adapter I tested, and a perfect score in the reliability test. But the real claim to fame here is the “free” plan: Pay $60 for an adapter and activation fee and you get 60 minutes of outgoing calls and unlimited incoming calls for free, so long as you accept a Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or New York area code—including 212! The catch: Even under optimal conditions, the quality wasn’t so great, and it was completely impossible to have a conversation during the BitTorrent/Xbox test.

Sound quality: 8
Reliability: 15
International: 5
Portability: 5
Bells and whistles: 3
Number selection: 4 (has 212!)
Total: 40

AT&T CallVantage
$29.99 activation fee and $29.99 per month for unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada (first month free, through Dec. 31, 2005).

Along with GalaxyVoice, CallVantage is the only service that didn’t miss a single incoming or outgoing call. Most important, this was the only provider to sound as good as or better than a land line during both normal and Xbox/BitTorrent conversations. The reason, an AT&T flack tells me, is that their adapter replaces your router and throttles back bandwidth-hogging devices (like your computer or Xbox) while you’re on a call. Unfortunately, that means it’s bigger than any other adapter—about the size of a small George Foreman grill. And it also needs to be wired between your cable or DSL modem and anything else that’s connected to the Internet, making it more cumbersome to unplug and take with you. Not that my dad cares. “This is the one I want,” he says.

Sound quality: 14
Reliability: 15
International: 1
Portability: 1
Bells and whistles: 5
Number selection: 5 (has 212!)
Total: 41