Tools Of The Trade: The Vonage internet telephony system

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The Independent Online

Internet telephony is already bringing competitive pressures to bear on long-distance phone companies in the US. With the launch of Vonage's UK service, the market here could well develop on similar lines.

Internet telephony is already bringing competitive pressures to bear on long-distance phone companies in the US. With the launch of Vonage's UK service, the market here could well develop on similar lines.

Vonage's offering sits somewhere between consumer-focused services such as Skype (reviewed here earlier this month) and high-end internet telephony systems from the likes of Avaya or Cisco.

For £9.99 a month, Vonage subscribers can make unlimited calls to UK landlines, and international calls are also competitive, with most European destinations costing 4p a minute. But there is more to the service than cheap calls.

As standard, Vonage supplies a broadband telephony router with support for two lines, and adding a second one for voice or fax is just a question of selecting that option on the Vonage internet site. The only limitation on the number of lines is the user's bandwidth, as telephony takes up 90Kbps per line.

For business users, the company provides a package, priced at £18.99, that includes a fax line. With a little tinkering, the service can connect to a small office phone system, as long as that terminates in standard BT phone plugs.

Vonage provides a central London phone number as standard. This is tied to the router rather than a line, so if you move, it is simply a matter of plugging it in to an internet connection. The number, and all associated services, will switch over to the new location.

Vonage suggests travellers could take the telephony router with them so they can use their local number abroad, though the router is rather bulky.

The company also offers a "softphone", allowing subscribers to make and receive calls from their laptops. This is an additional-cost service, at £5.99 a month, and comes with its own number and 500 minutes of calling time. Unlike Skype, which is built entirely on a softphone, the Vonage system only offers this as an add-on, not as a standalone product.

It is possible to divert a fixed Vonage number to the softphone number, and because it is all managed via the website, travellers can do this on the fly. Business users can also add virtual numbers in different countries, giving them a virtual local presence. And consumers can do the same for family members overseas, so that they only pay for local or national calls.

However, there are problems. Call quality is noticeably inferior to that on a standard phone line, even on a very fast (1Mbps-plus) DSL link. This was the case both through an office phone system and when using a phone connected directly to the Vonage hardware.

More seriously, although making calls was very straightforward in our tests, the system did not ring the phone on incoming calls. This is a known fault, according to Vonage, and lies in the small adaptors used by the company to connect to UK phones. If subscribers experience this problem, it will send out a new adaptor. Vonage is putting these in its next batch of routers.

THE VERDICT

Pros: flexible, can be integrated with standard phones.

Cons: no support for wireless networks, teething problems with hardware. Looks expensive with add-ons.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Cost: from £9.99 a month.

Contact: www.vonage.co.uk

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