Tools of the Trade: The Netgear voice router and Sipgate voiceover internet service

Competition between internet telephony services is driving call costs down to new levels. The services, aimed mostly at households and small businesses with broadband, can undercut the traditional carriers, such as BT and the cable companies, because they use the internet instead of a dedicated infra-structure.

Sipgate is an internet telephony service run by German company Indigo Networks. The service was first launched in the UK last autumn but Sipgate has been adding new hardware partners.

The Netgear TA612V router is the latest addition. The hardware supports two phone lines, and also provides firewall functions for connected computers. Unusually for a low-cost device, the Netgear router prioritises voice traffic, so that call quality does not suffer if the local network is congested.

Calls between Sipgate subscribers are free. Those to UK landlines cost 1.19 pence per minute, to the US 1.5 pence and to Germany 1.7 pence. Call time is cheaper if bought in bulk: 1,000 minutes a month costs £5.99.

There is no minimum subscription or monthly call allowance, making Sipgate cheap to set up and try out. The service also works with software-based phones, although heavy users will soon want to invest in dedicated hardware.

Setting up the Netgear router is a straightforward process. Sipgate recommends connecting the TA612V directly to a cable or DSL modem, and then connecting the computer to the router.

This will give the best quality, but in practice the hardware is happy enough with alternative network configurations. Netgear and Sipgate do recommend a minimum connection speed of 200kbps, however.

The quality for both Sipgate to landline and Sipgate to Sipgate calls is reasonable. There is a difference between conventional landline and Sipgate calls, but it is not enough to be a barrier to using the system.

The service also has the advantage of being "location independent": plug in the router at another site, and the same (geographical) phone number will ring there.

This makes the Netgear and Sipgate solution a good option for anyone who wants to add a second line at home, not least because there is no line rental and no charge for setting up the account or number. As long as you have enough bandwidth, the only additional costs are those for outbound calls. Sipgate's suggested phone, based on X-Lite software, also works well, although a good-quality headset is a useful add-on for softphone users.

Together, the Netgear voice router and Sipgate service make for a strong package. Sipgate does not have all the features, or the brand recognition, of Skype. But the ability to work with hardware routers and phones, rather than just software, makes it a more practical option for day-to-day business use. Call quality is not perfect, but at Sipgate's current prices, it is good enough.

THE VERDICT

Pros: straightforward set-up, reliable, low cost.

Cons: call quality still not perfect.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Price: Netgear router £79; calls from 1.19 pence per minute.

Contact: www.sipgate.co.uk

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