Banana Stew

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Goodbye Vonage

We have canceled our Vonage service. This time it wasn't due to any fault of Vonage, it was due to the inherent unreliability of our Comcast broadband service. Oddly enough, Vonage has allowed us to keep the home gateway - just in case we want to come back in the future. This from the company that charges $99 to your account automatically whenever you have to return a box and get a new one.

Comcast changed something and our signal dropped, resulting in a 500kbps speed and frequent interruptions of service. The result was choppy and occasionally dropped calls and many times when the service was completely unavailable. Many service trips could not resolve the problem.

We've switched to BellSouth DSL, which requires a phone line. And, since we now have a fixed phone line to the house, Vonage didn't make sense economically. For our long distance, we'll use calling cards or something.

Plus, BellSouth offers some very nice returning customer prizes (no charge for the nickel long distance plan for a year, $100 cash back, free MP3 player, foot massages).

I have been looking at this little gadget that allows a home phone to switch over to Skype for long distance but use the regular PSTN for local calls (and long distance, if your broadband is down). If the numbers crunch right, it might be our next experiment.

All of this really points out the sorry state of broadband in the US. I live in a nice area with plenty of revenue potential and I still get lousy broadband - and pay through the nose for it. It makes me quite jealous when reading articles about fiber deployments in Asia, Europe, ... and Utah.

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Update to Vonage Issues, Concerns, and Praise

I have posted an update to one of this site's more popular entries - Vonage Issues, Concerns, and Praise. If you've read it before, please read it again for all of the new and exciting ... ok, just new entries.

Filed in:


Sunday, July 10, 2005

Using TiVO with Vonage (or any VoIP service)

TiVo has this one little technical problem that they need to solve. It works great with broadband, but requires a standard telephone line for initial startup. The box actually has a modem built in for downloading configuration information. How archaic.

For those of us who no longer have a standard telephone line, this is a problem. Vonage (or any other VoIP service) converts analog voice signals into packets that are routed over the Internet (or a private intranet). A modem expects a nailed-up connection between two endpoints. VoIP may have slight delays or gaps that the human ear doesn't notice. A modem gets totally freaked out by those gaps or delays.

According to the on-line forums, many TiVo/Vonage users could never get any connection. I was a bit more fotunate. I could connect, but the call wouldn't stay up for more than 1 or 2 minutes. So, my TiVo box could make the first setup call (a short one), but always died during the second setup call (the 10-20 minute one).

Several solutions are suggested in a variety of on-line forums. They include using codes to slow down the modem, setting TiVo to dial a New York number, setting up a PPP connection to your computer, and taking the TiVo box over to a neighbor's house and setting it up for a few hours.

For me, the solution that worked was to use the ",#401" prefix before the telephone number and hook up the USB connection on the back to my home network. That prefix forces the call to go over the internet instead of a phone line.

The hardware that I used on the back of my TiVo box (it's a Series 2, by the way) was a USB-to-Ethernet converter plugged into a wireless access point. It should work just as well if you put a USB-to-Ethernet converter to a wired (Ethernet) connection to either your cable/DSL modem or home router.

I have heard anectdotal evidence that plugging a wireless USB dongle into the TiVo will not work for initial setup. Something about needing to download the software to turn the dongle on. I don't have any real proof of that, and those supposedly work in the long term. One solution (not that I recommend it) is to buy a dongle for long-term use and buy-and-return a USB-to-Ethernet converter for initial setup (bring it home, get the TiVo set up, then return it and use the dongle instead).

Good luck. Vonage is worth it and so is TiVo. Once they're set up, they work beautifully together and will greatly enhance your life, make you more attactive to the opposite sex, and significantly increase your stamina.

[Update 8/10/2006] Welcome MacObserver Poscasters. You'll be pleased to know that the latest TiVo boxes no longer have this problem. Click on "TiVo" below for all other TiVo-related posts. Click on "Vonage" ... well, you get the drill.


Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Vonage vs. Skype in the Blogoshpere

There is a ripple going through the blogosphere that Skype is synonymous with VoIP and that Vonage is a mere hanger-on. The original analysis has been picked up by popular technology blogs and used as the basis for an argument that Skype is superior technology and/or implementation. Because, of course, bloggers are the vanguard of the technological future, right?

I believe that analysis is fundamentally flawed. I base this on the fact that bloggers, while numerous, are an insular and intensely self-involved group. And even among bloggers, the analysis shows that VoIP is only of interest to less than 0.1% of them - not a very statistically significant group.

As for me, I personally use both Skype and Vonage - but for different and distinct purposes. One purpose is more likely to fit a blogger lifestyle, and one is more likely to fit the target consumer of Vonage services.

When I wanted a VoIP service that looked, smelled, and quacked like POTS, I chose Vonage. My family can use it, it works in every room in the house, and 911 should work. When I’m travelling - especially internationally - I use Skype. It’s just me in one room with a high speed connection and a computer, so a USB headset makes sense.

Skype appeals to people who live next to or near their computer, understand the technology, and can live with one phone. Bloggers are these people. Vonage is attempting to appeal to part of America who can generally set up the VCR, has several phones in the house, turns off the computer when it’s not in use, and doesn’t have the time to fiddle with technology. Those people are not bloggers - at least not usually very good ones.

The conclusion here is twofold. If you're a fully integrated member of the technology blogosphere, then the Skype vs. Vonage analysis might be of value to you. People like you are at least talking about Skype a lot - perhaps you should check it out. However, if you're one of the other 99.9% of bloggers and/or not a blogger at all, this analysis shouldn't be taken for anything more than it is - an interesting factoid with little or no implications on technology and how it relates to your life.

Filed in:

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Vonage Issues, Concerns, and Praise

First of all, let me be clear that I generally like Vonage. Their customer service needs significant improvement, and I'd have touble recommending it to someone who doesn't have at least minimal technical skills, but you can't beat the price and the voice quality.

However, if you are interested in signing up for Vonage (or a competitor), you should go in with your eyes wide open. There are concerns about port blocking (the DSL or cable company not letting the traffic through), changes in regulation that could impact the cost, potential hacking of VoIP, and the Vonage business model in general.

A good source of information is the Vonage Forums, which are remarkably open in allowing both praise and derision. Below are a few other sources and resources that I would recommend potential customers give a quick once over.

Again, I like Vonage. I use Vonage. But I have had some real trouble with Vonage, and my wife currently has them on probation (one more problem and it's back to BellSouth and their outrageous rates but better reliability). Before you give up your land line, be sure you know what you're getting.

[Update July 14, 2005] I'm adding a few new links here based on recent developments, announcements, and things that I've run across. I'll keep everything here in this one post for your convenience. New posts have a '*' next to them.

Port blocking claims:
Blocked by Madison River Communications reported in ITworld
Reports of Blocking in Mexico on BroadbandReports
Blocked by a Cable Operator and Wireless Provider reported on CNet
Blocked by a Cable Company as reported in Advanced IP Pipeline

Service complaints:
Damian Katz really, really dislikes Vonage *
Vonage Customer Service at Lockergnome
Vonage Outages reported on Broadband Reports

Regulatory Worries:
Costa Rica may Criminalize VoIP on TechWeb
Potential Kansas Legislation Adding Charges to VoIP in the Wichita Business Journal
Opposition to the FCC Ruling that States Cannot Regulate VoIP in Advanced IP Pipeline
California Opposition to the FCC Ruling in eWeek
More on Vonage Response to the FCC Ruling in Internet News

911 Issues:
E911 is required to be supported by all VoIP companies by the end of 2005, in PC World among others *
Texas Sues Vonage over 911 Calling from the Texas Attorney General
- Commentary on VoIP Blog
Testing 911 with Vonage at Bill's World
USA Today reports on VoIP Providers' 911 Battles with Incumbents

The Business:
CEO Speaks of Customer Retention and Other Issues in Business Week Online
ISP Refers to Vonage as "Parasitic" according to Lightreading
Speculation on Vonage IPO by Om Malik
A Million Users by 2006 as reported in CNet
Vonage raises another $200million, detailed in Business Week Online and criticized by Om Malik *

Worries About VoIP Hacking:
Not Enough VoIP Customers to Make Hacking Attactive in Broadband Reports
Wired News says VoIP Isn't Safe
CallerID Spoofing via ComputerWorld

New Features:
Wif-fi Phones Announced (finally) in TelecomWeb *
Video Phone reported in Gizmodo
Video Phone Service Launch reported in Silicon.Com
Wireless phones at Network World Fusion
WiFi phones in USA Today

The Ridiculous:
AT&T Picks a Name Curiously Close to "Vonage" for VoIP in Internetnews

Vonage Acquisition Rumors *
Rich Tehrani started the BellSouth rumors
Al Bedenberg (same company) is running with it
Om Malik thinks it's all loco

It's Tough to Get TiVo to Work with Vonage
My own link this time *

Filed in:


Sunday, March 06, 2005

Vonage is About to Lose a Customer (part 4)

So, we finally recovered from the blown adapter, phone service was up and running perfectly for a few days, then things started going haywire again.

My lovely and perceptive wife brought the phone to me and mentioned that she was having trouble calling a neighbor. The phone line would ring twice, then go to a fast busy signal. So I tried calling my office. Same result. So I tried calling her cell phone. Same result. So I tried calling my parent’s house long distance. Surprise, I got their answering machine.

After some experimentation, we determined that we were unable to dial any number in the 770 or 404 area codes. This is a problem, as Atlanta is covered by those two particular area codes, and we live in Atlanta. I tried re-booting the ATA to no avail.

Finally, hopeful for a fast resolution, but fearful of a repeat performance, I dialed the Vonage Technical Support and Endless Mind-Numbing Hold Music number.

While on hold, I managed to eat dinner and bathe two children. I left the phone on speaker, and the children enjoyed dancing to the insipid instrumentals. (It’ll take years of therapy to remove that from their psyches.) Forty two minutes later, someone finally answered the phone.

I explained the problem - several times, since the person on the phone seemed confused. In the end, she explained that there was some problem with the network, and she was just taking names and numbers so that someone in technical support could call back later.

Over forty minutes on hold so that you can take my number and get back to me? Unacceptable. Especially when you have options such as placing a service notice on the web page (none was ever posted that I saw – even later in the evening) or even mentioning that there is a problem in your hold messages.

We received a mailing from BellSouth today asking us to come back and offering nice prizes. We know that Vonage is a great deal, and as a telecommunications professional, I want them to succeed. However, my lovely and telephone-deprived wife has posted that BellSouth flyer on the bulletin board next to the phone.

One more chance, Vonage. Another screw-up like this with technical support this poor, and we’ll decide that the reliability of BellSouth is worth the extra money. And we’ll tell two friends, who will tell two friends, and so on, and so on.

Labels: ,

Friday, March 04, 2005

Vonage is about to lose a customer (part 3)

No response (ever) via email. I suppose Vonage customers should just abandon that access method. That's a shame, since one would expect that a good email response could lower the amount of phone help traffic.

At the airport, on my way our of the country, I had some time to kill and called the support line again. (The number of buttons required to get to a real person is smaller if you choose a billing option - I may try that again next time.) I had just connected, when a fire alarm went off at Vonage central and they had to hang up and shut down for 30 minutes. OK, that one wasn't really their fault.

When I finally got a real person, they discovered that my ATA had not shipped overnight - and not via UPS. It was shipped via DHL ground. That explains why it didn't show up on the UPS tracking system, and why it didn't arrive before I left town. It does not explain how Vonage so royally screwed up, and the person that I talked to had no explanation.

In Vonage's defense, they credited me for the overnight shipping and even included a Vonage baseball cap in the box with the ATA. So, I suppose I'll stick with them a bit longer.

My advice to anyone considering Vonage is to go in with your eyes open. They're growing faster than their help system can handle, and you will need a lot of patience and the ability to go for up to a week without phone service if something untoward happens.

Filed in:


Friday, February 25, 2005

Vonage is About to Lose a Customer: Part 2

As mentioned earlier, my Vonage box succumbed to a lightning storm last week. Not their fault. However, the severly lacking customer service is definitely their fault.

I decided to pay extra to have the box shipped overnight so that I'd have it in hand by the weekend. Well, it's Friday night and no box. So, I went to the Vonage website and - how nice - they provide a UPS tracking number to find out where the box is. Except that the number that they gave me is not registered by UPS. Not cool.

So, not wanting to wait another 45 minutes on the phone or go through another phone maze ("Try re-booting your ATA." I don't have an ATA you mindless machine from hell!), I sent an email. And quickly got a response telling me to ... re-boot my ATA. And if that doesn't work, please reply to this email so that we can put you in the system.

Unacceptable. Vonage, you force people to wade through a morass of a website to get to a form to send an email and then require us to reply to the email before we even get in the queue?

I disagree that the only way to differentiate among VoIP providers is through marketing. I think that customer service is going to be a big differentiator as well. And Vonage is dropping the ball.

Big time.

Filed in:


Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Vonage Is About to Lose a Customer

We had a huge storm go through a couple of nights ago, and lightning took out much of the electronics in our home - despite surge suppressors and UPSs.

One item knocked out was the cable modem, which meant no Vonage either. Today (2 days later) Comcast came and replaced the cable modem. Now I see that the Vonage ATA is also blown. No lights on the WAN port, no response when connected to anything on that port.

In the past, I've been impressed with Vonage customer service. However, it appears that they have not scaled up service to match customer growth.

First, I called and got stuck in a new (to me) nearly endless set of menus with no way out and no way to say "my ATA blew". Then, I got cut off. Completely. So I called back and tried punching random buttons in anger. Cut off again. So I tried sending email with an expected response time of "NOW". Nothing yet.

I did finally get into the queue on the telephone. I have now been on hold for over 30 minutes listening to insipid music and annoying announcements. I need a new ATA for the family before I leave for Asia on Sunday.

Vonage, you're getting mighty close to losing me as an advocate, evangelist, and customer.

Update [02/24]: After a total of 49 minutes on the phone, Vonage is sending me a new ATA. I'm being charged expedited shipping because I'd like to have a phone by the weekend. I suppose you get what you pay for. I am still saving $50 a month on my phone bill (repeat softly until anger dissipates).

Filed in:


Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Using Vonage for Every Phone in Your House

I use Vonage for my home phone service. For those unfamiliar, it is a Voice over IP service that you can use over your cable modem (or other high speed internet) connection. It's increadibly inexpensive and usually very high quality. In fact, we had trouble with the phone lines at our house when it rained, and that has all been eliminated by going to Vonage instead.

The biggest defect in Vonage's service is that they don't officially tell you that you can use it on every phone in your house (the way that they tell you to use Vonage on multiple phones is complicated and cumbersome). However, it can very easily and simply be done, and there's no need to buy anything more than about $10 worth of stuff that you may already have laying around the house.

You will need a screwdriver, a telephone cord (the one that goes to the wall, not the one that goes to the handset), and a simple telephone splitter (below) that you can buy for about five dollars at Radio Shack.

Make sure that it is a splitter (one phone line split into two) and not a "second phone line adapter". They look similar, but they do different things.

First: Hook Up Vonage Just Like They Tell You To

You'll want to be sure that the service works, so hook it up according to the directions that you receive when you sign up for the service. I won't repeat them here, as they are spelled out well in the Vonage instructions. After following these instructions, you'll have one phone hooked up to Vonage.

If you are waiting for your local phone carrier to move your number over to Vonage, you'll have to stick with that one phone hooked up until everything gets moved over. That may take a week or more. Don't do anything else unless you want your phone number to show up as "busy" during that entire time.

Vonage working on one phone now? Got the right phone number associated with it? Good. Now...

Second: Disconnect Your Inside Wires from the Outside Phone Network

You're not using the connection anymore, right? Plus, if you leave the wires connected, bad things can happen (more on that later). This is the most involved step in the whole process, so once you get through it, you're golden.

Find your "Network Interface Device" or "NID" on the outside of your residence. It should look something like this.

Open it up (you may need a screwdriver). It's ok. Legally, you own all of the wires inside your house including the ends that stick out into this box. Don't break the box, though, as you'll want it to be working if you ever go back to traditional telephone service.

Once open, disconnect all of the wires that go into your home. You'll probably have to unscrew something and unwrap the wires. It'll look something like this:

Now, close it back up and screw it shut. Go back into your residence and pick up any phone (except the Vonage one). There should not be any dial tone. This is good - it means that you've disconnected the right wires.

Three: Hook Up the Splitter

You already have a phone hooked up to the adapter that Vonage sent. Now, you want to hook up all of the rest of the phones. So, unplug the phone line from the back of the adapter.

Plug the phone cable that you just pulled out of the adapter into the telephone splitter. Now, plug another telephone wire into the other side of the splitter and back into the Vonage adapter. You should have a splitter with one wire going to the Vonage adapter and one wire going to your telephone.

You can pick up the phone receiver now and check for dialtone. If there's no dialtone, you've either got a bad splitter or something's not hooked up right. Plug the phone back the way it was and try again.

Four: Plug the Splitter into a Wall Jack

Notice that the splitter is made to plug into a wall jack. (It's normally expecting the phone signal to come from the wall and be split out to two phones. ) Plug the splitter into any available wall jack.

You should now get dial tone on every phone in your residence.

What's happening is that phone service is coming into your Vonage adapter, going to the splitter and into the wall, and using your house wiring to provide service throughout the residence. The splitter is just making it so that you can use the original phone that you had hooked up.

Lessons Learned:

Some interesting lessons that we've learned in having our house wired this way.
  1. Never run the cable (for the cable modem) through a power strip or UPS. It's supposed to provide surge suppression. What it did for us was drop calls unexpectedly.
  2. Sometimes, when you call voicemail from a phone, you have to dial your next call from a different phone. I don't know why. You can get around this by going to another phone and pressing any key, then hanging up.
  3. Be sure that you've disconnected the outside wiring. If you don't, the first time your phone rings it will send a signal back into the phone company's network that will make it impossible to hang up the call.
  4. If you're using DSL (which comes in on the phone line), this may not work. However, you can probably use the other line (most homes are wired for two lines) by using a second-line adapter instead of a splitter.
Finally: Be Sure to Get Your First Month for Free

Vonage has a deal where you can get a free month of service if you are recommended by a current customer (the referrer gets 2 months free service). I highly recommend that you find a friend to get this offer from, but if you can't I'd certainly be willing to give you a reference.

I hope this has been helpful.

[Update March 23, 2005] If you are interested in using Vonage service (and I do like the service in general), I highly recommend that you read the "Vonage Saga" section of the index to the right. Go in with your eyes open.

[Update September 22, 2005] Whereas Vonage used to claim that they didn't support the technique listed in this post, they now have a help page dedicated to it. I'm sure that has absolutley nothing to do with the fact that this post comes up first in all of the search engines and also links to some people who have been mildly critical of Vonage. Nope, that can't be it.

Filed in: