Which Internet phone service is best?

Inside the Internet.
June 29 2005 6:10 PM

Smooth Operators

Which Internet phone service is best?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

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?"

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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.

Methodology

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.