BroadVoice Plan Offers Good Starting Point for VOIP

One of the all-you-can-eat VOIP providers, BroadVoice, is as good a place to try IP telephony as any. But don't just eat minutes. Try the features!

BroadVoice is one of the many VOIP service providers now offering a $19.95, all-you-can-dial monthly calling plan to those with broadband. Like all of them, the plan also offers very low per-minute rates to destinations beyond the unlimited-calling North American perimeter.

My experience with BroadVoice confirms a reliable dial tone, and a fine-to-better-than-PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) voice quality. Perhaps reflecting an industry still emerging out of toddler stage, I also found a somewhat uneven Web access to a wealth of calling and messaging features. Bottom line: Im inclined to replace my teenagers line with this cheaper, Web-centric alternative, and use it myself for overseas calls and certain find-me scenarios.

My kid, who has grown up on the instant-messaging mode of interteen communication, might actually use the Web-configurable options BroadVoice gives you to forward and screen calls.

The service, with a $39.95 setup fee, starts with BroadVoices FedEx of a Grandstream TA (terminal adapter). This palm-sized box, like many others now being subsidized by VOIP carriers, will hook you up even if you havent bought a router yet. It comes with two Ethernet ports: The one marked "LAN" is for your PC, while the one marked "WAN" is for the cable to your broadband modem or your pre-existing router.

It also comes with two RJ11 phone jacks; one is a lifeline PSTN port, although I dont know if it fails over automatically if you connect this to your wall jack. I plugged an old AT&T feature phone into the port marked "phone." The TAs light flickered on, and there was dial tone.

I soon learned that if I plugged the TAs AC adapter into the same electrical socket powering the phone, my BroadVoice calls were accompanied by a low hum. Thats precisely where youd be most likely to plug both devices, of course. BroadVoice engineers said this problem can sometimes be traced to the type of phone cord or phone power plug; a three-pronged, grounded plug may not be susceptible to the interference. (Its a problem that can plague PSTN phones as well.)

You also could simply get a longer phone cord, allowing you to place the phone near a different household circuit. Or you can do what I did, which was to unplug the phone, rendering it brainless but hum-free. It then received its voltage from the terminal adapter.

The call data previously displayed by my phone—and more—was accessible through my BroadVoice Call Manager applet, which I got by logging into BroadVoices application server at Call Manager is a window and a control panel to the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) softswitch at the heart of BroadVoices service.

Call Manager is entirely optional for everyday IP telephony, but if you keep it running, it will pop up and tell you everything your phone once did about whos calling every time your BroadVoice phone rings. Better, it will let you send the unwanted straight to voice mail—or hang up—with a click, and thats if you havent programmed the system to blow off unwanted calls automatically. Youre controlling a phone call remotely, at the switch, but response is immediate.

Call Manager also will show you a log of all of the calls you answered and those you missed. Should you want to call one of those parties back, click on the listed number. The softswitch rings your BroadVoice phone. After you pick up, it connects you to the called number. Even nicer, you can easily configure the Call Manager applet to display your list of Outlook contacts. Now, you can use the same window to search for a name and click to dial it, as long as the Outlook database is on the PC youre using. Theres an LDAP integration option as well.

Next Page: Everything the PSTN does, plus more.