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 www.broadvoice.com. 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.
More than the PSTN
The Call Manager applet runs separately from the configuration page, where you can set up selective call forwarding, messaging and many other options. I set up my account to forward all calls originating from my home number to my cell phone. I dialed my BroadVoice phone and this not only worked, it passed the originating caller ID for display on my cell. I set all calls to trigger notification e-mails, reporting caller ID. This worked, too. I set it up to ring differently if calls came in from a specific number. This did not work.
I configured my account to send all voice mails to my e-mail inbox as WAV files. This worked, as did dialing *86 to retrieve them by phone. Stutter tones alerted me to voice mails, just as with the PSTN. Greeting and password setup, similarly, followed familiar PSTN routines. Similarly, one can activate most, if not all, of the Call Manager features by using star-number combinations on a phone keypad.
On the minus side, BroadVoices GUI leaves some user-friendliness to be desired; its not intuitive or optimally organized. How one goes about setting up messaging options, for example, is buried on a messaging page under “voice management.” The good news here is that BroadVoice has figured this out, and is doing its users and itself a big favor by rewriting a lot of the Broadsoft app server GUIs into something that should lower their volume of tech-support calls. In addition to a major reorg, this also will include a portal to voice-mail messages that runs independently of a subscribers own inbox, the same way ISPs offer Webmail pages.
The official launch of the new portal—as well as more news about price—is scheduled for the Voice on the Net show in Boston the week of Oct. 18. BroadVoice engineer Les Berry told me Friday that a final code review had just taken place the day before.
App server testing, in turn, had introduced some hiccups into the logon process on the days I put the service through the most testing. I could not raise my Call Manager applet for several hours at one point. At press time, it was still rejecting the first logon attempt and accepting the second, on a subsequent page. Hopefully, this will be ironed out with the cutover. At no time did it affect actual phone functionality.
In addition to BroadVoices standard unlimited plan, a $9.95 plan offers unlimited in-state calling and metered minutes thereafter; a $29.95 business plan come with the same feature set as the standard $19.95 plan but is geared for a true business volume of calling; BroadVoice assures me that they can tell the difference from their network statistics. A virtual PBX offering is in the works.
In sum, I would certainly recommend BroadVoice to those contemplating VOIP, and Id recommend VOIP to those contemplating cheaper, more customizable and clickable phone service. The difference among service providers will probably lie in subtle details and geographies, and the risk of picking the wrong one is negligible. BroadVoice is as good a place to start as any.
Technology Editor Ellen Muraskin can be reached at [email protected]
VOIP/Telecom Topic Center Editor Ellen Muraskin has been observing and illuminating the murky intersection of computer intelligence and telephony since 1993. She reaches for her VOIP line when the rain makes her POTS line buzz.