Discovering Vonage's Weak Link

My Vonage service went down today.

My experience painfully points out one of the weaknesses of independent voice over IP phone (VoIP) services. With plain old telephone service (POTS) the only end point device you are responsible for is your telephone. It's the telephone company's responsibility to deliver dial tone to it.

With VoIP services like Vonage, however, you get a small electronic box that attaches to your cable or DSL modem and provides dial tone to your telephone. Vonage's box is called a V-Portal. If it fails, as mine did today, your phone is out of service until you can get a new one. That typically takes two business days.

Fortunately, I have a bit more flexibility with VoIP than I did with POTS. Vonage has every conceivable phone feature and it's all configurable on Vonage's Web site. To cope with the problem over the next few days I went to my Vonage account online and configured the service to ring my incoming calls on another line. And I was able to listen to voice mail messages that came in over the weekend from the Web site as well.

No dial tone? Who ya gonna call?

Vonage is cheaper than my local POTS and it's less expensive than my Comcast voice over IP offering, Comcast Digital Voice. But when something goes wrong Vonage is less convenient. With either of my other telephone services a technician is dispatched to remedy the problem when dial tone disappears. After some initial troubleshooting my involvement is over, although I do still have to wait for service - and that can take a few days.

With Vonage you have two pieces of customer premise equipment: the telephone and the VoIP adapter. You own both, and you're the troubleshooter, or the "smart hands" in the field as someone in Vonage technical support walks you through the troubleshooting steps.

A little misunderstanding

I got right through to Vonage technical support this morning, and the Filipino representative was cordial and earnest, but each of us had trouble understanding the other. For example, it took about a minute of back and forth before I realized that she was asking me to click on the Windows XP "Start" button on my desktop. I just couldn't understand what she was saying.

The problem was that the V-Portal wasn't picking up an IP address from the cable modem. No IP address, no dial tone. That sounds simple, but it took about an hour before she finally isolated the problem to the V-Portal.

Coming to that conclusion involved a lot of swapping around of wires, turning things on and off, a few wild gestures, and finally jamming a pen into a hardware reset slot on the V-Portal and rebooting it. I didn't mind so much, since I've done this kind of thing for a living, but for the average person who just wants a telephone I'm sure this has all the appeal of opening the hood of the car and having your mechanic talk you through connecting and disconnecting all of the vacuum lines on the motor.

Once the replacement unit gets here the new V-Portal should just power up and connect with no muss and no fuss, as the original one did. If it doesn't I'll be back on the phone for another time-consuming round of technical support with my friends from the Philippines.

The price you pay

Even if the new unit solves the problem, I'm still not done. Much as I'd like to use the hockey puck-sized V-Portal for a little skeet shooting, Vonage wants the old unit back. So I've got to fill out the paperwork, enter the return authorization number, follow the packing instructions and then pay to insure and ship it back (failure to do so within 14 days may result in "additional charges"). Fortunately, my unit is still covered by a one year warranty. Otherwise, Vonage would charge me an additional $79.99 for the cost of the replacement unit.

There's a lot to like about independent VoIP service vendors like Vonage or Ooma. They have many more features for less money and offer much greater flexibility than POTS and they're generally cheaper and more feature rich than the VoIP offerings from cable providers like Comcast and Time Warner.

When things go wrong, however, you may find yourself pulling out your hair - and then pulling out the calculator to see if the savings are worth the aggravation.

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