By Kim Leonard
A call made over the Internet will sound about the same as one made on
a traditional home phone.
Still, Internet-based phone services such as Vonage, Verizon VoiceWing
and AT&T CallVantage are signing up customers steadily for two
reasons: They cost less than comparable, regular phone service and
their special features appeal to professionals and others who want
more control over when and where they receive calls.
Most consumers still know very little about Internet calling, known as
Voice over Internet Protocol service. But in the Pittsburgh area,
they're about to see offers from at least four companies that are
jumping into the emerging field.
"If I'm at the office, I can get an e-mail on my computer with a voice
mail that somebody left for me at home," said John Curry, president of
the Monroeville phone company known until a few weeks ago as Curry
The new name is Curry IP Solutions, as in Internet protocol, and
Curry's enthusiasm for his company's new direction is evident as he
talks about three newly launched VoIP service packages with "a few"
customers so far.
Meanwhile, Downtown-based Full Service Network and North
Pittsburgh Telephone Co. plan to launch VoIP packages in coming weeks.
Cable giant Comcast is testing its service, for a rollout later this
Internet phone services essentially take analog audio signals and
turn them into digital data, to be transferred over the Web.
A broadband connection is necessary, and most VoIP packages will work
over any telecommunications or cable provider's service. North
Pittsburgh's VoIP service will work only with that company's Internet
Call quality can depend on the quality of the broadband connection,
and a customer may have to buy an adapter for about $60 to get the
service to work with regular phones, or a cordless broadband phone
system that includes a few handsets.
A VoIP user can keep a previous phone number, get a new 412 or 724
number, or even take a number in a different area code. Someone who
moved to Pittsburgh from New York, for example, may want a 212 number
in order to make "local" calls back home.
By opting for additional lines, a customer can receive local calls
from children at a college hundreds of miles away. Vonage offers a
"virtual phone number" service for $4.99 a month that makes calls
local from two or more area codes.
Travelers can take their adapters along, plug into broadband
connections and use the phone just as if they were sitting in their
family rooms. "You avoid all those crazy hotel charges," Vonage
spokesman Mitchell Slepian said.
Still, Internet calling departs most from regular phone service for
its ability to manage calls. Customers can go to a Web page and change
options at any time for call waiting, caller ID and voice mail, and
they can forward calls to other numbers.
The service can respond differently to different calls. A former
boyfriend can be sent straight to voice mail, while Mom's calls go to
a cell phone. And calls can be programmed to ring to a home and cell
phone at the same time.
Greg Waldo, of Silver Spring, Md., likes VoiceWing's ability to keep a
record of calls his family makes, as well as incoming calls.
"If a call was made to someone you don't generally call, like a
plumber, and you know you used him two months ago, you can go and
retrieve the number. That's helpful," said Waldo, an engineer with
Lockheed Martin who has used Verizon's service for about a year.
Waldo cut his family's $60 phone bill almost in half with the
switch, and used the savings to buy a battery backup that would power
his phone adapter and other equipment during a power outage.
He and his family also worry about VoIP's much-publicized
shortcomings when it comes to making 911 emergency calls, although he
knows Verizon and other companies are addressing this.
"I don't see why Verizon sells any other service," he said.
The lack of full 911 service, worries about outages and questions
about directory service are the typical issues raised in debates about
whether to drop a land line phone for VoIP.
Most Internet calling services have been limited to simple 911 service
that won't display the caller's phone number and address at a dispatch
VoIP providers now are rushing to meet the Federal Communications
Commission's Nov. 28 deadline to certify that 911 calls will go
straight to an emergency dispatcher, instead of a main number for the
center, and that the phone number and location will be shown.
Vonage and Verizon now offer this enhanced 911 service in New York,
and are expanding it nationwide. Pittsburgh area companies moving into
VoIP point out that they already have agreements with emergency
centers, so their 911 will mirror the service that comes with regular
Another worry is that VoIP service will fail in a power outage,
and any time broadband service is down.
While Internet outages happen, "it's one thing if you can't check your
e-mail. It's another if that is the sole source of communication in
your house," said Charles White, vice president of TNS Telecoms, a
market research firm in Jenkintown, Pa.
While big and small telecom providers nationwide are moving full speed
into VoIP, a recent TNS survey found that residents in just 33 percent
of households know what it is. That's an increase of about 10 percent
over the last year.
Nationwide, about 4 percent of households use Internet calling.
Vonage, the leader in market share, said its business has expanded to
more than 800,000 customers. Verizon and AT&T don't disclose customer
figures, although AT&T spokeswoman Deborah Jones said VoIP has been
the company's focus, since it stopped marketing its traditional phone
services last year.
Verizon views VoiceWing as one of its many phone options, a less
expensive alternative to the roughly comparable Freedom local and long
distance package for $54.95 a month.
"It's just another choice that we are offering customers,"
spokesman Lee Gierczynski said. "Everybody's communications needs are
Small phone companies like Curry and Full Service, meanwhile, view
the Internet as their path to the future partly because of changes in
federal and state law over the past year that require them to pay more
to lease parts of Verizon's network.
They also plan to build on the fact that the Internet knows no
boundaries, and neither will their Internet phone products.
Full Service, which sells phone service across Pennsylvania, plans to
kick off VoIP on Sept. 12 in the 412 and 724 area codes.
"Then, there are plans to expand into 26 markets across the United
States," company President David E. Schwencke said.
Those markets are cities with NFL teams. Schwencke said he's talking
with investment bankers about securing $3.5 million for marketing, and
working on a partnership with the National Football League to promote
Full Service this fall.
Curry said he is talking with Shop 'n Save and Fox's Pizza Den about
promotions. He hopes to expand service to New Jersey and Ohio this
month, and eventually go nationwide.
He also plans to market the service through universities. "Students
don't need a full-blown land line to call home. The $9.99 package is a
good package for them -- and most colleges already provide the
high-speed internet access," Curry said, adding that cell phone
service costs much more.
Calling on the Web
Vonage, Verizon and AT&T sell Voice over Internet Protocol
packages in the Pittsburgh region, and several other companies will jump
into this emerging field in coming weeks.
Here's a look at monthly costs, some of which have dropped in
AT&T CallVantage: $19.99 for unlimited local service, 4 cents/minute
for long distance; or $29.99 unlimited local and long distance to
U.S. and Canada.
Comcast: Expected to introduce service this fall; details
Curry IP Solutions: $9.99 plus 3.9 cents/minute for all calls; or
$14.99 unlimited local plus 500 minutes long distance, 3.9
cents/minute afterward; or $24.99 unlimited local and long distance.
Full Service Network: $19.99 for unlimited nationwide calling,
debuting in September in 412 and 724 area codes.
North Pittsburgh Telephone Co.: Introducing service early fall to work
with company's broadband; details unavailable.
Verizon VoiceWing: $19.95 for 500 minutes to anywhere in U.S., 4
cents/minute afterward; or $34.95 unlimited local and long distance.
Vonage: $14.99 for 500 minutes to anywhere in U.S. or Canada, 3.9
cents/minute afterward; or $24.99 unlimited U.S. and Canada calls.
Kim Leonard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412)
Copyright 2005 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.
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