Voice-over-IP for Dummies

Vonage PhoneSince about 1998, I’ve been using the prepaid calling services at Big Zoo which, for my money, was one of the best long distance deals to be had anywhere: 3.9¢ per minute to phone anyone in the continental United States, and extremely cheap rates for international connections. Given those prices, I would spend as little as US$5 a month (paid through their Web site at my discretion and in increments of US$10) on calls to friends and family scattered around the country.

Big Zoo did require the inconvenience of dialing an 800 number and then entering a PIN to access my account, but I didn’t mind it, especially given that, over the past several years, the service was remarkably reliable. But then the company announced in December that they’d be shuttering their doors at the end of this month due to excessive competitive pressures with which they couldn’t keep pace. Bummer.

The idea of returning to plain old long distance rates as sold by AT & T now seemed ridiculous to me, so I decided to look into Vonage, a leader in the much ballyhooed voice-over-IP market. Through their Web site, I signed up and ordered a home connection kit, which was delivered to me in less than a week. I received it just after Christmas, and tried to hook it up this past Thursday night.

Easy to Install! Almost Too Easy

Below: When I signed up for Vonage, it was hard to get a picture of how I would need to reconfigure my network. So, as a public service, here’s a diagram that details how it looks now.

The initial installation was super-easy. The kit included a Linksys RT31P2-VD broadband router (essentially the same as a Linksys RT41P2-A2, I gather), which is a wired (not wireless) model with three LAN ports on the back and two phone jacks. It was, apparently, pre-configured for my new Vonage account: all I had to do was plug a standard household phone into the router, and then the router into my cable modem and I had a working dial tone.

I made a couple of brief calls to check the quality and sustainability of the line, which was decent. Then, with a little bit of trepidation, I ran an Ethernet cable from the router to my Netgear MR814v2 wireless router to allow my laptops to continue to share my broadband account. The AirPort Extreme card in my PowerBook started picking up a signal straight away, with no reconfiguration necessary for the card or the router, not even alterations to the security settings or the IP space. I picked up the Vonage-connected phone and it seemed to work.

Home Network Diagram

Whole Lot of Nothing

Too easy, though. After making a call or two, the signal quality degraded precipitously. The lights on my cable modem started flashing, and then the cable signal went out entirely. To troubleshoot it, I took down the whole set-up and powered up each device carefully, one by one and in a logical order. Nothing. I tried it again, and still nothing. I took apart the whole set-up and reverted to my home network’s original state — cable modem, Netgear wireless router and laptop, with no Vonage involved — again powering each network device one by one. More nothing. I removed the wired and wireless routers altogether and hooked up my girlfriend’s PowerMac G4 to the modem solely via Ethernet. No result, just an apparently dead cable modem signal.

Resorting to desperate measures, I called Road Runner technical support, who seemed to think that there was a problem with my cable signal that had perhaps been lurking for a while, undetected. This seemed a plausible explanation to me, because I had, at times, experienced problematic connectivity — a sure sign of a degrading signal, apparently. It was less clear to me why the problem suddenly decided to take a turn for the worse at the same time as I added Vonage service, but I could only guess (vaguely) that the Vonage traffic caused some kind of major disruption. If you’re a VoIP expert, please feel free to weigh in here.

Tech Support to the Rescue. Or Not.

Having had all of this trouble during the quietest week of the year didn’t help, as Road Runner wasn’t able to schedule a repair appointment any sooner than today. But before the technician even arrived, the modem started working again, showing a full set of working lights, without fanfare. I don’t know when exactly, perhaps sometime on Monday.

So when the technician showed up this morning, all he did was take a reading on the cable signal, declare that everything was fine, insist that it was a Vonage problem, and then he took off. Right now, everything seems to work, though I haven’t truly put Vonage through its paces, so it may turn out that Vonage is in fact blowing out the cable signal. It’s an auspicious beginning for my experience with voice-over-IP, but I’m crossing my fingers that it will turn out well. It’s like they used to say in the dot-com boom: everything that can be digital will be.



  1. I’ve been curious about Vonage for a while now – my friend uses them for at home service but they primarily use cell phones as their main lines.

    I just made the switch back to a cell phone after a year and a half.

    However, on the VOIP tip, I’ve been using Skype successfully for a year or so now, which for being free is quite a nice thing – the quality is quite good, with only interruptions coming from a slight bump in the conversation (like a brief zone out when on the cellular) when you’re loading something intensive, like a flash site or such.

  2. I’ve got the Vonage set-up you described in your set-up. I’ve had it about a year or so without much trouble, but it has been more trouble than a straight land line. Last night though, I had the same senario happen that you described. My service came back after rebooting my cable modem though.

    VoIP is cheap and serves my purposes, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who isn’t at least moderately technology savvy.

  3. We’ve been using Vonage for about 6 months, and it’s been pretty good. The only problem arises when we try to upload very large files–and talk on the phone. The phone service (vonage) and the DSL connection seem to fight for bandwidth.

  4. This is great feedback, because I’m just a couple days into having a Vonage account and I don’t yet know how dependable it can be. Especially in emergency situations; having lived through two major disruptions to Manhattan life in recent years (a terrorist attack and a blackout), it seems unwise to rely entirely on Vonage. But I have a problem: I currently have a Vonage account, a Verizon land line and a mobile phone. One of them has to go, at least!

  5. Good writeup.

    Of course, you could also have gone with OneSuite which is essentially BigZoo for 2.5 cents/min.

  6. Yes Vonage works. I’ve been using vonage for about two years. Back then I had to call roadrunner and add MAC address but that was it. No Problems ever. Just remember to SET YOUR 911 INFORMATION.

    — everything that can be digital will be

  7. I have used Vonage without any problems and I have not had any of these issues mentioned. In fact I have my wireless router connected to internet and the Vonage/router connected to one of the ports of my wireless router and no problems at all. You should switch your connection maybe that is the reason of your issues.

  8. Bad news first… the type of problem you described (if persistent) points to a possible cable problem on your segment (RR service to your neighborhood). This is very difficult for them to troubleshoot, but call and open a ticket every time it happens (get a ticket number). They may eventually replace/rewire/upgrade to alleviate the problem. Since I moved into a new house apx. 6 months ago, I’ve experienced none of the cable problems I used to experience in the old house, which was only a mile away. Same cable company, different neighborhood.

    Good news: It is normal for cable IP service to go down now and then–they have to do maintenance/upgrades sometime, and this will cause momentary service interruptions. Remember that IP service is an “add-on” to traditional cable service; equipment has been added to their system to enable Internet access. It is possible to lose your IP (Internet) and still have a good TV signal.

    Secondly (more good news); Vonage traffic is simply IP traffic, just like the traffic/data originating from one of your PC’s. Unless you are using some type of QoS (Quality of Service) on your router, IP is IP is IP. There is no “competition”. IP traffic cannot “blow out the cable signal”. But, as Mike McKenna mentioned, simultaneous activity from more than one device on your network will be noticed. If you talk on the phone while up/downloading large files, you may notice signal quality degradation. A pluming analogy would be using hot water to do laundry, dishes and take a shower at the same time… might not be a good idea, unless you like cold showers!

    (QoS, if enabled, allows you to prioritize traffic from one device/computer over the others).

    Cable companies can restrict, or “throttle back” their subscriber’s bandwidth. Since you are paying for residential service, they figure you don’t need to upload as much as you need to download. This type of service is “asymmetric”, meaning not equal for transmit and receive. We enjoy more bandwidth on our receive side (download) than on our transmit (upload). This works great for web surfing, d/l movies, etc., because you’re not uploading a whole lot (just a few packets transmitted here and there as you click around). Asymmetric service is not good for running a web server from home (for example). Now add IP phone service, where you need to transmit (when you are speaking) as much as you receive (when the other person is talking). See the problem?

  9. Wow, terrific insights, thanks, there’s a lot of information there I didn’t know. To address one of your points: the cable guy did in fact clue me in to the fact that there’s a known cable problem on my segment, owing to a fire that happened at the local switch (the wrong term?) last year. Ever since then, the whole neighborhood has had spotty service. It’s good advice to report each instance though, and I will. One question though: when my cable modem goes out, my digital cable rarely seems affected. Is IP traffic that much more fragile over coaxial?

  10. Had a client asking me how to connect Vonage’s Linksys RT31P2-VD through a Comcast-supplied WCG200-CC Wireless Cable Modem Gateway. The latter has custom firmware.

    After taking a cursory look at the specs for the RT31P2 I suggested that it MIGHT be possible to daisy-chain the RT31P2-VD to an Ethernet port on the WCG200-CC and configure the RTP31P2-VD accordingly. At the same time, I can think of several reasons why this arrangment might not work. Daisy-chaining different devices like this is not straightforward, and there could be various reasons why the “host” gateway might not support VOIP.

    If anyone has any luck doing this, perhaps they could let me know.


    Michael Cook

  11. Pre March 2005, Some ISP had been blocking and/or degrading the QoS of the Vonage service. The FCC stepped in in the beginning of March 2005 and required that all blocking / degrading of Vonage (and all other VOIP providers) be stopped. If you google the issue, you can find more on this. If your ISP is blocking / degrading the VOIP service, they are breaking the law.

  12. I just wanted to throw in that my cable modem has done exactly what you described twice in 3 days.

    On Thursday it stopped working. I called Time Warner and they told me the modem was dead so I picked up a new one. I plugged it in and everything went fine – for about a day. Then, last night the same thing happened.

    This time TW said they think it is a signal strength issue. They are sending a technician on Tuesday to test signal strength outside my house. I didn’t want to take 4 hours off of work so I won’t be home for it. If I continue to have problems I will have to take time off.

  13. Greg: in general, I’ve found that when my setup craps out (it does from time to time), it helps to reset everything. First, I’ll shut down all the devices (not the computers, though I guess it wouldn’t hurt to shut them down too) for about 2 minutes and then, in this order, bring them up, one by one: cable modem, wired Vonage router, then wireless router.

  14. Regardless of what the FCC may say or do as far as bandwidth throttling goes, VOIP service relies on access to the internet and current SLAs from ISPs for “residential” connectivity do not fall under the same strict rules as traditional telephone companies; when construction crews cut through our cable feed last week we were without cable, hence internet and voice/fax, for 3 days!
    It should be interesting to see how the ISPs and VOIP providers address the SLA issue with ever more people working from home and relying on the reliability of these bundled services.

  15. Does Vonage or Skype have encryption features like a STE/STU-III (Secure Telephone equipment/unit)? Or is it all simply analog signals getting modulated and sent over cable? Also what is the advantage of VOIP for someone who has aDSL? Most DSL cabling media is owned by the telephone companies anyways. So would modulating it only to send it over 2-pair telephone wire defeat the purpose?

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