Friday, May 16, 2008

Making the switch to computer-based calling

I have been a user of Vonage for my main business line for at least four years and mostly a happy customer. But a series of anticipated moves this summer got me thinking: do I really need this service any longer? And so I have come up with a rather strange plan, so stick with me here for a minute while I explain how I got to my post-VOIP mobile telephony world.

I spend about $60 a month for my business telephone service: half on Vonage, half on AT&T for providing DSL service to my home (which I share for both home and business connectivity). This summer I will be moving across town and splitting off my office into a separate location. First I thought I would just get a cable modem and move the Vonage box and line over to run on that. That is the beauty of tying your business line to a VOIP service: it can move with you. Plus, with the cable downloads at 10 Mb, I can get those mission-critical movies and other image files that are so important to my day-to-day work life.

But the more I pondered that situation, the more I thought I would be better off if I got one of the AT&T broadband PC modems and used my computer for all my outbound calls. The modems are free with rebates and a two-year service plan, and you pay $60 a month for unlimited Internet access. Some of them are USB so can work with desktops, laptops, Macs or Windows. This is the same $60 a month that I was paying for my business line. The downside is that I won't get anywhere near 10 Mb downloads, but that might cut back on the opportunities to view unneeded visual content.

I am already a big fan of Skype, and they offer an unlimited Skype Out subscription for less than $3 a month to everyplace that I would call with the Vonage account for the most part (you can get more expensive packages if you want to call international places). You can also purchase an inbound number for Skype for a few more dollars a month, but the number of people calling me doesn't justify this, yet.

There are a couple of important caveats to note here. First, I make a lot of calls to conferencing services, so I need to be able to continue to dial touch tones after the initial call goes through. With Skype, this isn't a problem: you get a cute little keypad that you can type in your conference number and PIN and away you go.

Second, more importantly, I no longer will be using the actual telephone that has been sitting on my desk for the past 16 years. Granted, this phone has been in many difference cities, and at the beginning of its life was used on New York Telephone where I was paying something like two cents a minute for local calls. The more I thought about my solution, the more I began to miss this old friend and desk totem. As a friend of mine said, it is like you have to clean out the last boxes from your old bedroom at your parents' house. I will miss the concept of this old Ma Bell ringy-dingy most of all -- even though it doesn't serve any current purpose in my new post-VOIP life.

I don't mind the headset, and in fact I have a whole passel of Bluetooth headsets that should work on my Mac and Windows PCs for the calls, if I don't want to use the wired one.

But the third issue is the most important one. To make this trick work, I would need to port my existing Vonage number over to one of my wireless phones. The only way to know if you can do this is to go into an AT&T company-owned store (there are other franchise stores that look exactly the same so it pays to call their support line and find out) and ask them if it is eligible for porting.

I called my local AT&T store and first was told they couldn't port any Vonage numbers. Then after I persisted, they said I could and just stop by. So far so good.

So what I have in mind is extreme mobility: I should be able to make calls anywhere I have my laptop, as long as I have AT&T broadband service (which should be in most of the major cities I am in). This also has the extra advantage that I am not trying to find Wifi service or have to pay extra when I am in a hotel or airport, because usually those places have wireless broadband. If not, I can use my cell phone, which will be my primary business line. And under the worse case scenario, I can carry an Ethernet cable (remember those) and a phone card and use a payphone!

I am interested in your experiences with the AT&T broadband PC cards, so leave a comment on my blog if you don't mind. Do you think I am crazy, to contemplate doing this? I think it is kinda exciting.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.