Saturday, October 08, 2005

Dumping the phone company

So, I did it... I finally made the total and final switch to Voice Over IP. I have been trying to find a palatable way to do this for many months as I watch my Qwest bill inch higher and higher. There were three things that converged this month that finally made me jump ship:
  • My Qwest bill topped $120 for a single line of service, a featureless home DSL package, and a minimal amount of long distance. Several months ago when my bill was hovering around $105/month, I considered it offensive that I was paying the phone company this much money for such a basic level of service. I called them and worked with the rep for nearly a half hour to trim out the optional features from my plan. Somehow, though, with taxes and all, I still ended up paying $101/month. My goal of getting my payments to the phone company down to a two digit number seemed unattainable. Needless to say, a $120 bill just fueled my desire to break away.
  • I signed up some time ago for this Qwest long distance package that has no monthly fee and charges 5 cents a minute, with a cap of $20/month. I know an increasing number of people are using their cell phones for long distance because the cell companies now treat LD as a local call for billing purposes. For myself, though, when I'm at home talking to friends or family long distance, I like having the clarity that only a wired connection can bring. I gnash my teeth at the 5 cent per minute tax here, but as I said, it is a preference of mine and at least it will top out at $20 and I can't get hit by a massive long distance bill... Or so I thought. On one hand, an examination of my bill this month reveals that Qwest now charges a monthly service fee for this plan. I don't know how long they have been doing it, but I do know that when I signed up, I questioned them very closely and got no indication that there was any promotional period or other such tactic being employed. In addition, while working at home a few times over the past month, I inadvertently returned a couple of phone calls to Canada (which is actually far closer distance-wise than most of the long distance calls I make). The calls totaled 33 minutes and accounted for a $13 charge on my bill (which was not subject to my $20/month cap). When questioned, the rep (who was very nice, btw) informed me that I could activate some XYZ international rate plan, which had a monthly fee, and would allow me to make these calls to Canada for a mere 10 cents per minute (which is still highway robbery). This situation outlines my basic problem with long distance companies (and cell phone companies too, but that is for another day): Why do I have to opt in through some obscure process (and usually pay a fee) in order to avoid getting scammed into irreversibly paying exorbitant prices for deviating outside of my normal habits and performing a normal act that I had no idea I was going to do ahead of time. And really, HOW SHOULD I KNOW that placing a call across some line on a map (I didn't even have to dial a country code) without informing the phone company first and paying them an additional protection fee qualified me to be the fully-legal victim of a billing scam. Imagine if the criminal system took this approach. What would you do if you were told: "I'm sorry that you had your identity stolen, but since you didn't sign up on the National Anti-Identity Theft Registry before-hand and pay the required monthly dues, there is really nothing we can do." Anyway, the extra $13 charge certainly didn't break the bank. It just reminded me why I dislike the phone company so much (and long distance companies especially). If all of the long distance companies in this country went bankrupt tomorrow (or at least their consumer long distance divisions), the world would be a slightly better place.
  • Ok. I said there were three things, and the first two were rants. This one is simple: I opened an email advertisement for a local broadband company (with whom I had inquired about service in the past) that outlined the basics of a new VOIP plan that they are rolling out. For a number of reasons which I'll explain below, this is different than "traditional" residential VOIP. The price was pretty compelling, too.

Earlier this year I was responsible for overseeing the rollout of a new phone system to a small company with a couple of satellite offices. We went with Cisco's line of VOIP equipment and tied it all together with leased lines that had QoS running over them and a pair of ISDN PRI's to interface with the telco. This experience taught me a couple of things about VOIP:
  • VOIP is viable. It can produce very clear calls on par with good analog links.
  • If QoS is not running on the network (especially the WAN links), or if it is not configured properly, things fall apart pretty quickly.
Bolstered by this success and wanting to add a second line of service to my home, I chose to go with one of the consumer internet VOIP providers. My experience was less than encouraging. Most of the time it sounded like I was on a poor quality cell phone. Also, whenever I would upload or download anything of substance while on the phone, it would break up. I knew that these experiences were a combination of using a low-bitrate codec and the inherent problems with sending real-time voice traffic over a link without any kind of QoS. It seemed to be a no-win scenario. Changing to a full-bitrate codec increased the sound quality but the added bandwidth requirements made it more likely for my internet activity to interfere with the phone call. Some tweaking made the situation better, but it was still bad in my opinion.

When I saw the advertisement for the local Denver company SBBOne, I jumped on it pretty quickly. They offer a full-stack VOIP/internet solution, becoming the ISP for your DSL link and riding the VOIP traffic wholly over their network. This allows them to provide end-to-end Quality of Service guarantees, which means that the VOIP traffic can always get the real-time priority that it needs. As added bonuses, they also do the following:
  • Don't charge long distance for the lower 48 states.
  • Charge international rates that are competitive (2 cents/minute to Canada for example)
  • Wire the voice service back through your existing house wiring, which allows you to plug a normal phone into any existing phone jack without even thinking about the VOIP router.
  • Provide the full calling features that we have come to expect from VOIP providers (and which will usually cost you in excess of $30/months to get from the phone company) such as 3-way calling, caller id, call waiting, voicemail to email options, web access, forwarding and more.
  • Local number portability: You get to keep your phone number.
  • They are a reseller for Qwest DSL which means that they deal with Qwest for the physical link so I don't have to.
  • 911 support
  • Static, public IP
The cost for all of this is $65/month and includes equipment rental. I added another line of service for an extra $20/month, bringing the cost to $85/month. I have to say that the results are impressive. The sound quality is perfect, even when using both phone lines and the internet heavily, and as-advertised, all of the existing phones and fax machine in my house "just work".

The price-tag for this may seem high for those of you using normal Internet based VOIP services. For these services you are probably paying $20-25/month. You have to remember that the SBBOne price tag includes DSL access. If I were to get a standalone DSL line from Qwest, the base cost would start at about $35 and increase to $40/month if I rented equipment from them.

Doing the math, you see that rolling your own stand-alone VOIP service from someone like Vonage or Broadvoice will cost you the same as going with the SBBOne solution. And with SBBOne, you get the local number portability (and caller id displays actually show your name instead of "VONAGE HOLDINGS"), service on your normal house lines and the ability to make and receive crystal clear calls.

This bundled approach really is the next generation in residential VOIP service. I would expect to see this type of arrangement popping up everywhere in the coming months. I know that Speakeasy is providing something similar, but their price for the same service offering (1.5M/768k DSL + Phone service) appears to be about $45/month more than what I am paying SBBOne (not to mention the inevitable contracts when you deal with Speakeasy). At this rate, you are probably not seeing a price-break when compared with traditional DSL + wired service, but it is available nationwide. I have also heard that Qwest is gearing up to provide a similar service. I really don't think that I would ever really choose to opt in to a Qwest offering. The price would have to pretty compelling. As it is, I have just found a viable and cheap way to opt-out of Qwest services. I don't anticipate going back anytime soon.

It really is too bad. Qwest was a good company before they realized their dream of becoming a local phone provider by buying USWest. Then they got locked up into the 50 years of lock-step tradition that is the little bells. Why they would pay to get into that position is beyond me. Of course, being in the heart of the old USWest territory that Qwest now serves probably renders my vision a bit myopic. After all, everyone hates their local telephone company. Their other lines of business outside of this territory are probably still ok.

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