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Making the Switch

The sign-up and set-up processes for these services follow a common, if not identical model. But before you get started, you'll need broadband Internet access. The reason is that VoIP calls usually don't work well over dial-up, since lower bandwidths available to dial-up users are not robust enough to handle streams of VoIP data packets. And since dial-up by definition requires you to initiate a new session every time you want to use Internet services, your Internet phone connection will not be available to receive incoming calls when you are offline. As a result many VoIP service providers won't sell you service unless you have a broadband connection.

OK, so you have broadband. Now you are ready to get started.

First you, the prospective customer, should perform your due diligence by researching the various VoIP service providers and plans available in your area. If you identify a service you would like to sign up with, you can either call them directly or in most cases sign up via their Web site. There, you will be asked to input your zip code, or choose the state, area code and exchange that you would like your VoIP phone number to have (Figure 2).

Selecting a number (AT&T CallVantage)

Figure 2: Selecting a number (AT&T CallVantage)

With some VoIP carriers, you will have the option of either getting a new phone number or keeping your existing phone number. But such number portability is frequently limited to larger metro areas and cities in the states where the VoIP phone provider offers service. If the available number is acceptable, you'll proceed through a series of screens where you enter your basic contact info, credit card data, and preferred billing plan.

A few days after you place your order, the equipment you need to activate your VoIP service will arrive. In most cases, this will include an ATA, or router with built-in ATA, and associated cables. You'll hook up your existing phone to the ATA, which will convert your voice into digital signals necessary for transport across the Internet. The actual hand-off to the Internet will take place via transfer of packets from your ATA to your broadband router. Note that in most cases the company is just loaning you the equipment, which in many cases must be returned to avoid paying a fee when you terminate service.

Of course, you'll also receive a standard welcome kit. The kit usually comes with an installation manual for your ATA / router and cable, an installation CD that helps you configure your VoIP set-up, as well as cards that illustrate how to sign up for extra services such as voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, and call forwarding. Unlike more familiar phone companies, most VoIP providers offer these provisions for free or for a very inexpensive price.

For most of the services I tested, installation was virtually identical. I removed the broadband router and cables from the packaging and performed the following steps (for a Linksys router with built-in ATA):

  • Turned off my PC and cable modem.

  • Connected one end of an Ethernet network cable to one of the numbered ports on the back of the router. Then, connected the other end of the Ethernet cable to the Ethernet port on the back of my PC.

  • Connected one end of a phone cable to the back of my phone, and the other end to the phone port on the back of the router.

  • Powered the cable modem back on, leaving my PC powered off (for the moment).

  • Connected the router power adapter to the router's power port.

  • Plugged the other end of the power adapter into a nearby electrical outlet. When I made the connection, the Power LED (Light Emitting Diode) lit up.

  • Turned my PC back on.

I then had to configure the router I had just installed to work with the service I was signing up for. The procedure involved entering a default local IP address (such as http://192.168.15.1, for the Linksys router Vonage sent me) into my web browser, and parading through several screens to set up the router for my Internet connection type.

At that point, I was back on the Internet and ready to get started with the service I had just installed. This usually involved a return to its website and logging in with my username and password to complete the sign-up process I started when I first ordered the equipment.

I actually went through this process five times. So read on for summaries of my experiences with each of the following services: Vonage, AT&T CallVantage, Packet 8, iConnectHere and Verizon VoiceWing.

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