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VTech Broadband Telephone System with Vonage service

VTech Broadband Telephone System with Vonage service
Summary 5.8GHz two-handset cordless phone system with integrated wired VoIP router. Does not interfere with 802.11 wireless LANs
Update None
Pros • Easy install
• Includes two handsets; expandable to four
• Does not interfere with 11b/g WLANs
Cons • Can't be used with other VoIP services
• Can't be used as a "normal" cordless phone
• Single line only

Vonage has been expanding its hardware offerings beyond its base of wired ATAs and wired and wireless VoIP routers. We have looked at an older offering, the Linksys Wireless-G Broadband Router with 2 Phone Ports (WRT54GP2) and more recently a Beta of its upcoming Wi-Fi VoIP phone. This time, I'll look at another wire-free Vonage product - the VTech Broadband Telephone System with Vonage service (BTS).

Basic Features

The BTS consists of a base station, which contains the cordless phone base station and VoIP ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter) and two handsets along with charging bases for each handset, cables and the other odds and ends shown in Figure 1. The rear of the base contains a single WAN and LAN port each, which also means that there's a router built in to ease installation in the case of single-computer broadband installations.

In the box

Figure 1: In the box

The power jack is on the bottom of the base and Message Waiting, In Use and Ready lights adorn the front, along with a Page button that when pressed makes both handsets squawk so that you can find where you left them.

The handset is pretty much like most other cordless handsets with the features shown in Figure 2. Note the built-in speakerphone, which, if you're like me, you'll use more than you may think. The screen has a greenish-yellow backlighting and has a decent viewing angle range.

Handset features

Figure 2: Handset features
(click image to enlarge)

As with other Vonage co-branded hardware products, you won't find the BTS on Vonage's website. Instead, you go to a Vonage retailer or etailer, purchase the hardware, then activate it with Vonage. This may be a bit confusing, but this way everyone (VTech, Vonage and the retailer) gets their proper slice of your hard-earned cash.

Although theoretically, the phone could be used with any VoIP service, the product packaging clearly states that the phone is "compatible only with Vonage service". So given Vonage's policy of not unlocking devices, don't get any ideas about using the phone if you decide to switch to another VoIP provider. And forget about using it as a "normal" cordless phone - there's no RJ11 jack to allow a PSTN (regular old phone) connection.

Inside Story

The base station (Figure 3) has a TI TNETV1060 VoIP gateway chipset at its core, which integrates TI's programmable TMS320C55x DSP, a MIPS32 4KEc processor, and Telogy Software for VoIP.

Base station internal view

Figure 3: Base station internal view
(click image to enlarge)

Figure 4 shows the dual-band 2.4 / 5.8 GHz radio board that plugs into the processor board, the construction of which I couldn't tell much about from the FCC pictures. And yes, I said dual-band, which you might think means that this phone system and your 802.11b/g wireless LAN won't play well together. But as I found out, this wasn't the case.

Base station radio board

Figure 4: Base station radio board
(click image to enlarge)

Figure 5 shows the handset's innards, which near as I can tell use a Philips ARM-based processor at the core.

Handset internal view

Figure 5: Handset internal view
(click image to enlarge)

Routing Features

Depending on your broadband setup, it's possible to get the BTS up and running without even knowing that it has internal routing features that can be configured. And as a matter of fact, the installation into my network, which already has a router, went just that way. The only time you must log in and configure the BTS' router is if you have a single computer connected directly to a broadband modem and run a PPPoE or other authentication client in your computer.

Internet Connection Wizard

Figure 6: Internet Connection Wizard
(click image to enlarge)

The BTS comes set to with its internal LAN DHCP server on and its WAN port set to pick up IP address information via DHCP, so logging in is as simple as plugging your computer set to obtain its IP address automatically into the BTS base's LAN port, leasing an IP address and logging in. Once in, you can run the Setup Wizard, which walks you through getting the WAN configured. Given the pretty much fully automatic wizards that come on consumer routers these days, the BTS' wizard is relatively crude. But if you know what kind of broadband connection you have, you'll probably do ok.

Poking around the interface revealed the usual suspects for controls including Virtual Servers (Figure 7) to allow inbound access to servers or service-type applications, IP Filters to control user outbound access to Internet services and a DMZ function to open all ports inbound to a single IP address.

Virtual Servers

Figure 7: Virtual Servers
(click image to enlarge)

Other tabs include access to system event logs, WAN and LAN statistics and the ability to reboot the router and restore it to factory defaults. You'll also find controls to disable response to WAN pings, enable IPsec and PPTP VPN passthrough, and UPnP (all enabled by default), as well as the ability to enable remote administration via Web and, surprisingly, SSH. Both remote admin capabilities can restrict remote access to a single IP address and you can change the web access port from its default of 8080.

What I couldn't find was any ability to update the BTS firmware, which I assume is by design since Vonage probably wants to control when and if any updating is done.

Vonage Features

Since Vonage shipped my review unit already set up with a demo account and phone number, all I had to do is plug it into power and a working broadband connection and wait a minute or so while the BTS base unit contacted the mother ship and registered. Once the green Ready light came on I was able to start making and receiving calls. Normally, you'll need to point your browser to to set up an account and activate your BTS.

We've looked at a few Vonage products in the past, but haven't provided a look at Vonage's user interface. So here's a selection of some of the more interesting screens in the shots below.

Vonage Dashboard
Figure 8: Vonage Dashboard
(click image to enlarge)
Vonage Features
Figure 9: Features
(click image to enlarge)
Call Forwarding
Figure 10: Call Forwarding
(click image to enlarge)
Bandwidth Saver

Figure 11: Bandwidth Saver
(click image to enlarge)

In addition to what you see in Figures 8 through 11, you can also add Soft Phone capability to your account or purchase a dedicated Fax line for $10 /month for each service. There are plenty of other Add-ons you can purchase, too, to bulk up your monthly bill.

I found the UI nicely laid out, although I must report that during one of my testing sessions, the whole secure customer interface slowed to a slow enough crawl as to become unusable.

Test Results

I tested voice quality by making a number of outgoing calls and receiving a few and experienced no problems with either call completion or intelligibility on either side of the connection. I even used the Bandwidth Saver feature to crank down to 30 kbps and, aside from some "scratchiness" in the connection, found call quality to be satisfactory.

I unfortunately wasn't able to run a Golden Phone test, since the service has been temporarily suspended. So I had to resort to some informal "can you hear me ok?" testing, which, again, surfaced no serious complaints.

I tested the phone's range by dialing into voicemail to listen to a stored message while walking all over my two-level 3,000+ square foot home. The base station was located in my corner-location, lower-level office which, due to my home's hillside construction, is really not a "basement" office and has daylight exposure.

Reception was just dandy in all locations and it wasn't until I walked out into a garage that is 15 feet away from the house and diagonally opposite and above my office that I started to hear some breakup in the recorded message.

While I had the BTS on the test bench I decided to check its routing performance. LAN to WAN throughput was between 60 - 61 Mbps with ping time of 1mS - as low as Qcheck measures. WAN to LAN throughput averaged between 56 - 57 Mbps with ping times again at 1mS. So it doesn't look like the BTS' router will be the limiting factor in any Internet connection consumers are likely to have.

I also checked to see whether the BTS would step on a 2.4GHz LAN, since it actually transmits and receives in both the 5.8 and 2.4 GHz bands. I first confirmed that the BTS does indeed use both bands by using Cognio's ISMS Mobile 1.0 Spectrum Analyzer. Cognio is the OEM for the AirMagnet Spectrum Analyzer that I previously reviewed and has loaned a unit for long-term use.

Test Results, Continued

Figure 12 shows the spectrum use for three frequency bands with the phone on-hook (not active), while Figure 13 shows the off-hook (active) condition. The top plots in each screenshot show spectrum use (from left to right) the frequency bands for 5.725 to 5.850 GHz, 5.150 to 5.350 GHz and 2.4 to 2.5 GHz. These correspond to 802.11a channels 149 - 161 and 36 - 64 and 802.11b/g channels 1 - 14. By the way, the right side of the plots are truncated since Cognio's software doesn't allow the plots to be fit to the screen and instead relies on screen resolution higher than the 1024 pixels wide that my notebook has.

On-hook spectrum use

Figure 12: On-hook spectrum use
(click image to enlarge)

The bottom plots in each screenshot show the "swept spectrogram" plots for the corresponding bands above them. This tool very nicely shows signal activity over time in the band being monitored, with signal presence indicated by the greenish-yellow color. Both screenshots show activity covering pretty much all of the 5.725 to 5.850 GHz band, with some intermittent activity also between 5.150 to 5.350 GHz. Figure 12 shows no signals in the 2.4 GHz band when the phone is on-hook, but nice, strong signals once the phone is active in Figure 13.

Off-hook spectrum use

Figure 13: Off-hook spectrum use
(click image to enlarge)

I should note that for all three bands, the spectral usage is constantly changing, but the basic pattern of heaviest use in the 5.725 to 5.850 and 2.4 GHz bands stays the same. Since those are some pretty strong signals in the 2.4 GHz band, I figured that any 802.11b/g WLAN was doomed to be knocked off the air. But my experiment proved otherwise.

For the test WLAN, I set up one of my notebooks with a NETGEAR WAG511 Dual-band card that happened to be handy and configured the card to disable use of its 802.11a side and just act as an 802.11b/g card. I then set up a Linksys WRT54G 11g router for it to associate with and IXIA's IxChariot in the notebook to continuously run its standard throughput script to simulate WLAN activity.

With my test WLAN running, I then took the phone off-hook and watched the IxChariot throughput plot, waiting for it to die as the phone blasted its overpowering signal into the 11b/g band, just a few feet away from the notebook. But, to my surprise, the throughput plot kept running nice and steady, with not even a glitch to show that the phone was active!

I repeated the test, moving the WRT54G among channels 1, 6 and 11 and even forcing it to 11b-only mode to see if I could detect interference with 11b's lower data rates. But in all cases, the WLAN kept on working with no indication that I could see that the phone was in use.

I searched through both VTech's website and the PDF manuals that were on the CD that came with the BTS, and finally found one reference on this page to the product being "Wi-Fi" friendly. I can only conclude that VTech has implemented some sort of frequency-hopping scheme that steers the phone clear of any in-use WLANs.

Closing Thoughts

The BTS is a nicely implemented all-in-one solution that marries the convenience of cordless with the power of VoIP telephony, but it doesn't do anything that you can't do by plugging a cordless telephone of your choice into a VoIP router. However, it does simplify installation and reduce the chances of incorrect configuration for folks who don't get their kicks from futzing around with hooking multiple gizmos up and getting them to play nice together.

Another advantage is that its $149 price is in line, and maybe even a bit of a deal compared to what it would cost you for a two-handset 5.8GHz phone, plus a wired VoIP router. And it's definitely a better deal than rolling your own when you factor in the $50 mail-in rebate offer that's running as I write this. (You only get the rebate after 60 days of Vonage service.)

But when compared to other Vonage-enabled hardware like the Linksys RT31P2, the BTS has the disadvantage of not offering the option of a second phone line. So if you're thinking of using the BTS as a mini cordless PBX, you'll need to get another plan.

Finally, I tip my hat to both VTech and Vonage for the BTS' ability to leave WLANs unmolested. But jeez guys, this is a desirable feature, so why make it so hard for buyers to find out about it?

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