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Internet Phone Service: Another Option

I'm not one to jump ship at the first sign of trouble but, like a lot of other Vonage customers, I'm considering my options in case the popular Internet phone company is required to curtail operations. I'm not saying it will happen, but because of a patent infringement suit, it is a possibility.

A court has found that Vonage infringed on patents from Verizon Communications. If the finding isn't overturned and if Vonage and Verizon can't reach an agreement, the Internet phone company could be forced to cease using the technologies in question.

On its website, Vonage has pledged that "that existing customers will not experience any interruption in service" and that "the company continues to believe it will succeed on appeal and continues to work on designing around the Verizon patents. But in court papers, the company acknowledged that it could have a problem if it's forced to stop using the allegedly infringing patents.

"While Vonage has studied methods for designing around the patents, the removal of the allegedly infringing technology, if even feasible, could take many months to fully study and implement," the company wrote in a court filing according to the Associated Press.

As one of Vonage's more than more than two million customers, I must admit I'm a little nervous though as we learned when the maker of the Blackberry was in a similar situation, these things have a way of getting worked out in out-of-court settlements. Still, it's worth considering the alternatives.

The reason I'm concerned is that I not only use Vonage for outgoing calls but for incoming ones as well and if there were to be a disruption in service, people might have trouble reaching me. I could transfer that incoming number to another phone company but that process could take up to 45 days.

Unrelated to Vonage's recent troubles, I have been testing a competing service from SunRocket that offers most of the same services as Vonage at a lower cost. The company provided me with a trial account for testing purposes.

SunRocket, which has about 200,000 subscribers – offers unlimited domestic calling for $199 a year or $16.58 a month. Vonage charges $24.95 for its unlimited service which also includes free calls to landlines in France, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.

If you get the $199 plan, SunRocket charges for all calls outside of the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. Prices vary by country but are 3 cents a minute for many countries including much of Europe, China and Israel. The company also offers a $299 a year ($24.92 a month) plan that gives you free calling to 30 countries and a number of major cities in other countries including Moscow, Mexico City and Helsinki.

With both services, there is an additional charge for calling overseas cell phones because, unlike the U.S., most of the world's cell phone operators charge the caller – not the recipient – for air time charges. Because she only has a cell phone, it costs me at least 25 cents a minute to call my daughter in Spain regardless of what service I use

Like Vonage, the service lets you use your regular phone to make and receive calls. When you sign up you get an adapter that plugs into your Internet router or broadband adapter.

Both Vonage and SunRocket offer a variety of advanced services, including call forwarding - so callers can reach you even if you're away from your home or office phone.

Vonage offers basic call forwarding (your Vonage number is forwarded to another number) and the more sophisticated SimulRing service, which automatically and simultaneously rings your Vonage line and as many as 5 additional lines. The first phone to pick up gets the call so you could have calls to your home office also reach your cell phone, your home phone or a vacation phone. You can configure and re-configure the service instantly via the company's website.

SunRocket offers a similar service along with other forwarding systems. SunRocket's SimRing feature simultaneously rings up to 3 phone lines or you can use Find Me Forwarding which rings one of your numbers for a specified number of rings and, if it's not answered, forwards the call to the next number and then on to the third number. There is also group forwarding that allows you to establish a group of VIP callers and have only their calls forwarded to your other numbers.

Vonage offers a service to route your calls to another number in case your Internet connection goes down. SunRocket doesn't offer that service but if you use its SimRing or forwarding service, your incoming calls will go to your other lines if your connection goes down.

Both services offer voicemail including access to your voice messages from their website or via email.

Other features offered by both companies for no extra cost include caller ID, call waiting, call return (*69) and the ability to chose your own area code even if it's not local. You could live in one city and have an area code that makes it look as if you're in a different one. SunRocket also offers the ability to create contact lists with speed dial.

Both offer tech support but with Vonage, your call might be answered by someone outside North America. So far as I can tell, all of SunRocket tech support calls are answered by staff in the US.

For now at least, I'm not going to add to Vonage's troubles by switching providers, but after testing SunRocket, I'd have no trouble recommending the company for anyone looking for a Voice over Internet (VoIP) service.

A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid
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