Affordable Packet8 service worth a look as second phone

Affordable Packet8 service worth a look as a second phone

March 25, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

FOR THE LAST week or so, the phone on my desk hasn't been plugged into its usual wall jack. Instead, it's been plugged into a little white box that routes my calls over the Internet.

Most of the people I've called can't tell the difference.

Traditional phone companies are worried about these boxes because they represent cheap and so-far-unregulated competition - on top of the business they've lost to wireless carriers.

The Packet8 service I've been testing charges only $19.95 a month for unlimited local and long-distance calls anywhere in the United States and Canada. The package includes voice mail, call waiting, call forwarding, 3-way conferencing and Caller ID. That's about $10 a month less than a standard land line with no long-distance or added features, and $30 a month less than any phone company package that includes unlimited long distance.

How good is it? Certainly close to being ready for prime time. There are still enough shortcomings to make it unwise to give up your traditional land-line service. But for a second line in a home office, or for a college student (particularly one overseas), it's definitely worth a look.

First, a little primer on the technology. Traditional phone service is circuit-switched, which means that theoretically there's a direct path, or circuit, connecting your telephone to the phone on the other end of the line. It's not terribly efficient, but it's reliable.

The Internet uses a different scheme known as packet switching, which wraps digital ones and zeros in small bundles called packets. When you send an e-mail to another computer, each packet may take a separate route to the receiving computer.

The packets are reassembled on the other end - but some take longer than others, and some inevitably get lost and have to be retransmitted. This often takes place in a fraction of a second, and it's very efficient in using the available bandwidth.

But this lag, or latency, is a serious problem when you're transmitting digitized voice in real time. We expect to hear audio in a continuous stream, but Internet congestion and lost packets can result in delays and choppy sound.

Over the years, engineers have developed audio compression techniques and other tricks to minimize these issues. The technology, known as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), now makes two-way conversations possible.

Although early Internet calling required at least one party to use a computer, companies such as 8x8, Vonage and AT&T have VoIP plans that eliminate the PC altogether.

The plans are gaining popularity with businesses because they can eliminate traditional, internal phone wiring and cut long-distance charges. But they're also starting to impress the consumer market.

The Packet8 service I tested was created by 8x8 Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. It requires high-speed cable or DSL service and a router - a gadget that allows multiple PCs or other devices to share an Internet connection. They're available for as little as $30.

When you sign up for a plan, 8x8 sends a terminal adapter (the white box) that plugs into your router on one end and any standard phone on the other.

Here's where the first cool wrinkle comes in - you can choose your "home" area code. This primarily affects people who call you: If your parents or kids live on the West Coast and like to phone home a lot, it might make sense to pick an area code where they live, so their calls are local. The downside is that anyone who phones from your own locality has to make a long-distance call.

Setting up the phone was a snap. After hooking up the terminal adapter and an old phone, I dialed a Packet8 access number, entered a confirmation code and that was it.

When calling other land-line numbers, the voice quality was good - not quite the same as a regular connection, but much better than most cell phones. To check out the lag, I called up my regular phone number and talked to myself. There was a quarter-second delay before my phone and my voice came out of the standard handset - barely noticeable in normal conversation. On calls to cell phones - which typically produce their own lag - it was still possible to hold a conversation, but the dual delay made it less comfortable.

Other problems make Packet8 less than ideal. First, you can't use your home's extension phones unless you go into alpha-geek mode and disconnect the house wiring from the phone company line at the terminal block. Most people won't do that.

There is one workaround: Use a cordless phone. I plugged in a Vtech 5.8 GHz cordless phone with a remote extension handset and had no trouble with calls anywhere in the house.

International calling is a mixed bag. Calls to land-line phones in the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia run 2 cents to 4 cents per minute - an excellent rate. But calls to mobile phones overseas are often more than 25 to 50 cents per minute or more.

On the other hand, the company says it is selling an increasing number of packages overseas which gives customers there a U.S. telephone number and unlimited calling to the United States.

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