VoIP phone services have always had a narrow window to aim at. Internet-based telephony competes powerfully, on a cost-basis, with conventional PSTN phone services - but the problem is, PSTN providers can use the same technology (voice on Internet) to slash their own costs, giving the VoIP operators a narrower margin in which to operate.
Operators like Vonage sell a service that includes dedicated hardware, which gives them some benefits in service provision, but downsides such as limiting the user's choice.
Since then, Vonage has reduced the price of its basic bundle to £7.99, and increased the range of products, with other routers from Linksys and one from Motorola. It's also finally delivered a the UTStarcom F1000, an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi SIP phone which it launched in the US in 2005.
The phone allows the user to make Vonage phone calls through Wi-Fi acess points, for instance making calls at home and in the office. The phone costs £109.99 - with a £20 rebate on call charges bringing the effective price down to £89.99.
Product design and use
This is not state-of-the art for a voice-on-Wi-Fi handset, but it's at the leading edge of what's available in a commercial product: it's about where mobile phones were in the late 1990s - right down to the stubby projecting antenna (all publicity photos, I've noticed, are taken from a low angle to make the antenna look smaller than its full 2cm).
UTStarcom has a newer clamshell phone, the F3000, but Vonage is selling the F1000 here. It has an "early-Nokia" feel to the styling and user interface - especially the graphics on the set-up menus - which other reviewers have picked up on. It weighs 111g, and like old mobiles, has a five line mono screen and a rechargeable battery wired in.
It has a phone book, calculator, calendar, and alarm but, disappointingly, it doesn't take the retro aspect far enough to include the Snake game. It charges up through a USB mini-B connector, either from a PC or using the power adapter provided. Charging over a standard USB connector is useful, as it means one can travel without having to take an array of power adapters.
Earlier VoIP phones (such as the WISIP phone) fell down over their tricky settings, but the F1000 turns out to be straightforward. The phone can hold four APs in its memory; a search found our Fritz Box AP, and then it was simple to enter a WEP or WPA-PSK key (depending which level of security is in use).
Thereafter, the phone remembers the settings. When it's turned on, it scans for all the APs it knows, and registers with the first one it finds - a process that takes about 45 seconds. It was able to make and receive calls anywhere in a fair-size house, showing no Wi-Fi range problems.
A phone that can be used on a specific AP or two is really not a great step up from a cordless phone. This sort of phone comes into its own when it can be used routinely at public hotspots, potentially giving free calls at many locations round the world. The problem is that it can be tricky to register at a public hotspot using a phone with no qwerty keypad or web browser.
Vonage's answer is to do deals with hotspot providers, starting with the Cloud, whose hotspots are set up to allow Vonage calls through without registration.
We tried this out, at hotspots near the Techworld offices, including a pub and an unprepossessing BT payphone. We weren't able to register at the Puzzle Pub in Gray's Inn Road, but had better luck at a payphone in Bedford Way, where after two attempts we were able to get dial-tone and make calls which were ofacceptable quality.
Quality, talk time and battery life
Voice quality was mostly fine, even two floors up from the access point in the house, or hanging about near a phone box. As with many VoIP services, the occasional call was garbled and unusable. In calls to landlines or other VoIP providers, the quality experienced on the F1000 was better than the quality experienced on the regular phone at the other end.
Battery life has been the bete noir of Wi-Fi phones, but the F1000 makes strong progress over earlier products, handling hour-long calls without noticeably draining the charge. When the phone is on stand-by, it keeps trying to log into access points, and the batteries eventually drain, but we found that a charge lasted for more than a day, at reasonable usage.
This is a product which does what it says but, as with the wired product, struggles to stand out against what else is available. The price of the service is fair, but does require a Wi-Fi service and/or broadband to make it work.
This year, TalkTalk provides a broadband and telephony package for £10 a month, so we already have cordless free phone calls in the home-office, and it's easy to route VoIP calls to a normal DECT phone. The extra piece Vonage's Wi-Fi phone gives us is calls from other access points and hotspots.
This would be more compelling if it was easy to use it in more hotspots. It can't be used by any that authenticate by user-name and password, or require acknowledgement of a web page. The availability of Cloud hotspots for Vonage calls is a big step in the right direction - otherwise we would be limited to fishing around for free, unencrypted hotspots.
Given all that, the phone itself is pricey. Vonage sells it in the US for an up-front cost of $90 ($130 plus a call rebate of $40). It can be found elsewhere in the UK for around £115, without the Vonage contract.
In the home, it's roughly like a DECT phone; in the office it could save a few pennies. Overall, it's a good proof of the voice-on-Wi-Fi concept, but most people will find it offers limited benefits over the alternatives.