A new British voice-over-IP company is challenging US-based Vonage with a cheaper, more varied offering. Switch Call has a £5 monthly fee, better phones, and other bundled features.
eBay's Skype purchase inflated a bubble, and Google Talk (reviewed here) started a media circus. But the real signal that VoIP is here is in announcements like Switch Call's: announcements that are based on the prosaic, frankly dull business of comparing one call package with another.

Switch, which has a heritage of running business phone services, aims to include everything, with features such as voicemail, cheap calls, an incoming call number, conferencing a softphone, and email-to-fax. For its service - which Techworld has been trialling - It charges a small set-up fee, and then £5 per month, compared with Vonage's £10. .

While Vonage (reviewed here) offers unlimited calls in the UK for £10, Switch gives you 500 minutes of UK calls, and then charges for other UK calls at 1p per minute. Both services have a sheet of rates for other destinations and, in each case, calls to the same network are free.

"Most people use less than eight hours of phone time a month," said Nick Kaulbach, managing director of Switch Call. "Our £5 fee includes all the calls you are likely to use."

The other difference is the equipment. Vonage charges £17, plus £7 shipping, to send you an adapter that plugs into your Ethernet router, into which you plug your regular phone. Switch will either send you a USB-connected phone to attach to your PC (£25) or an Ethernet connected IP phone for £50.

The USB phone is described as a home phone while the Ethernet phone is aimed at business, but it won't be as simple as that: USB phones can be carried and used with a laptop, so may be more suitable for the mobile business person.

At Techworld, we tried the Ethernet phone, and it performs like a good-quality deskphone. In order to keep cables to a minimum it has two Ethernet ports, so it can be daisy chained with the desktop PC. It does, however, need a power cable as well as the Ethernet cord.

Choosing VoIP is like buying a mobile
With several VoIP offerings to choose from, on what features are we choosing services? Comparing Switch with Vonage, it seems to be

  • how many on-network calls do I make?

  • will I use the bundled minutes, and will I buy more?

  • which handset do I like best?

In other words, buying VoIP is now just like buying a mobile phone. Choosing a provider is like choosing the contract.

But the similarity doesn't end there. Other providers, offering services with no monthly charge, are like mobile operators with pay-as-you-go options. Like mobiles, these may come "locked" to a particular VoIP operator. One such is Mamakall, whose phones are re-sold in the UK by Powerline UK. which sells a range of IP phones, each of which comes with a log-in to an IP phone service.

Pay as you go VoIP
Unlike, Switch and Vonage, Powerline sells you the equipment, and then it is up to you to top-up your credit on the service.

Powerline UK's product range looks similar to that sold by Switch. The company resells a range of USB and Ethernet phones, mostly made by Koncept, which have been badged and pre-set to connect to the VoIP provider, Mamakall.

We tried the bottom-of-the-range NetPhone, a basic and blocky USB-connected unit, whimsically described as "exquisite and portable" on the Powerline site, which costs £43 and feels as if it should cost far less (and is indeed available much cheaper on eBay).

The unit has no display, and pressing the Call button opens a program on the PC. The unit we tried had a harsh crackle to it, but this affected one end of the call only and seemed independent of network conditions, so we believe our test unit may have been defective.

Welcome to deal-world
The world of mobile phones is awash with "packages" and "deals" which (depending on your viewpoint) are either intended to give customers what they want, or else to lend spurious differentiation to a commodity product.

Mobile operators also create differentiation using features such as mobile email, cameras, and music storage. VoIP phones don't have the same leeway there, although features are already becoming important, both in terms of what the phone does (the Switch phone includes memories, pre-sets and a speaker function) and what is in the offering (Switch bundles voicemail, conferencing and other features).

For now though, the dreary job of checking features against requirements is what tells us that VoIP is ready. The tedium is the message. VoIP is here.