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Also in this issue:

More Machine Than Flesh
by J. Johnson
a review essay of Rodney Brooks' Flesh and Machines

Splinter Cell
for Xbox
reviewed by
Justin Hall & Jane Pinckard


Vonage Digital Voice Phone Service

reviewed by Raffi Krikorian


March 10 , 2003 | Let's hearken back to about three years ago -- I used to sit at my desktop computer, yell into a microphone, and a voice, coming in over my headphones would confusingly ask, "What?" This was my constant experience with the telephone over the Internet experience. It was clunky, it was kludgey, and it just was not ready for prime time; definitely not something I would of replaced my land line for.

But with Vonage's new service, that might all change.

Dressed up in a cute box with the words "Digital voice, now you do have a choice" printed on it came the newest toy to grace itself on my apartment's network -- a Cisco ATA186 box. Think of it literally as this: a box with one side having an Ethernet jack, on the other side a phone jack. I plugged the Ethernet side into my network switch, and the other side into a spare 900MHz cordless phone that I had laying around. Jacked the box into the AC, picked up the phone, dialed *80 (as that was really the only instructions that came with the box), and the phone very peacefully said "one ninety two, one sixty eight, zero, fifteen", and hung up. I pushed the talk button again, got a dial tone, and ordered myself a pizza.

This box, when coupled with Vonage's service, really provides me with an alternative to land-line phone. My voice, and the incoming voice, are digitized using the session initiation protocol (SIP), the bits are shipped over my cable modem (as evidenced by the TX/RX lights on my cable modem blinking wildly while I spoke on the phone), off to one of Vonage's data centers where the phone number is actually dialed on the phone network and the bits become voice. When I dial San Francisco from my phone in Boston, the bits from my phone go through my cable modem, are then shipped to a data center in the bay area where a machine there dials a real phone to bring the bits to voice. And it all sounds great -- well, great when you have spent all your phone hours in the past few years on a cell phone -- those that actually use land lines might complain that the voice sounds a little tinny. Take the Cisco box wherever you go, and if you have a "broadband" connection, jack the box in with a phone and your number follows you (I had an entertaining experience plugging it into the Ethernet jack of my Apple Powerbook and sending the phone calls over the 802.11b wireless network) -- you need about 90 kpbs to maintain a call, so if you are maxing out your DSL with divx movies coming in and out of your favorite P2Pnet, then you might want to throttle that down a bit before you make a call.

The Edison, New Jersey based company gives you one Cisco ATA186 and a phone number in an area code of your choosing (I had a little piece of northern New Jersey in my living room). You have a choice of two different levels of service to go along with this box: for $25.99/month you get unlimited local/regional calling (where local/regional is defined by the area code you choose for your phone number) and 500 minutes of free US long distance, and for $39.99/month you get unlimited long distance. And you also get international rates that rivals most common calling cards. The only problem is that the service only delivers one ATA186, and that specific model is required to use the service -- no other SIP compatible devices are supported yet. If you want to use more than one phone with the box, you will either have to rig up a network of telephone splitters and wires; or you can do what some have done and hack your house to plug the Cisco box into your house's in wall telephone network.

Vonage is attempting to bring a new value to the phone network -- with their service you can check your voice mail from the web and also have very accurate phone accounting of your last few phone calls and exactly how long they lasted. They also provide telephone number mobility meaning that if you decide to ditch your land line for a net line, you can keep the same number. The one really pressing issue (but Vonage promises to have this fixed by Q1 of 2003) is that you cannot dial 911 right now -- well, you can, you will probably get 911 in the wrong place though (if you have a 415 number in Boston, you will probably get SF's 911). That aside, its a hard sell to replace most of our cell phones with this, but if you still feel the need to have a land line (or if you despise using your cell phone and miss the ability to "shoulder" your phone while you talk), then this might be -the- replacement for your landline.

Raffi Krikorian is an independant writer and software consultant. Originally of San Francisco, he is currently residing in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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