|Seconds after plugging the Grandstream BudgeTone 100 phone into our cable router, we had a dial tone.|
It's hard to envision an Internet telephone service that's easier to use than iConnectHere Broadband Phone. We plugged in the included Grandstream BudgeTone 100 SIP phone to our cable router alongside two PCs and a wireless access point. About 10 seconds later, the correct date and time appeared on the screen, and we had a dial tone. End of installation.
The phone's backlit LCD has all the resolution of a clock radio. The display is large and easy to read, but it's terrible at representing text. The phone has no address-book or speed-dial features, and the only text the LCD shows is for various Internet settings that you can modify via your Web browser.
We had to do exactly that to remedy a problem. Some of our inbound calls were being automatically routed to voicemail without setting off the ringer on the phone. Following instructions from iConnectHere tech support, we altered the phone's IP settings from dynamic to static. This is not a step for novice users, whether performed on the phone itself or in your browser, as you have to obtain and manually enter various network settings.
Another voicemail problem arose when we tried to record a new greeting. Despite repeated attempts, the message came out garbled every time. Only when we dialed into voicemail a second time were we able to record our greeting, and even then it had a metallic, AM-radio quality.
This, alas, was typical of our experiences with the iConnectHere service. Sometimes our outbound calls simply did not connect. When we did get through, inbound sound quality tended to be quite clear, but folks at the other end described our voice as "compressed" or "tinny, like you're inside a trash can." On some occasions, calls sounded crystal clear at first, then developed static or an echo. On other occasions, overall sound quality was excellent in both directions. This inconsistency would make us wary of relying on the phone, especially as a primary line or for business use. In all fairness, however, we tested the service in only one location--Michigan--so it's possible that you could experience different results in another part of the country. We are in the process of conducting additional tests, so check back here soon for an update.
iConnectHere provides the Grandstream BudgeTone 100 SIP phone free with a $19.99-per-month service plan that includes 800 minutes of U.S./Canada calling, a U.S. phone number, caller ID, voicemail, and free member-to-member calls. (If you've come to rely on caller ID, know that the phone displays only the incoming number and not the caller's name.) Thankfully, there's no contract to sign and therefore no cancellation fee, though you do have to return the phone if you cancel the service. Overage charges start at just 1.1 cents per minute for the United States and Canada. A sampling of international rates: 6 cents per minute to call Germany, 19 cents per minute for Brazil.
You can also purchase the phone separately for $39.99 and opt for one of several other service plans, including three pay-as-you-go plans, as well as international and small-business plans. The $12.95 per month international plan provides 1,000 minutes to the United States and Canada, plus 250 to various international locations. The small-business plan gives you 3,000 minutes in the United States and Canada for $39.95 per month. For the truly budget minded, the cheapest monthly flat-rate plan provides 400 minutes in North America for $5.95.
In addition to the phone, iConnectHere offers a Cisco ATA adapter ($109), which enables any phone, even cordless models, to be used with the service. The adapter also has a second port for a fax machine--an important consideration for businesses. Regardless of the hardware and the plan you choose, iConnectHere provides both a calling card and a softphone feature (free download), which it calls PC-to-Phone, for no extra charge. Minutes are drawn from your existing plan.
You'll have to pick a new phone number for the service, since iConnectHere doesn't let you port over your current number. At the time of this writing, you have your choice of approximately 40 area codes in 18 states. Be aware that if you plan on using iConnectHere as your primary line and choose a number outside your actual area code, your next-door neighbor will pay long-distance charges when calling you.
The included phone is a big desktop model with large, easy-to-read buttons; a comfy, weighted handset; a built-in speakerphone; and a message button for one-touch access to voicemail. It also has Hold and Mute buttons, but its Transfer, Conference, and Flash buttons are superfluous, because the iConnectHere service doesn't support those features. We're more concerned, however, with the buttons the phone lacks: redial and speed dial. When an outbound call doesn't go through and you have to manually reenter the number, it's easy to become permanently dissatisfied with this phone, especially since all calls, local and long distance, require you to dial the area code. The same holds true, however, if you opt to use the Cisco ATA with your own phone.
Although it would seem like an easy and obvious feature, the phone doesn't provide any notification of missed calls or new voicemail. You can, however, access voicemail from any phone or even stream it from the iConnectHere Web site, meaning you can check your messages from any PC. You can also view your call log and billing info online and even print a calling card. We were pleased to see that iConnectHere recently added call forwarding to its list of features. Just log in to your account and enter the number to which you'd like calls forwarded (your cell phone, for example).
For a phone company, iConnectHere takes a decidedly negative approach to phone support. It provides no number to call for assistance, only a single customer-service e-mail address. Admittedly, it took just 90 minutes to receive a personalized, thorough answer to our inquiry about voicemail. But we think something as crucial as phone service should be backed by phone support. Competitors such as Broadvox, Voiceglo, and Vonage all offer live help via phone.
iConnectHere offers searchable FAQ pages online, but we found no entries pertaining to Broadband Phone problems or troubleshooting. We found a configuration manual for the phone, but it was buried within the FAQ pages instead of being easily accessible from the main Customer Care page. In short, iConnectHere needs to augment and improve its support offerings.