Once you get a dial tone, you'll need to locate your account information to set up your account. It's all on one sheet that ships with the phone adapter and includes an account number, a phone number, virtual phone number(s) if applicable, and a username and passwords for the Vonage site and for voicemail. We breezed through the setup, getting help along the way from Vonage's Web site. From this Web interface, we forwarded calls to a POTS line, configured voicemail to pick up the phone after 20 seconds instead of the default 30, established a network availability number (a forwarding number if the Vonage network is unavailable), and disabled international calling. We also set up two new virtual phone numbers (see the Features page for more info), following an easy three-step process.
Finally, we quickly set up the 911 dialing service. To do so, you provide your physical address so that the 911 call can be directed to the correct service location. Many VoIP services, such as Packet8, do not offer support for 911 calls. But like all VoIP services, if your Internet connection goes down or the power goes out, you lose the use of your phone, which isn't the case with a POTS line. But in the event that your power or your Internet service goes out, Vonage will forward the call to your cell phone or any number you specify beforehand.
You can manage your account by logging in at Vonage's Web site. The default screen, called the Dashboard, shows a list of the most recent incoming and outgoing calls, provides service announcements, and offers links to configuration screens. The billing screen lets you segregate activity information by phone number, including virtual numbers, and offers a billing history for each number.Vonage offers three residential plans and two plans for businesses, none of which requires a contract. For residential customers, the $24.99-per-month Premium Unlimited plan gives you unlimited calls within the United States and Canada. The $14.99-per-month plan gives you 500 minutes per month to U.S. and Canadian phone numbers. If you exceed your monthly minute allotment, you pay a reasonable 3.9 cents per minute. Calls to other Vonage subscribers don't count toward your monthly minutes. Start-up costs include a $29.99 activation fee and a $9.95 shipping-and-handling charge. Taxes and federal fee are low but not nonexistent: the $24.99 carries with it a federal excise tax of 75 cents and a regulatory recover fee of $1.50.
Business plans are $49.99 per month or $39.99 per month. The former gives you unlimited local and U.S./Canadian long-distance calling, the latter 1,500 minutes and 3.9 cents per minute over that. You also get a free fax-line activation, which costs $9.99 to activate for a residential line. Business customers get 500 minutes per month of free faxes; residential customers get 250 minutes.
No matter which plan you choose, Vonage offers international long distance at extremely reasonable rates: 3 cents per minute to most of Japan and much of Europe, 7 or 8 cents per minute to Mexico, and from 9 to 18 cents per minute to the Caribbean.
Each account carries the following free services: voicemail, caller ID, call forwarding and call transfer, call waiting, three-way calling, repeat dialing, call return, international call block, and call hunt (the call rings on another phone if you're talking on the called number). You can choose from a wide variety of area codes, with coverage in most of the United States. To date, only Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming have no available area codes in the Vonage system. Vonage phone numbers are also available in Canada's five most populated provinces: Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Albert, and British Columbia (sorry, Saskatchewan).
You can also transfer your current number if you are a cable Internet subscriber. Fax an authorization letter to Vonage, and the company will contact your current local phone service provider to transfer your number to Vonage. It takes two or three weeks for the transfer to go through (closer to three weeks in our tests); in the meantime, Vonage provides you with a temporary number so that you can make calls on the Vonage service right away.
Vonage offers 911 calling, but like all VoIP services that provide this service, it differs from 911 calls from a POTS line. Instead of connecting to a 911 emergency response center, 911 calls on Vonage go to a PSAP, and you'll need to provide your address. This difference might not sound like too big a deal, but families with small children (and babysitters) might feel more comfortable knowing their 911 service is as quick and efficient as possible. And remember to enable 911 calling when you first activate your Vonage account and enter your address so that any 911 calls will be sent to your local PSAP. When you sign up for 911 service, you'll also get 311 calling (for nonemergencies and city information) if you live in a major metro area with such service.
If you need to know about voicemail messages as soon as you receive them, you can configure Vonage to send a voicemail notification to your e-mail address. The e-mail tells you a message is waiting and also gives you the caller's phone number, obtained through caller ID (if available for that call). You can also have Vonage convert voicemail messages to WAV files and forward them to your e-mail address so that you can listen to them from another PC.