summaryIf you've been harboring any doubt about the viability of VoIP services, you can put them to rest. AT&T, once the center of the telephone universe in the United States, rolled out its own VoIP service, CallVantage, last year, and it has since added to and improved the service. The company launched CallVantage with a lone calling plan but now offers three plans that range in price from $19.99 to $49.99 per month. At $29.99 per month, its unlimited-minutes plan is pricier than those of competitors such as and Packet8, but CallVantage was one of the strongest performers on CNET Labs' voice-quality tests. You also have a host of features at your disposal, including virtual numbers, conference calling, call filtering, and call forwarding. In addition to a standard telephone adapter that requires a connection to a broadband router, you can choose to combine those two devices with a VoIP-enabled Linksys wireless router. It'll save you from having to buy a router if you don't already own one, and it's well equipped to juggle voice and data traffic on your network. AT&T CallVantage costs a bit more per month than its competitors, but it's worth the premium for its long list of features and excellent call quality. Unlike services such as Broadvox, which require only that you connect a phone adapter to your router, wall outlet, and phone before making calls, AT&T CallVantage requires you to hop through a few more hoops. Granted, our test bed was a little more complicated than some: We added the D-Link telephone adapter (TA), which is used to connect a standard telephone to your broadband connection, to a small network with DSL service instead of to a single computer with a cable connection. This same arrangement, however, presented no problem with other VoIP services: run an Ethernet cable from the telephone adapter to the router, and--presto! Instant telephone.
With CallVantage, however, the sequence proved more tedious. First, we had to find a space for the included D-Link TA, the largest of these devices we've seen so far. Next, we had to power down the computer, the router, and the DSL modem and run the included Ethernet cable from the TA's Ethernet port to the router's WAN port and another from the DSL modem to the TA's WAN port, which places the TA between the modem and the router. The next step was to power up the modem, wait for it to initialize, then plug in the TA and wait for its status light to blink. Then, as instructed, we powered on the router, at which point a cable user would have been finished. A DSL connection requires a further step: logging in to the TA's Web administration utility and entering the PPPoE username and password. The final step requires you to log in to your account on the CallVantage Web site and step through the TA activation process.
Once you are set up and have a dial tone, the next step is to log on to the CallVantage Web site and customize your settings. From the Personal Call Manager, you can access help pages, a screen of usage tips, and all of the configurable features. You also get a brief summary of new messages, calls made, and information on whether certain features have been activated. Although this interface appears busy on first glance, it provides quite possibly the most useful VoIP account interface we've seen.
By comparison, Broadvox is easy to set up; without an Ethernet pass-through, however, it can't connect between your broadband modem and your router, meaning it won't prioritize voice traffic under heavy network conditions. VoicePulse works similarly. The CallVantage method performs this prioritization to insure voice quality, but you might find it frustrating if you don't have some experience setting up small networks and especially if you're a DSL customer. Call quality with the D-Link TA was strong in our anecdotal tests.
Order residential CallVantage service online, and you'll receive the D-Link TA or a TA from Centillium. If you order the Small Office plan, you'll get a Linksys unit that's a wired router and a TA. CallVantage hardware is also sold at retail. For CNET Labs', AT&T sent us the Linksys WRT54GP2A, which is a TA and a wireless router.
Since AT&T first launched its CallVantage VoIP service last year, the company has added a host of useful features and two additional calling plans. The service we suspect will appeal to most users is the $29.99-per-month, residential unlimited-minutes plan. It's $10 more per month than competing plans from Packet8 and $5 more a month than Vonage. But only Vonage rivals CallVantage in terms of voice quality. For $19.99 a month, the CallVantage Local Plan provides unlimited local calls and costs 4 cents per minute for long distance. The $49.99 Small Office Plan gives businesses two lines (both the D-Link telephone adapter and the Linksys TA/router have two phone jacks). You get unlimited minutes on line one and 500 long-distance minutes on line two, and you can connect a fax machine to either. Unlimited minutes for all three plans cover calls within the United States and Canada. All three plans include a $29.99 activation fee. If you order the $29.99 unlimited-minutes plan online, the first month is free, which covers the activation fee. If you cancel within the first year, you'll avoid a cancellation fee as long as you return the telephone adapter.
When you sign up for your service, you specify whether you want to get a new phone number or transfer your existing number. Your odds of being able to get a number in your area code has greatly increased since AT&T first introduced CallVantage; area codes in 39 states are available. If you are a DSL subscriber and you want to cancel your current phone service altogether for AT&T CallVantage, you can't transfer the phone number to which your DSL service is attached (this limitation is standard for all VoIP providers, however). Note also that transferring your existing AT&T number to CallVantage means you lose the ability to gain points in AT&T rewards programs, and your AT&T calling cards and Easy Reach 800 service will no longer function, either.
CallVantage now offers virtual numbers, which it calls Simple Reach Numbers, for $4.99 a month. A Simple Reach Number gives you a second number outside your own area code so that callers in that area--your mother or business partner, for instance--can make locals calls to you. You can also add a second line to either the unlimited-minutes or local home plan for $29.99 and $19.99, respectively.
AT&T CallVantage offers emergency 911 support, a feature not found with all VoIP services at this time. AT&T uses the address you provide upon signing up to direct any 911 calls to the proper answering point. Like most VoIP services that provide 911 service, the process differs from 911 calls from a traditional landline phone. Instead of connecting to a 911 emergency response center, 911 calls on CallVantage go to a PSAP (public safety answering point), and you'll need to provide your address when you call. 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. Another safety feature: you can enter a phone number (your cell phone, for example) on the CallVantage Web site where calls will be forwarded in the event of a power failure or Internet outage.
With your CallVantage service, you get a standard voicemail in-box. When you're away from home, you can have e-mail alerts sent to you when you receive a voicemail or have the message e-mailed to you as a WAV file attachment. A feature called Locate Me lets you specify up to five phone numbers that CallVantage will use to attempt to reach you, should you not answer your phone. This feature essentially amends your voicemail service with a message replacing the voicemail greeting, informing your callers that the system is trying to reach you, then it either cycles through the specified phone numbers or rings all of the phones simultaneously. Your callers can press 1 to bypass the Locate Me feature and leave a standard voice message.
Three-way calling is free with any calling plan, and you can conference between 4 and 10 people for 35 cents a minute. Also included with CallVantage are standard features including caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, and three-way calling, all of which function much like those on a standard phone service. The Do Not Disturb feature is handy for keeping, say, telemarketers at bay during your dinner hour, and for $1.99 a month, the Call Filtering feature lets you set exceptions so that certain callers (your daughter away at school, for example) are let through.