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It seems that each month brings a new competitor to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephone providers such as Vonage, Packet8, and . New to this increasingly crowded space is Lingo, which comes close to knocking off the competition. Lingo offers the lowest monthly unlimited-minutes plan of all the VoIP packages we've seen at $19.95, which includes not only the United States and Canada, but also numerous countries in Western Europe. Likewise, its plans come equipped with a lengthy list of features: all plans include 911 emergency calling, and business plans include fax capabilities. Unfortunately, Lingo's call quality was inconsistent, with more interference than we've experienced with other VoIP services. Perhaps you'll have better luck with call quality. International callers may want to take advantage of Lingo's 30-day money-back guarantee (plus, you get the first month free) in the hopes of a better connection. If your long-distance calls are primarily domestic, there are more reliable VoIP alternatives. The Lingo installation process is straightforward. When you sign up for Lingo's service, the company sends you a proprietary Primus telephone adapter. Follow the printed setup instructions, which have you unplug your broadband modem and router, connect the telephone adapter to an Ethernet port on your router, then power them back up in a specific order--modem, router, then adapter--to allow the adapter to receive an IP address. Then, when you start up, you have to wait as the adapter downloads the latest firmware. Be careful to read the instructions thoroughly on this point, because stopping the process can cause technical problems for the entire connection.
Once online, you can log in to your account from Lingo's Web site, where you can make changes to your account profile, contact support, and manage your account's various features. Though you have to click in and out of a different page to change the settings for each feature, the forms are clear and usable. We particularly like its clear and easy-to-access incoming and outgoing call logs.
Too bad its call quality is questionable, because Lingo's feature set, coverage areas, and rate plans are top-notch. Lingo's unlimited-minutes Home plan costs $5 less per month than Vonage at $19.95. Not only that, it also includes many countries in Western Europe in addition to Canada and the United States, including Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
And that's just one of Lingo's attractive long-distance offerings. If your calls go west instead of east--across the Pacific instead of the Atlantic--consider the $34.95-per-month Unlimited Asia package, which gives you unlimited calling to the United States, Canada, and the following Asian countries and territories: Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, South Korea, and Guam. There's a catch, though. As is true of the European calls, you can't call mobile phones overseas. Given the predominance of cell phones in Europe and Asia, that's an obvious limitation--but it's hardly a deal breaker.
Lingo offers $79.95-per-month plan for the truly international set, which combines the Western European and Asian calling areas, plus Israel and certain cities in Russia and Mexico. On the other hand, a $14.95 plan provides 500 minutes to the United States, Canada, or Western Europe, along with unlimited calling to other Lingo subscribers, and a $7.95 plan provides free calls to only other Lingo subscribers. Neither is very attractive: instead of the 500-minute plan, we suggest spending the extra $5 per month for the unlimited minutes. Instead of the Lingo-to-Lingo $7.95 plan, have your friends download Skype for free subscriber-to-subscriber calling.
Business plans clock in at $49.95 for Business Unlimited and $99.95 for Business Unlimited International. These plans differ from the Home plans primarily in their inclusion of a fax line, which allows 500 fax minutes per month to the States and Canada (3 cents per minute after that).
One other strong feature that helps Lingo stand above at least some of its competition is an emergency system. While it doesn't actually use the standard 911 system (no VoIP phone service does), Lingo's service automatically connects you to the PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) in your geographic area, in effect making it a 911 service. Using Lingo, just dial 911 to make such a call--you won't notice the difference. What's important here is that you make sure the address you have on file (on Lingo's Web site) is the address where you're located. Also important: Remember that an Internet or power outage renders this feature useless, a problem with all VoIP services. Emergency services remain one of VoIP's primary stumbling blocks, but Lingo scores points in addressing the problem out of the box.
As with the other VoIP services we've tested to date, Lingo's calling features are many and varied. First, you get to choose a phone number from more than 220 area codes in the United States. For an extra $4.95 per month, you can get an additional number with a U.S. or Canadian area code of your choice (a.k.a. a virtual number), and for $10 per month extra, you can have an international phone number. This way, your in-laws in London, for example, can make local calls to you. All plans offer standards such as voicemail, voicemail sent as e-mail attachments, call forwarding, call waiting, and last-number redial, along with local-number portability, so you can take your existing phone number with you. Other features include simultaneous ring (incoming calls ring two or more phone numbers automatically) and a 411 information service.We judge a VoIP service's performance on how calls sound under baseline conditions, as well as during data uploads and data downloads. The overall weighted average is based on calls made under these three conditions. Baseline conditions are given the highest weight of 66 percent; audio quality during data uploads and data downloads each factor 17 percent of the weightings. The scale for the voice-quality ratings is from 0 to 10.0, with a perfect score of 10.0 equaling our reference analog connection.