Thursday, April 05, 2007

Some Cosmic Truths about Vonage

For those of your who haven’t already seen one of their inane TV commercials or received at least one of those flashy orange-and-white cardboard brochures in your mail at least once a week, Vonage is one of the bigger and better-known VOIP (Voice Over IP) telephone service providers. Simply put, VOIP is the technique of making the Internet function as a telephone system, the main advantage being that long distance calls to the USA and Canada - and a select few foreign countries as well - don’t cost anything extra. There are no toll charges, and the sound quality of each call is claimed to be as good as what Ma Bell and her sisters have been giving us with traditional telephone service. Sound too good to be true? Read on.

Their hardware needs help.

A Vonage box is typically a combination VOIP interface for their network and broadband router (you can get dedicated VOIP adapters for use with an existing router). Since you’re using the same Ethernet connection for VOIP and data, you definitely need a router in order to still use your Internet connection for its intended purpose. But no joke, I’ve had not one, not two, but four, count ‘em FOUR Vonage boxes “brick” on me. You know why? I was trying to do something complicated and exotic with them, something they were obviously never intended for. Are you ready to hear about the heinous abuse I inflicted upon these poor, unsuspecting plastic boxes? I tried to - - set up port forwarding! Yes, the very same thing that on-line gamers do in their sleep was just too great a stretch for these substandard contraptions from D-Link and, of all people, the venerable Motorola. The first of two Motorolas bricked while I was working on it because, unbeknownst to me and without any discernible warning whatsoever (no mention of it in the instructions that came with it either), it began downloading and installing firmware updates for itself. Using a device during a firmware update is a big no-no, but as I said, I was given no warning and no indication. After the fourth trip to the local DHL office to send the last dead one back, I wised up and got myself a decent stand-alone router, the so-called “Linux-compatible” model from Linksys which got good reviews and is apparentlymore robust than the identical-looking models which they sell at the mall, and certainly more so than the bulk-purchase cheapies from Vonage. My Vonage service works just as well (or as lousy) as ever. Setting up port forwarding on the Linksys box was only slightly more difficult than sneezing. I set it up, and it just - ran, as it continues to do. As for the Motorola box, sound-signal strength and voice quality is all right, There is a faint, and slightly annoying high-pitched whine in the background on all calls, whether local or long-distance. Think fair-to-decent small-town telephone company.

Customer service? What’s that?

I have nothing whatsoever against India, or her people. I have everything against calling up Vonage’s (and too many other American technology firms') “customer care” department and being connected to someone halfway around the world who has difficulty speaking understandable English and understanding simple statements from my end. Now, if I go to Hong Kong or Mumbai and I can’t speak the local tongue, that’s my tough luck. But when I buy a service from an nominally American firm which serves a primarily American clientele, I have the right to expect that the person on the other end will be able to speak English at least well enough to complete any routine transaction. Their standard phone greeting is “Hello, this is Bill” or “Hello, this is Jane”. Come ON, Vonage, I wasn’t born yesterday, OK? These people apparently know little or nothing about computers, definitely a bad thing for an Internet-based business. I run Linux on my computer (Ubuntu, if you must know) and I was having some compatibility issues with my browser and their router’s admin screens. I asked one of these people if he was familiar with Linux. I may as well have asked him “What is the iron content of the soil on the Martian moon, Phobos?” As with all outsourced “customer service”, many phone-slaves – I mean representatives - read all responses to any customer questions from pre-written scripts. Scripts!!!. That means if your question is the least bit unusual (like my Linux question), they either have to try and wing it (mostly without success) or connect you to a supervisor, who might know even less. Hey, Vonage, if doing business as dirt-cheaply as possible regardless of the consequences is what you’re after, why not just drop the pretense of “customer care” altogether and have all your phones answered by machines that do nothing but play back those same scripts as read by American voice actors (“For questions about port forwarding, press 3").? At least they’d be easier to understand. And it would be easier on those poor schlubs over in Bangalore, who now must bear the brunt of your customers’ justifiable anger and frustration every single day.

Still quite a few bugs in the system.

My sister once tried to contact me at my Vonage number via her cell phone. Big mistake, bad combination, digital cell phones and VOIP. I heard nothing but unintelligible smears of sound which sounded vaguely like my sister’s voice. I said that if this in fact was her calling, that she should call me back ASAP, which she did. No problem on the second try (she may have been calling from her ground line on the second try). Other calls come through with annoying and confusing slap-back echo. When you talk, you hear your own words a split-second later. Sometimes when you finish a call, your phone will ring. You pick it up, and there's no one on the line.

More cosmic truths, as they are revealed to me.

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