What's on your VoIP wish list?

Those who were on the cutting edge and became early adopters of VoIP can best appreciate just how much the technology has improved over the last decade. We've come from very basic (but cheap) phone service of questionable reliability and quality to services that offer many more features than a typical landline at a much lower price -- with high enough reliability to enable many of its users to cut the landline cord altogether.

VoIP users take for granted features such as the ability to receive voice mail messages in e-mails, as well as all the traditional landline features such as caller ID, call waiting, three-way conferencing, etc. In addition, many features you have to pay extra for with a landline usually come included in the base price for a VoIP line.

Still, it's human nature to be greedy, and most of us have additional features that we'd like to see offered by our VoIP providers. Some of those are already available from some -- but not all -- VoIP companies. Others are just dreams at this point. An informal survey of some of the VoIP users I know resulted in a fairly robust wish list.

Integration with wireless/cellular devices

Most of the folks who have VoIP service at home also have mobile phone plans for use when they're on the go. Over the past 20 years, cell phones have become almost ubiquitous -- transforming from a luxury item for the rich to a "must-have" for the younger generation to almost a necessity for everyone, even for technophobic grandmas and grandpas.

But it's hard not to notice the big price differential between cellular service and both landline and VoIP services, especially if you make a lot of calls and/or make international calls. For instance, Verizon Wireless advertises "calls to over 190 countries with rates as low as 49 cents per minute" for those who make occasional international calls.

However, that 49 cent rate is to Mexico; a call to France or Italy costs you $1.49 per minute. Ouch! That is, of course, in addition to the $40 to $60 or more that you're already paying for monthly cellular service (depending on how many "free" minutes you get). That same rate applies to other popular destinations such as Australia and Singapore.

On the other hand, my Lingo VoIP plan costs $21.95 per month. It includes unlimited minutes not only in the United States, but to Canada, western Europe (Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Scandinavian countries), Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea.

Just today, I received a message purporting to be from Lingo Customer Care, advertising a new service called Lingo Unwired, which it says allows you to "dial around" your cell phone provider and save big bucks on international calls. In fact, the first 10 minutes on all international calls are free; after that, you just pay 10 cents per minute, regardless of where or what time of the day you're calling. According to the ad, all you have to do is register your wireless phone number with Lingo.

I'm waiting on a response from Lingo as to whether this is a legitimate message. I was a bit suspicious because the link in the e-mail goes to the domain app.bronto.com rather than lingo.com, and a Google search didn't turn up any info on this new service.

If it's true, this is exactly the sort of thing many of us have been wishing for. And there is indeed a small ad on Lingo's main Web site announcing that Lingo Unwired is "coming soon." So whether this particular e-mail message is legitimate, it appears the company has something like this in the works -- I suspect cell phone companies are not pleased.

At any rate, the more I can use my inexpensive VoIP for calls instead of my expensive cell phone, the happier I'll be. One way to integrate cellular and VoIP services is to use an advanced call-forwarding service that will ring all your phone numbers simultaneously. Then, for instance, if someone calls your cell phone while you're at home, you can take the call on your VoIP line instead and save cellular minutes.

VoIP over long-range wireless

Of course, the ideal situation would be if we could get rid of our cell phones completely and use VoIP phones everywhere. Before that can happen, we need widespread wireless Internet coverage.

Some cities are already implementing city-wide Wi-Fi, and new technologies such as WiMax can extend the range of wireless Internet to make it possible. The availability of cheap portable phones to connect to those networks, with inexpensive VoIP plans, would complete the picture.

This is certainly feasible, at least in urban areas. Dumping the cells may not come so quickly for those who travel into rural areas more often.

VoIP 2.0 features

Experts predict, in the near future, widespread availability of such features as the ability to dial one number that will instantly connect you to a conference call with multiple callers in a designated workgroup. This could be a very handy feature for business use, especially as more and more business takes place remotely.

The combination of videoconferencing with VoIP telephony would allow for even more flexibility. VoIP phone handsets with a small video screen and tiny built-in camera could allow for video meetings without having to deal with a full-size computer or laptop.

Rock-solid reliability

Still, the most basic item on many VoIP users' wish lists is even better reliability. While acknowledging that VoIP has come a long way in that regard, some users still are not at the point where they can get rid of their landlines.

One mostly satisfied VoIP user told me that he can use the VoIP line for 90 percent of calls, but he still gets quirky service (echoes, drops, and generally poor voice quality) when he uses it for calls to or from the Redmond, WA area (including but not limited to calls to Microsoft). Others told me that they have problems at times when talking to cell phones on their VoIP lines. Until such problems are fixed, great new features won't be enough for VoIP to replace PSTN in every home and business.

Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.

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