Packet8

I've just concluded a 30-day trial of Packet8 VoIP phone service. I chose Packet8 because with a referral from another customer they had a reasonably low cost of entry (just shipping) and a decent monthly bill (around $20). This also concludes my status as their customer for the following reasons:

The ATA

An ATA is an Analog Telephone Adapter. They're nifty little devices that you plug into your network and into a phone (or in my case into the house) and it gives you a dial tone and lets you punch keys just like you always have. That she could pick up a normal phone and get a dial tone was Rebecca's only requirement when I told her I was thinking of not using a traditional phone service. Packet8 sent me their BPG-510 which is really a locked down SIPCOM ATA-1000 (SIPCOM is a Chinese company who's site appears to have been down for a good long time). It has several problems.

First, it's completely closed. It has a web interface but you can't control anything about the device's behavior from this interface and you certainly couldn't use it for anyone else's service. This is not so strange. Most VoIP companies do this, as do cell phone companies. Presumably they take a loss on the device when you sign up and hope to recover that cost through your monthly bill. I actually find this somewhat unlikely -- this device probably cost Packet8 around $30 at the very most while their setup fee is around $40.

Second, it's jitter buffer appears to be unbridled. If a packet of data is lost in transit across the Internet the software on each end of the connection will sometimes re-transmit the data and delay sending the audio to your ear a bit so that if another packet is lost it will have time to try again before you notice. This results in a small delay in the time it takes for your voice to reach the other end of the conversation. The BPG-510 (or perhaps it's Packet8's servers at fault, who knows) is willing to extend this jitter buffer as long as 6 seconds (maybe longer!). I discovered this when I tried to call my parents and got their answering machine. They use Qwest which has a nice voice mail system that knows to discard silence. One side-effect of this feature is that if you don't say anything it will notice and say something like, "I'm sorry, I didn't get that, are you still there?" After trying a couple of times I called my cell phone to talk to myself about it. When I said, "Hello," into both phones it was about 5 or 6 seconds before I heard my voice on one side. Not acceptable. I'd rather it drop a few packets here and there than make it sound like I'm not paying attention.

The Service

There are a couple of problems with their service.

First, It's completely closed. There's no way anyone could call my phone for free by using SIP instead of dialing my number normally, nor is there any way I could register my own soft-phone and use my phone from work or away (without bringing the ATA with me). I know that doesn't matter to most of you but it matters to me.

Second, the voice-mail system sucks. It does fun things like tell you how you can go to the next message when there isn't a next message. It's not terribly hard to build a smart voice-mail system, I think I can expect better.

Third, the registration timeout is way way too long. Normally this isn't a problem but I ran into an interesting problem that shows how this can bite you. What happens is that if you unplug the device and put it somewhere else network-wise (so that it has a different address) the device will not be able to register itself and you won't have service until it their servers time out on your registration. I'm not saying this is entirely unreasonable but it makes for a really lousy user experience for at least one of their customers.

Fourth, customer support was completely brain-dead on the previous problem. It was loads of fun to try to explain to the guy on the other end of the phone that it doesn't matter at all to the device if I'm on a cable modem, a DSL modem, a T1, or an OC3. As far as the ATA is concerned a network is a network. The guy just couldn't believe me that I had basically a direct Ethernet connection all the way out to the big bad Internet. Kept telling me that I need to get the System Administrator to reboot the router. Yeah, right. A few minutes after I hung up I figured out what their system was doing and managed to get the dumb thing working myself.

Shall I go on?

Fifth, certain ordinary functions of their system just didn't work at all. On their website, for instance, there's a place to look at your call log. This system gave me some error about my account not even being in it's system. In their phone-based menu system, for another example, there's a place where you can change the number of times the system will ring you before it takes you to voice-mail. This didn't work at all -- I had to go to the website again to change that.

But the most aggravating issue I had with Packet8's service is that when my Internet went down (power outage) and I tried to call home (not knowing that the power was out down there too) my cell phone told me, "network not available." This usually indicates a problem with your cell phone service but I was able to make a call to my office phone and then try home again -- same result, "network not available." It seems to me that if the service is unable to contact the ATA it should go to voice mail. Wouldn't you agree?

Conclusions

Many of the problems I list above could actually be a shortcoming in either the ATA or the service -- it's hard to know for sure. One thing is sure though, I'm not using Packet8 and neither should you.

One thing I will grant them is that they didn't actually shut off my phone service when I called to cancel. This is convenient for me (my new ATA has been delayed almost a week! Don't use UPS either.) but it's probably just another example of their inability to manage their own system.

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