The biggest U.S. phone company's Internet-based calling service offers excellent quality and a bevy of features -- though not all are easy to use
A wide range of providers offer voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone services -- from cable companies to stand-alone upstarts such as Vonage. There are so many, in fact, that BusinessWeek Online has embarked on a series of reviews to help you pick the one that suits you best (see BW Online, 12/28/05, "Love, VoIP-Style,"). Verizon (VZ), the biggest U.S. phone company, calls its version VoiceWing. As was the case with AT&T's CallVantage, VoiceWing demonstrates that when it comes to providing VoIP calling, it takes a phone company to do it best.
VoiceWing's call quality was crisp and clear -- better, in fact, than that of my Verizon land line. And the features that come with VoiceWing are supercool, though I did experience a few glitches when using some of them.
Before I delve into the nitty-gritty of the service, let me mention one simple but important capability that won me over. It has to do with dialing 911.
Most VoIP services now let you reach 911, but they often don't keep track of address changes when you move. As a result, your call may not be directed to the closest emergency call center.
Not so with Verizon's service. Every fifth time or so when you log into your account online, the company prompts you to verify and update your physical address. That helps Verizon route your 911 calls to your local emergency call center. I salute this extra effort into making users safer.
To use the service, I had to install a Linksys phone adapter Verizon sent me. The device is the size of two cigarette boxes, far daintier than the other adapters I've tried, most of which are 5 to 10 times larger. In all, setup took about two hours, including online registration of the adapter and calls to tech support. That's pretty typical for VoIP service.
The VoiceWing Web site is filled with useful information, displayed in a convenient dashboard fashion. All at once, the page allowed me to view a list of calls I had made and received, check my bill, manage features and listen to voice mails left on my VoiceWing phone. I could also place a call directly from the Web page, by typing the number into a window.
Verizon also offers some nice call management functions that few other VoIP services provide. For instance, I could go into the VoiceWing Web site's features section and block all international calls. That can come in handy if you are worried that your toddler who loves to press buttons is going to inadvertently call Bulgaria.
Bear in mind, though, that VoiceWing also doesn't let you make or accept collect calls or dial numbers starting with 900. It's not clear why. Perhaps Verizon is intent on policing adults as well as children.
CONTROL YOUR CALLS.
VoiceWing has some other interesting features. For one, the service is portable. You can take your adapter on a trip, plug it into a broadband connection, and receive calls to your home number right there. Not all VoIP services offer that.
VoiceWing also offers a unique twist on typical features such as call forwarding. Scheduled Call Forwarding is an easy way to pre-set days and times when you want calls forwarded to another number such as your cell phone.
I also fancied VoiceWing's Do Not Disturb and Incoming Call Block features. I set up blocking so that all calls from certain numbers would be sent directly to voice mail. I could also create a list of numbers that were able to reach me even when I activated Do Not Disturb, which sent all other callers directly to voice mail.
LOOK IT UP.
What made me particularly grateful was being able to access a phone directory right from the online dashboard. You can also do a search for an area code or country code.
Another helpful tool, accessible from the dashboard, is your address book. It lets you customize by adding or deleting fields of contact information, such as fax numbers.
VoiceWing also has a capability that many other VoIP outfits lack: After you've listened to a voice mail online, you can download it or forward it as an e-mail attachment (Imagine the voice mail messages soon to make the rounds on the Internet).
Of course, some features offered by VoiceWing were disappointing. The address book let me import contacts from my personal e-mail and address book applications, but this function wasn't easy to use. When I hit an "import contacts" option, I ended up staring at a list of all the files on my desktop. Other VoIP services make this task easier to manage.
What's more, Verizon's tech support was less than stellar. When I hit a snag with Schedule Call Back -- a feature that allows you to schedule a day and time for your phone to automatically call a certain number -- I waited patiently for 20 minutes for a tech support rep to pick up, but then my call was dropped.
When I called back, a rep picked up after just five minutes but didn't even seem to know what Schedule Call Back was. She put me on hold, saying she would ask around. Five minutes later, she popped in again, only to ask me where the feature was listed on the Verizon Web site.
VOICING SOME CONCERNS.
A couple of other beefs: Voice mail wasn't as good as some other services. First, I couldn't record my voice mail greeting through the Web site (some other services let you click on a link, and your phone rings and guides you through the recording process). Second, VoiceWing can send you e-mail notifications that a new voice mail had just arrived, but it doesn't send the actual voice mail to you in an e-mail attachment, as many services do.
Finally, a note of caution: During my trial, Verizon VoiceWing service experienced a two-hour outage. However, because VoIP runs over the Internet, such outages, a blight of all VoIP service providers, seem to be quite common.
In the final analysis, these hiccups are a minor inconvenience for a service that when fully set up, appears ready to take off.