Saturday, June 23, 2007

Is VoIP Really the Answer?

A couple of years ago many people believed that VoIP was the answer to low cost phone service for average consumers. It was thought to be the ultimate solution combining low cost home phone service with cheap domestic and international long distance. For some it has worked as intended but for others it has not been the ultimate solution. VoIP is still plagued with issues such as reliability, call quality and VoIP blocking.

Are international rates really cheap with VoIP? We reviewed international rates offered by several VoIP service providers and found their rates to be competitive to some locations and extremely expensive to others when compared to high quality prepaid calling products such as phone cards. Take Vonage for example, their international rates to Europe and a few other destinations are competitive while rates to Russia (7 to 12 cents/minute), India (17 cents/minute), Brazil (8-9 cents/minute), Mexico (12 cents/minute), Australia (5 cents/minute) and other destinations are easy to beat. It seems that many people who use VoIP to make international calls care more about convenience than saving money.

Call quality has been another issue with VoIP. Some people have found that the call quality with their VoIP phone system is excellent while others found it so bad that they removed the service and went back to a traditional land line. We use a VoIP phone and have talked with many users about their experience with VoIP. We have found that VoIP call quality seems to vary with between ISP providers, locations called and other factors such as INTERNET traffic. On some days our call quality is crystal clear while on other days the quality is acceptable but not great. We still use VoIP but it is not our primary phone and we rarely use it for international calls.

VoIP phone service is also less reliable than traditional land lines and is not convenient for travelers. A VoIP phone will not work if the INTERNET connection is down and this happens often in some locations. Many companies have touted VoIP as a phone that travels but it is not very practical for most travelers. First, a high speed INTERNET connection is needed to make and receive calls and, secondly, a user would need to travel with a modem and a phone in order to use the service. International Phone Cards are a much more convenient option used by most travelers.

VoIP blocking is also becoming more common. This has happened in the USA where an ISP blocks calls made with a VoIP Phone from a third party or, in some cases, they just degrade call quality. However, the real problem is overseas where countries that still have monopoly, state controlled telephone companies are tired of losing revenue. Take Saudi Arabia for example, Saudi Telecom uses software from USA supplier Narus to block all VoIP calls. It has also been reported that Narus has supplied VoIP blocking technology to Shanghai Telecom Co. in China and others. VoIP blocking has become more common as VoIP Phone Service has become more popular. This trend will likely continue.

For some consumers VoIP is the ultimate phone solution but for most it is one of several solutions for reducing the cost of phone service. We think VoIP is a good option as a second phone if the user already has a high speed INTERNET connection and another, more reliable form of service.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reliance India Call - Calling India

Reliance India Call has been a very popular product for making low cost international calls to India for the past 2 or 3 years. We have heard many good things about their product from users and thought we would take a look to see what Reliance has to offer. To be fair, it appears they have a very good product that is competitively priced. They offer either a prepaid product with no monthly fee or a post paid product that charges a fee of $1.95 per month. We know the call quality is good and the rate to India is 7.4 to 7.9 cents per-minute (USA to India) with one minute rounding, a toll free access number and all fees except taxes. This is a good rate to India with toll free access. The rates to other countries also appear to be good. They are more typical but one needs to consider that they include all fees (except taxes) and toll free access. When all of this is considered the rates are good and, in most cases, hard to beat for high quality service.

We know of one product that is a little more competitive on calls to India. This is the Golden Lotus phone card. It is a high quality phone card that offers PIN free dialing, on-line call history and other features. Using the Golden Lotus Card the rate to India from the USA ranges from 4.2 to 4.8 cents per-minute with 3 minute rounding. However, this needs to be adjusted in order to compare it directly with the Reliance prepaid calling plan. Golden Lotus also charges an extra 25% in fees and taxes and 1 cent per-minute for toll free access. Therefore, including all fees and toll free access the Golden Lotus rate from the USA to India is 6.25 to 7 cents per-minute. About 15% cheaper than Reliance but probably not worth changing for users who are happy with Reliance service. Golden Lotus does have several local access numbers in the USA and for consumers who can use local access the Golden Lotus rate is about 30% cheaper. This is a different story and may be worth a look for those who want to save money on calls to India.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Phone Card Fees: Access Numbers

Most consumers know that they use a phone card by dialing an access number which by-passes the local phone company so they can place their call over a low cost network. What many people do not know is there are both local and toll free access numbers. Access numbers vary between phone cards. Some phone cards will have a wide network of local and toll free access numbers and others offer relatively few local access numbers. Most phone card service providers will charge extra for using a toll free access number. The charge for using a toll free access number also varies between phone card service providers so consumers should note this when shopping for a phone card. In some cases, using a toll free access number is free or it only adds a fraction of a cent per-minute to the cost of a call but in other cases it can add 1, 2 or more cents per-minute to the cost of each call so it can be a significant additional cost. It is used by many merchants as a form of revenue or a hidden cost.

The added fee for using a toll free access number is not charged if the caller uses a local access number. Therefore, consumers who plan to make calls from landlines should shop for phone cards with local access numbers in the areas they plan to call from or use cards that charge a very small fee for using the toll free access number. Some callers should avoid using toll free access numbers unless there is no added charge for using them. For example, people using a phone card to make international calls from cell phones should only use local access numbers since they do not pay extra for making long distance calls and can use a local access number in another city or state if none are available in their local area.

The main thing is for consumers to be aware that all phone cards are not created equal and access number cost and availability is an important feature to consider when shopping for a phone card or other prepaid calling product.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The New Bizon Phone Card

Most people are not aware or often overlook the new Bizon phone card from NTC. It is a high quality phone card that can be used to make low cost domestic and international phone calls from the USA and 13 other countries including Canada and most of Western Europe. The call quality is nearly as high as the AT&T phone card based on recent consumer ratings and, like the AT&T card, the calls are rounded in one minute intervals. It does not have as many access numbers as AT&T but per-minute rates are significantly lower. The per-minute rates may seem high compared to other phone cards but there are no hidden charges except a 15% tax and the quality is high. A caller can get quality similar to AT&T at about one-half the cost with the Bizon card. Consumers who want a phone card for making high quality domestic or international long distance calls in the USA or Western Europe should consider the Bizon card.