It's funny how some experiences give you a satisfaction that's
disproportionately large compared with the overall benefit you derive from
them – such as the implicit "fuck you" to
MCI as I replaced them as my long distance
phone service provider last week.
So what was so bad about MCI? I'd originally gone with them as a replacement for
AT&T, because they had far better international
rates to England, assuming I coughed up a low monthly fee. But over a couple of
years they ended up being bad value for money; slowly and silently raising
monthly fees, introducing fees for features that had previously been free,
adding fees for things that took two or three paragraphs of small print to
explain, all without any improvement in the service they were offering. I
won't miss them.
I switched to Pioneer Telephone,
a resale carrier operating over Global Crossing's network. Maybe I'll be cursing
at them in the months to come, but for now they offer long distance and local
toll service that is going to save me a bundle compared to what I used to pay
MCI and SBC.
I still pay SBC for my local connection to the phone network, but not for
anything else. A few people I know have recently dumped SBC and switched to
Voice over IP (VoIP), a technology that
seems to have been threatening to break out for the past six years and has now
finally arrived in the consumer marketplace. I've thought about switching to
VoIP but like many new (and cool) technologies, I don't think it's quite ready
for prime time.
The first reason is one of cost, which is the primary argument used by most of
the VoIP providers in marketing their product. It's true you can save a bundle
on the traditional services offered by the likes of SBC, MCI, AT&T, etc. But
there are far better deals to be had than those companies currently offer, such
as those offered by resale carriers such as Pioneer. For me personally, there
is little to be saved by switching to VoIP; I'd need to make far more long
distance and local toll calls than I currently do for most vendors' VoIP
packages to lower my monthly cost.
As for international rates, my calls to England using
BigZoo cost me at least 30% less than the
rates VoIP providers currently offer – in some cases it's closer to 60%
less. BigZoo loses slightly in convenience; it's a pre-pay service that requires
you to load an account via the Web. You also have to dial an access number and
enter a PIN each time you call. But those are easily dealt with by use of speed
dial buttons on your phone. I can also access the same service from my
cellphone, so I call internationally for the same price I do when using my
landline at home.
The second shortcoming of VoIP is availability. I live in California and,
despite this state being at the forefront of technological development, the
electricity supply round here seems a good deal less reliable than other places
I've lived, such as England. The most recent power outage I experienced was
preceded by a loud explosion as a goose flew into a pole-mounted transformer
near my house. My computers, router and cable modem went down – I assume
the goose did too – but my landline phone service stayed up, so I could
call the power company.
In fairness, the same goose that wiped out my electricity supply could easily
have wiped out my phone service, which in some cases is strung along the same
poles. But the point is that the phone service has some redundancy that is
currently absent from the VoIP infrastructure. Phone power rarely goes down when
there's a local power outage, but with VoIP, you'd be hosed unless your
broadband modem, VoIP phone adapter and your broadband provider's local
infrastructure are all protected by some form of uninterruptible power supply.
Of course, there's always cellphone service, which would likely remain available
when the local power goes out. (In fact, my cellphone service plan, which
includes free long distance among other things, is one reason why my monthly
spend on long distance is not sufficient to justify a switch to VoIP.) But
cellphone coverage isn't stellar in my area, which is surprising, considering
I live in the Bay Area, one of the most heavily populated metropolitan areas in
the United States. But that's the way it currently is.
So for now I'm sticking with legacy phone service. I do use VoIP occasionally by
means of Skype; it's useful for calling
people when I'm sat at my computer (and their international rates are about
the same as BigZoo's). I'll transition to VoIP when the cost and availability
make it worth my while.