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The Pain of the Bleeding Edge

So I have recently pulled the trigger on another emerging technology. Hey, this is the blog of a geek, what do you expect?

So what have I done this time? Xbox 360? Nah, I’ve changed my phone service to Vonage.

For those that don’t know, Vonage is a Voice over IP service that basically promises you better phone rates, both local and long distance. They do this by utilizing the Internet to make phone calls, essentially using “points of presence” where they have phone lines and bridging the intermediate gap using the Internet.

The advantages are obvious. I won’t make claims that it cuts out the big monolithic voice carriers; it doesn’t. Instead they are relegated to a “carrier” role where they provide the lines that feed these points of presence, and in many cases carry Internet traffic in general. So no, Vonage won’t “break you from the tyrrany that is the Baby Bells”.

Anyway, simply put the voice is encoded into IP packets and transferred across publicly available routers and systems to the remote end, where it breaks into a point of presence and can then travel across the “legacy phone lines” to the recipient. Similarly, someone dialing your phone number is connected to the appropriate point of presence (depending on their source), and they then talk to you via Vonage’s own encoding hardware and software, across the Internet and to your home.

It works by putting a small box at your home. This box takes the VoiP signals and converts it to traditional analog signals. Basically the box I have (a Linksys PAP2) breaks a single RJ-45 Ethernet cable into two standard phone jacks… so you don’t need a new phone to make this work. Also, with rebates and stuff the Vonage hardware itself can actually be free. It uses a broadband Internet connection to connect to Vonage’s servers, then Vonage can route the data to your box. This is all pretty much irrelevant to the home user, because if you have a home network with even a basic router you can literally just plug it in, sign up on Vonage’s web site and be running in less than 15 minutes. It’s really that simple.

Or is it? Well, after much experimentation (during which time I was transferring my phone number from SBC to Vonage so I keep the same phone #), I found a few flaws in the system.

First is bandwidth. Not usually a problem with most broadband connections to be honest, but my DSL is 5 years old now, and technology has moved along since I signed up. As a result, I really only had a pretty slow broadband pipe with which to play with… and this very website you’re reading this on is hosted on that pipe along with traffic going out. So, although my line theoretically support VoIP quite well, in practice this turns out not to be the case.

The reason is twofold. Firstly as I mentioned I already use this line to host email, web services and so forth. As a result, the line’s constantly in-use. Even cranked back to minimum quality (optional using Vonage’s web site to control it) the calls will tend to break up and sometimes be almost unintelligible. This happens whenever traffic starts to crank up on your connection… so surfing the web while on the phone can actually cause the problem.

So what’s the solution? Well, here’s where the pain of the bleeding edge comes in which makes Vonage a little less than a “plug and play” solution. I am going to have to change firewall/router to something that will allow me to do QoS on my Internet connection. This means queueing to prioritize traffic across my connection. My thought is that I can then change the priority of my Vonage traffic to take priority over everything else. This in combination with my faster line (which is getting installed soon) should allow me to use Vonage as well as a land line… or at least as well as a cell phone.

Would this be a problem to most people installing Vonage? Actually, no. My problem is simply that my hardware is old; my router is an old D-Link which despite firmware upgrades provides no real low-level control of protocol traffic. Newer routers do provide a much better level of control, and in fact many of them (notably Linksys and “game routers”) actually prioritize VoIP by default. My D-Link can’t, is an unsupported model and cannot really be retrofitted to work better. Besides, the limitations of the unit have really started to irk me lately.

Where to now then? Well, my thought at the moment is to implement a Linux-based router. I want to keep the D-Link since it’s also my wireless access point for my home network. However, I would ideally like to eliminate the firewall portion of it, instead using a Linux box as a highly customizable and infinitely configurable router. I did that before, my router was a Linux box up until about 2.5 years ago when I changed it out; it was a rather pitiful Pentium 133 that finally started to give up the ghost… not due to any severe failure but rather because the hard drives started to die. Having said that, though; I am wondering if it’s worth it to pursue this avenue. This is simply because it might be easier to just invest in a new router.

I will, of course let the readers of my blog know what I did. I must admit I favor the Linux solution… but that’s because I’m a huge geek 🙂

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