Saturday, January 28, 2006

More fun with VOIP

My attitude about my work has always been "If this were simple, they wouldn't pay me as much to do it." I'm not afraid of technology, but I'm in the technology BUSINESS, and understand that for the business to be successful, technology you're selling to consumers SHOULD be pretty straightforward, and the business needs to be well-run.

For the most part VOIP is pretty transparent to the user on the technology side, but these companies need to work on the business side. In the previous article you see that I was spitting and fuming about a company that didn't bother to hint to me they weren't selling anything until after I went through their entire sign-up process. I gave another company a try, Packet8. I set my mom up with this service 6 months ago, and if it works well for her you KNOW the technology part is transparent, she just wants to pick up the phone and dial.

My adapter is a different piece of hardware from my mom's, and my network setup is slightly different (but about 4x the throughput she has available.) I didn't expect to have any problems, but wasn't too happy about giving up some of the geeky features that appealed to me on other services. Still, the point was the telephone calls, right?

Well, the service that's been so reliable for my mom just isn't serving me well. I have a problem where the inbound audio drops and the line indicator on the VOIP adapter blinks like mad. Typical first-line tech support personnel blamed it all on the way I'd set the thing up, advised a number of changes that didn't really change anything. For example, they weren't satisfied that I had set my router's DHCP server to serve up a static IP to their device's MAC address, they wanted me to login to their device and set a static IP in it. Okay, sure, I'll do it to get past to you to 2nd-tier support... they were surprised I'd put it on the DMZ before they recommended it, and generally skeptical about there being any problem with their service at all. I ended up getting better service by posting a review of my experience on where a Packet8 supervisor stepped in. They shipped another adapter, things got much better and... the problem is still there, just not nearly as frequent.

In the interim I found another interesting company, SunRocket. One of their offerings is an annual service contract for $199, including a free 2-handset cordless phone. Decent features, decent monthly price, and it seemed from the reviews like if your service worked at first, it was going to be fine. I went for it (or perhaps "fell for it" would be more accurate. Fill out the order, get the stuff after a few days, everything works, this is great! 2 inbound numbers, each with its own voicemail, distinctive ring, call groups, etc. What's the catch? Fast forward a week, I find an email saying they've turned off my service! Turns out that just because they say the can provide E911 at the address I listed when I signed up, they can't, and it took them 10 days to figure that out. No warning, no negotiating, just turn it off and send the email. Their email didn't even indicate their intention to refund my money! Apparently they don't do that part until the next day... I called and complained and they assured me they were refunding my money. To their credit, they didn't even want me to return the hardware, they just refunded the money and left it at that.

Okay, so I guess I'll try to do the Packet8 thing... by now they're serious about resolving the issue. They had cross-shipped a new adapter and asked me if I'd help with troubleshooting by packet-sniffing the adapter's traffic while making calls and setting it up. Still, meager features and dropped calls don't make me feel great about their service.

Now, to close the circle, my neighbor talks to Voicepulse and they claim to be taking new orders. Here we go again... I placed the order last night, we'll see how THAT goes!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

VOIP shenanigans (geeky but no gears)

Okay, I've decided to give VOIP service a try. My work is long distance from my house (in fact nearly any number I regularly call is long distance from my house) and let's face it, VOIP is appealingly geeky. I looked at the features and services offered by various providers and decided that one a neighbor uses has the best combination of features and value for me. The service is called Voicepulse, and they sure talk a good game.

They offer cool features like hunt groups, simultaneous ringing of multiple phones, etc. You can access your service via software on your notebook when away from home (for a small extra fee, but still it's a nice option.) My neighbor reports that their service has been reliable. It just seemed like a no-brainer.

Well, as it turns out, Voicepulse is the no-brain entity. I decided to give them a try, and went to their website to sign up. They make it clear via a page on their site and general descriptions of their service that they don't offer 911 emergency services, but I can deal with that since I have a cell phone and intend to keep my co-op land line with minimal services as a backup and to support the alarm system. So, I press on... filling out several pages of info on their site, putting in contact information, service address, credit card info, etc. I select an easily-memorized number from a list of available numbers in the rate center I chose (another tantalizing nice feature) and get to the final step in the process, clicking a box on a page informing me (yet again) that Voicepulse doesn't offer 911 services but will tell me about it when they do. One more button to click and... I get a message saying that Voicepulse won't sell me service because they don't offer 911 services at my service address.

What? Didn't they just make me confirm that I know they're not going to provide 911 services? Maybe I put something wrong in the address info that they can't figure out? Maybe I could choose another address that's in town so I know they could find it with mapping software? I try that... same results. It's starting to smell a bit fishy.

It turns out that Voicepulse isn't selling new service at all right now. Of course it's all the big bad FCC's fault (never mind the fact that many other VOIP providers are selling new service at the moment, and many of them are providing usable 911 service.) I'm sure the FCC is making it hard on these providers, since the old-line phone companies are pulling the strings, but a) other companies are currently selling new service (I proved this to myself, I ordered VOIP service from a known-good provider) and b) many of these other companies are providing 911 and E911 services.

I spoke to a Voicepulse representative who did confirm that they're not selling ANY new service at all, and don't know when they will be again. Of course, he said it would be "soon" and the delay was entirely because they were waiting for replies from the FCC. When I commented that it might be a good idea to announce that BEFORE potential customers spend 20 minutes filling out information on their site only to be told that they couldn't buy anything, he said that "had been discussed in meetings and it was decided to put the message where it is because that's where the 911 disclaimer already was in the ordering process." I suggested that he start looking at the help-wanted ads, because I didn't think an inbound phone sales rep was going to have a job very long at a company that isn't selling anything, and it couldn't be satisfying to answer calls from irritated potential customers all day.

So, I'm going to give Packet8 a try and see if they ever introduce their "coming soon" features that will make them ALMOST as good as Voicepulse WOULD be, if anyone could buy their service.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Car and Driver's "Everyday Heroes": How do they pick these things?

I'm torn... Car and Driver is my favorite automotive publication, and my Subaru Legacy GT is my favorite of all the cars I've ever owned, and was my favorite of all the cars I compared it with. In the February '06 issue, Car and Driver seems to have forgotten that the Legacy GT exists. It's like having your two best friends hate each other and trying to keep them both happy.

So Car and Driver's Tony Swan writes a comparison test article entitled "Everyday Heroes" in which they're supposed to be comparing cars for those automotive enthusiasts who, like me, can't afford to have a practical car AND a sports car, so we look for a good compromise. They seemed to have a pretty good program, requiring sporty sedans with manual transmissions and a base price under $30k. They included in the test the Acura TSX, Honda Accord EX V6, Mazdaspeed 6, Pontiac GTP and VW Jetta GLI. They explicitly stated that they couldn't get a suitably-equipped 325i or A4 under the $30k cap so they excluded those.

The Legacy GT Limited sedan lists with Edmunds at $29,420 including destination charge with a 5spd, and has more horsepower and torque than all of the cars in the comparison save the Mazda. It's AWD and quite sporty, and seems to lack none of the required elements in their comparison. As I wrote to them, perhaps it's like when they picked the defective 3-series as a comparison winner against a field of fully-functional cars last October, they simply reject our reality and substitute their own.

Note that I'm not bitching that the Legacy didn't WIN, I'm complaining that it wasn't included in the test. The win is a subjective thing in the final reckoning, even though they consider objective parameters as well (how else would a BMW with a defective braking system win?) Still, it seems strange to exclude a mainstream competitor that fits in quite well with the other cars tested.

2 Jan 2006
Ah, details... a careful re-reading of the article found a comment indicating that any car that had been in a similar comparison but wasn't the winner wouldn't be included. So, the underpowered TSX won last year's comparison and gets a chance to lose this year. I suppose they have to draw the line somewhere, but I could've told them to skip the G6, it wasn't going to win anything.