Thursday, September 18, 2008

Three Things to Avoid in a VoIP Provider

Like many others, when I set up my first Linux PBX I knew little about VoIP providers and with few sources of reliable, current information, I made a decision based on name recognition, perceived value, and minimal research. Like many others, I looked for companies who advertised a BYOD plan under the false assumption that said companies would have a clue regarding said devices, despite the cautionary warnings which politely explained that BYO, as used here, means “unsupported”. Like many others, I signed up with BroadVoice believing I had a pretty good deal; in fact, among similar plans offered by cable companies and Vonage, BroadVoice compares rather well.

By the time I started to suspect BroadVoice of stockpiling probiscus laden mammals and bleach, I had already paid setup fees and number transfer fees, and chagrined the thought of early termination fees, more number transfer fees, and a potential three to seven week transfer period. Rather than add to the copious corpus of BroadVoice complaints, I thought I'd focus on what to avoid when choosing a VoIP provider.

Customer (Dis)service
In a word, BroadVoice's customer service is atrocious. If I want to feel marginalized and ignored I can go to the Dept. of Motor-- no, on second thought, the DMV has really become much better in this area. BroadVoice's operating principle seem to be protecting it's own interests, even at the expense the customer's. Read the terms and conditions carefully.

One of my more dissatisfying experiences with BroadVoice wasn't actually covered in the terms and conditions I read: to order a second trunk their system required me to create a second account which I found bizarre but acceptable. The trouble I had was when they informed me that in addition to the credit card information I had already submitted on their encrypted website, I was now required (i.e. only for the secand account) to submit copies of my credit card and driver's license via unencrypted e-mail or fax-- in other words, a ready made identity theft kit. When I admonished them to provide some means of secure transfer, I received a response which inexplicably stated:
Please rest assure your information is protected, and locked away. You are in no way at risk of idenity theft as you may think.

Right. Naturally. Sure. (Does your multivitamin include enough irony?)

Number (De)porting
BroadVoice claims that as a service provider they are not governed by FCC local number portability (LNP) rules, which is why their terms & conditions state:
1.10 Number Transfer on Service Termination
BroadVoice may, solely at the Company's discretion, release any telephone number that was ported in to BroadVoice by you and used in connection with your Service to your new service provider, if such new service provider is able to accept such number, upon your termination of the Service, and provided (i) your account has been terminated; (ii) your BroadVoice account is completely current including payment for all charges and disconnect fees; and (iii) you request the transfer upon terminating your account. BroadVoice will not transfer or release telephone numbers that it has assigned for use in conjunction with your Service.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
The 800lb Guerilla at the VoIP party is the unlimited residential plan. To use a more topical phrase, advertising a VoIP plan as having unlimited minutes is a bit like putting lipstick on a pig; someone has clearly tried to make an attractive offer, but it isn't what we are supposed to think it is. Somewhere in the terms & conditions is a section which redefines “unlimited usage” as “normal usage” or some similar distinction, along with the actual number of included minutes as well as overage penalties. In the case of BroadVoice, the overage penalties on an unlimited plan can be quite steep.

In the end, I can give credit to BroadVoice on two significant points; they may be ill prepared, but their recognition of the tech-driven evolution of business models yields a significant advantage over a company like Vonage. While putting on a friendly face with flashy ads, retail deals, and quality customer service, Vonage hamstrung itself with a business model that prohibits technical innovations such as Asterisk by depending on closed systems and customer lock-in. Even if Vonage weren't at the wrong end of a double-barrelled patent infringement lawsuit, the mobile VoIP market would still be a likely refuge for the misfortunate company.

The other laurel is for BroadVoice's cancellation procedure; not the termination fees or the porting issues, but the actual account closure was as simple as a written request via e-maill. Each account was closed within 24 hours of my request and final charges were applied not long after (2 or 3 days as I recall). I consider myself fortunate in not having to suffer through any more customer (dis)service simply to put BroadVoice behind me.