You've got voice mail! " Yes, that slow-moving behemoth America Online has jumped into the new world of online phone calls. AOL Internet Phone Service...

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You’ve got voice mail!”

Yes, that slow-moving behemoth America Online has jumped into the new world of online phone calls.

AOL Internet Phone Service, introduced April 7, is exactly what you’d expect: not the best bargain or the most sophisticated set of features, but carefully designed to appeal to heavy AOL users.

Internet phone service or VoIP — short for Voice over Internet Protocol — is exploding, with an estimated 1 million home users signed up in little more than two years.

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Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Several established VoIP providers offer unlimited calls throughout the United States and Canada for $20 to $30 a month, about half the going rate from conventional phone companies such as SBC and Verizon.

If you’re confused about VoIP, don’t feel bad; the underlying technology is complex. Here’s a greatly simplified overview:


Old school



Regular home phones connect through copper wires and require complicated switching centers to complete calls.


New school



VoIP sends phone calls through the Internet, greatly reducing the cost, and connects to copper wires at the other end of the call.


Regular home phones connect through copper wires and require complicated switching centers to complete calls. VoIP sends phone calls through the Internet, greatly reducing the cost, and connects to copper wires at the other end of the call.

You need broadband Internet service, such as a DSL line or cable modem for VoIP. It won’t work through a dial-up connection.

Unlike computer-to-computer voice chat, which has been around for years and is gaining popularity through a free service called Skype (www.skype.com), VoIP uses regular phones at both ends of the call. Once you’ve set up VoIP service, in other words, you’ll never notice you aren’t using the traditional phone network.

The biggest independent VoIP providers are Vonage (www.vonage.com), AT&T CallVantage (www.callvantage.com), Packet8 (www.packet8.net) and Lingo (www.lingo.com).

Broadband providers themselves are getting into the act. Several cable companies offer VoIP along with cable modems; Comcast is rolling out a VoIP service called Digital Voice.

Phone companies, too, are beginning to provide VoIP along with DSL, even though it undercuts their conventional phone business, including Verizon with a service called VoiceWing (www.voicewing.com).

AOL Internet Phone Service, or IPS, stands out only because it has such a big captive audience among AOL’s 22 million U.S. subscribers. More information on IPS is available on the Web (www.aol.com/product/voip.adp) or at AOL keyword Internet Phone Service.

Service is available in most big metropolitan areas, including Seattle.

There are four IPS options, the first three of which require an existing AOL account:

$29.99 a month for unlimited calls in the United States and Canada.

$18.99 a month for unlimited regional calls, with long-distance calls in the United States and Canada at 4 cents a minute.

$34.99 a month for unlimited U.S. and Canadian calls with reduced international rates. Country-by-country specifics on those reduced rates are listed online (www.aolcallways.com/intrates.adp).

$39.99 a month for first-time AOL subscribers, who get unlimited U.S. and Canadian calls along with unlimited AOL access via broadband. This is $5 a month less than current members would pay for the equivalent $29.99 plan, because AOL broadband access otherwise costs $14.95 a month.

The first three options are discounted by $5 a month for the first three months; the fourth option is discounted $10 a month for six months.

AOL sends IPS subscribers a small box, a telephone adapter, from Linksys or a wireless router with a built-in telephone adapter from Netgear. You can plug any regular corded or cordless phone into the adapter to make and receive calls.

There’s a $5 hardware charge, which AOL is waiving for now.

There’s also a shipping fee of $9.95, and a $50 penalty if you cancel IPS within the first six months.

One final gotcha: All subscribers are charged $30 upfront as a reserve for extra charges, such as international calls.

You either get a new phone number in your area code, or — in most of the country — have the option of transferring your current home number.

AOL has made arrangements in many areas for 911 calls from IPS to display the caller’s home address, crucial in an emergency. However, you need to know that, unlike conventional phones, no VoIP service works during a power failure.

If that’s a concern, I recommend using VoIP only for a second home-phone line, or keeping a cellphone handy for emergency calls during blackouts.

I tried IPS in my home office and found it easy to set up, following a clearly worded quick-start guide, in about 20 minutes. If you’ve already got a home router, the telephone adapter plugs into any available port.

If you don’t have a router, the adapter is connected between your cable or DSL modem and your computer.

In several hours of IPS calls spread over several days, audio quality was excellent.

When you’re signed on to AOL, you can open up an IPS “Dashboard” page that shows a log of recent incoming and outgoing calls, displays names and numbers from your AOL address book and flashes an alert on the screen for incoming calls.

The alert shows Caller ID info and gives you the option of sending the call directly to voice mail.

You can also listen to voice-mail messages online or opt to have the messages sent to you as sound files attached to e-mail.

On the coming-soon list for IPS is a very convenient VoIP feature: simultaneous ring, which AOL will call “Find Me.” You designate a list of phone numbers that all ring when a call comes to your VoIP number.

I’ve been using AT&T CallVantage in my home office for six months, and calls to that number also ring my cellphone and my office phone, so I get important calls wherever I am.

I would recommend IPS to current AOL subscribers with broadband.

Everyone else will get a better deal, and more features for now, with a competing service that doesn’t require spending $10 a month or more for AOL service.