VoIP quiz: How many minutes in an "unlimited" plan?

One thing I've learned in this business is that all you can eat pricing plans often have limits. So I was curious as to whether "unlimited" and "free" calling plans from VoIP providers really have any sort of hidden caps. As Bill Clinton, might say, it depends on what you mean by "unlimited." Make sure you read the fine print.

Is there a catch in the fine print stating that you can't go over a certain number of minutes per month? I checked on that with four vendors. Better to know before you sign up than after you receive your first bill, right? I asked each: If I call using your service and use the line 24 x 7 x 30 days per month, is that still included under "unlimited" or "free" service? Here's what they said.

  • Magic Jack - Magic Jack, a USB-based adapter that plugs into a personal computer with broadband access, costs $40 to get started and $20 a year thereafter for unlimited calling in the U.S. Magic Jack has some pros and cons you need to know about but the biggest limitation is that it's tethered to a computer that must remain on at all times. Two users reported that they had calls terminate after about one hour. Is there a time limit? Magic Jack says no. Is there a limit to the number of minutes? No, a customer service rep says. You can stay on the phone 24 x 7 all month and call anyone in the U.S. or Canada.
  • Comcast - As part of a triple-play package I have Digital Voice on one line, which is unlimited. Really? I couldn't find any terms and conditions on the Web site so I called customer support and reached Brad. He says there are no terms and conditions because there's no contract commitment for service. OK, but is there a limit on calling? No. Unlimited means unlimited, he says. Talk 24 x 7 if you want. Your bill won't change.
  • Vonage - I'm also testing Vonage's voice over IP service. It offers unlimited residential calling for $24.99 per month. I was assured by Vonage's call center sales rep that there were no limits to usage when I called to sign up. Then I noticed an asterisk on the Web site after the $24.99 price. At the bottom of the screen a terms and conditions summary defined "unlimited" as "normal use." To find out what that meant I had to go to the terms and conditions page and scroll down through some rather dense passages to find what I was looking for. For the record, "normal use" is defined as less than 5,000 minutes per line per month. After that Vonage may enforce a mandatory upgrade to a higher priced plan, or suspend or discontinue your service. I suspect this condition is in place because Vonage also offers a higher priced business plan. While I hope to I never have to spend 83 hours on the phone in any given month (even teenagers these days would rather text than gab), technically speaking this is not an unlimited plan. 
  • Ooma -Ooma offers "free" VoIP services when you buy a hardware device from the company for $200. (My colleague Preston Gralla recently reviewed the Ooma device for Computerworld). "Plug your high-speed Internet and existing home phone into Ooma and call anywhere in the US for free." But is it unlimited? In this case Ooma's free service includes no more than 3,000 minutes [50 hours] of outbound calling per month. According to an Ooma FAQ: "Like all other 'unlimited services,' such as cell phone data plans and other VoIP services, we do have a limit of 3,000 minutes per month (for outbound calling) that we can enforce on a case-by-case basis in the event that a subscriber is clearly abusing the service (i.e. call centers, commercial purposes, etc.)."  But, it coos reassuringly, "We have never terminated a customer that has used the service for residential purposes." How long, exactly, is "never?" The venture-funded startup launched its product about two years ago.

Marketing rep Rich Buchanan Tweets that the 3K limit is "only enforced to prevent call centers from using the product" and that Ooma has terminated service for some businesses that were exceeding 10,000 minutes per month. Overall, he says, less than .2% of customers "occassionally exceed the limit."

Ooma doesn't use the word "unlimited" in its marketing message, but the "free" calling description on the home page might lead buyers to conclude that all dialing to US-based phone numbers is free. What is free and what is not is detailed in an FAQ, but if the consumer doesn't read that before buying and registering the $200 device they could, theoretically, run into problems.

In Vonage's case it's a bit disingenuous to imply that service is unlimited when it's not - even when the cap, at 80 hours of calling - is pretty high. At an all you can eat buffet there will always be folks who belly up to the bar for more than you bargained for. Those are the ones who will complain the loudest, and turn off other customers.

I applaud the fact that Vonage puts an abbreviated terms and conditions summary right up front. But I'd like to see Vonage either make good on its "unlimited minutes" claim or modify it. While the slogan "Up to 5,000 minutes per month for only $24.99 per month plan" doesn't have the same marketing ring to it as "Residential Premium Unlimited Plan," it's more truthful. These days, truthfulness - and good customer service - go a long way toward building customer loyalty.

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