Ooma: Does it deliver on call quality?

This week I've been testing Ooma, a voice over IP service that runs over your broadband connection. You pay $250 (or less - shop around) for the box but there's no monthly charge for the basic service after that: All calls within the U.S. are free.

I brought in the device, called an "Ooma Hub" to evaluate call quality. While many people have cancelled their plain old telephone service ("POTS") in favor of cell phones, many others still want a wired phone in the house. VoIP services are cheaper, but do they work as well as the POTS line that your local phone company provides?

In some ways yes, and in some ways no.

The nice thing about POTS is that the telephone network and the telephone service are one and the same. If there's a problem with the phone it's clear who's at fault. With voice over IP offerings you're using a service that runs over your ISP's broadband service and calls are routed through the public Internet. If something goes wrong is it the fault of the broadband ISP or the VoIP telephony service provider? Or is it a problem with the broader Internet itself? You no longer have one throat to choke. And if your Internet service goes out, so does your telephone line.

On the other hand, you pay top dollar for that telco-provided phone line.

Who to blame is less of an issue if your cable company provides both your Internet connectivity and VoIP telephone service. But those services are also more costly than offerings from independent VoIP providers like Vonage and Ooma.

Fortunately, VoIP services appear to work as well or better than traditional land lines when it comes to call quality. I've used a VoIP connection that links my office over the Internet to the telephone switch at Computerworld's headquarters for more than a year without issues. I've tested Vonage for more than a month and had almost no problems with voice quality or dropped calls.

For the past two weeks I've been testing Ooma. I had some questions about Ooma's voice quality after my colleague Preston Gralla experienced call issues with Ooma in his review of the VoIP service earlier this year. Ooma's service has suffered from call quality issues in the past, but last year the company had a management shake up and revamped both its marketing and its service.

Ooma agreed to send me its Ooma Hub for some follow up testing. Over the last two weeks I have used it with nine different telephone hand sets. I used both corded and cordless units, and I used the device in two locations: In one it ran over a Comcast 6 M bit/sec. broadband service; in the other it used a 3 Mbit/sec. DSL connection.

While the sound of the Ooma dial tone is a bit softer than with Vonage or my plain old telephone service, so far I have had just one call quality problem. (That was today: A person on the other end of a call I initiated couldn't hear me when they answered. A second call to the same number was fine).

What that Ooma's fault? There's no way to tell.

Based on what I've heard so far, I don't see voice quality as an issue.

But there are other things to think about before you shell out $250 for an Ooma box. I'll talk more about those next week.

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