So Long, AT&T CallVantage, I Will Miss You

By Daniel A. Begun

A dirty little secret for anyone who ever called me on my home phone or for anyone that I called from my home phone, is that my home phone is actually not a landline--nor has it been for a few years now. My home phone is actually VoIP-based--through AT&T CallVantage. I had the opportunity to test all of the major consumer VoIP services when they first started rolling out in the early to mid 2000's, and I found that AT&T CallVantage had the best mix of performance and features. It wasn't the cheapest--but it was still a lot less expensive than traditional landline-based local and long-distance phone service. I was nevertheless impressed, and I chose to eschew my landline for an AT&T CallVantage VoIP line.

What I gained in features (such as voicemail alerts via e-mail) and a lowered phone bill, however, I gave up in terms of reliability. Not that I had any major problems with the CallVantage service--it was nearly always reliable. I can remember only one CallVantage service outage, and I've had to reboot the Telephone Adapter (TA) probably only about a half-dozen times in the three or so years I've had it (yes, I concede that you don't ever have to reboot a landline phone). No, the problem is that it is dependant on my broadband connection, which has unfortunately been less than reliable over the years. When my broadband connection goes out, so does my phone service. When I lived in East Brunswick, New Jersey, every time it rained (and it rained a lot in East Brunswick), my broadband connection would get wonky. My broadband connection is better where I live now (in Jersey City, New Jersey), but I still experience the occasional service outage. Also, if I was ever to lose power (and it has happened once), I would also lose my VoIP phone service as both my broadband modem and TA require AC power.

Most regular users of VoIP services are all-too familiar with these limitations. In addition to reliance on a broadband connection and requiring constant external power, VoIP services don't provide the same 911 services that landlines do. When you call 911 from a landline, the call is automatically routed to the nearest (or most appropriate) 911 call center, and the specific location (i.e., the address) of where the call is coming from as well as your phone number typically appear on the 911 operator's screen. VoIP phone services are IP-based and can essentially be used from anywhere they have access to a broadband Internet connection. By law, all VoIP providers are required to provide 911 access; but they can only do this if the user has manually provided the address where the TA is connected (this is one reason why it is easy for VoIP calls to spoof their real locations). But even if your registered address is correct, there is no guarantee that your VoIP provider will connect a 911 call to your local 911 dispatcher. Some VoIP providers route 911 calls to regional or non-emergency call centers, where neither your phone number (so they can call you back if necessary) nor address are automatically provided to them.

All these limitations add up to the general admonition that VoIP is a great alternative as a second phone line, but not necessarily the best choice as your primary (or only) phone. Of course, if you have a mobile phone as well, you can always use that as a backup when your broadband connection or power might fail--although that doesn't necessarily solve the 911 issue.

As an early adopter and one willing to deal with the occasional technical headache (us early adopters call them "challenges"), I have been very happy with CallVanatge, despite these limitations. (My wife, on the other hand, keeps asking me when are going to switch back over to a landline.)

So imagine my heartbreak (as well as my wife's potential vindication) when I opened a letter from AT&T, marked "An Important message about your AT&T CallVantage service," which informed me that "AT&T will be discontinuing AT&T CallVantage service in 2009." I should have seen it coming, as other VoIP providers, such as NetZero Voice, AOL Internet Phone Service, and Verizon VoiceWing have bitten the dust, as well as other consumer VoIP providers re-shaping their companies to instead provide SIP-based telecommunication solutions for businesses. In fact, AT&T stopped accepting new CallVantage customers last August.

I decided to give the public relations folks over AT&T a call to get a better idea as to why they were doing this. It turns out I called on the day before AT&T was scheduled to deliver its 2009, first-quarter earnings report, and as could be expected, they were a little busy. Oops... My bad. But even though they had much bigger fish to fry than me, I did get a call back from an AT&T spokesperson later in the day. She explained that there are basically two primary factors driving AT&T's decision. The first is simply that AT&T has been seeing a dwindling interest in the CallVantage service. The second is that AT&T is more interested in focusing its efforts on its other growing services, such as its U-verse service (which happens to also offer a VoIP-based phone solution).

It's not that VoIP is endangered--in fact, it is still actively penetrating the mainstream, and likely to eventually outpace traditional landlines in U.S. homes; it's just that the paradigm has changed and most folks are now getting their home VoIP services bundled with other services, such as AT&T's own U-verse service, Verizon's FIOS service, or Time Warner Cable's Triple Play. The AT&T spokesperson told me that of the remaining 48,000 CallVantage customers, about 25-percent of them are eligible for the U-verse service.

Unfortunately, of the 14 states that U-verse is available in, New Jersey is not one of them--so that will not be an option for me. I have a little bit of time to decide what I want to do about the future of my home phone service. The AT&T spokesperson explained that the letter I received was only the first notice about the discontinuation of service to all CallVantage customers and that the actual disconnects will happen over the course of six phases over the coming months until everyone is eventually disconnected in December. Customers will receive mailed notices eight weeks and again at four weeks before their service is scheduled to end. A CallVantage phone support agent told me that there will also be e-mail and voicemail reminders as it gets even closer to a customer's disconnection date.

I inquired about number portability and the AT&T spokesperson told me that "CallVantage customers can keep their number if they switch to another AT&T service." The CallVantage phone support agent additionally told me that AT&T will also support my bringing my number over to other, non-AT&T-based service providers as well, but there is no guarantee that these other service providers will comply. Unlike traditional landline (POTS) phone numbers, VoIP numbers are not required by law to be portable.

I'm trying to be cost-conscious these days--after all, we are in a recession and I am a freelance technology journalist (which, believe it or not, is not exactly the highest-paid profession). So, plunking down the money for a landline--which includes local service and a long-distance plan--is not an option (apologies in advance to the wife). I'm deciding between Vonage and Comcast's Digital Voice Service (Comcast is my broadband and cable TV provider). Ultimately, I will probably choose whichever can transfer my current number and offer the best price. (Yes, I know Vonage is cheaper, but I might get a better overall deal with my cable and broadband if I choose one of Comcast's bundles.)

Some of you might be thinking that Skype could be an inexpensive alternative, especially since there are a variety of wired and wireless Skype phone options that don't require the use of a computer. I actually use Skype as my dedicated business line. I pay $2.95 per month for an unlimited US & Canada subscription, and another $18 per three months for an online number. This includes voicemail, Caller ID, and call forwarding. As far as anyone I call or anyone who calls me on my work line is concerned, they think I'm on a regular landline, when in fact, I'm tethered to my PC with a USB headset. However, after hours when my PC is off, if I need to make business calls, I use a Netgear WiFi phone (no computer needed, just a Wi-Fi connection). Typically, connection quality is very good, but I have experienced a small handful of instances where the person on the other end couldn't hear me. Perhaps the only reason why I'm not willing to commit to Skype for my home line as well is that Skype does not support 911 calls. Skype is upfront about this and suggests that people use Skype as a supplement to their home phones and not as a replacement. (A little full disclosure here: I used to consult on the Skype account with the company that does the PR for Skype.)

So that is the short story made long of my sad tale of the pending demise of the AT&T CallVantage service. In some weird, twisted way, I feel like I'm losing a friend. Goodbye, CallVantage, I will miss you.