Sunday, August 24, 2008

Should I switch to VoIP?

I am fed up with my current telecommunications "solution", as it is riddled with problems and frankly, I feel that it is overpriced. Deregulation of the telephone industry has made everything more expensive. I like competition and feel that we should benefit from it, but really all I see are expensive (and often annoying) ad campaigns combined with confusing marketing packages leaving consumers baffled by choices so that they just pick some phone plan without fully understanding the features and costs, and then when they try to make a change, they find that they are locked into a 3 year contract. When doing some comparison shopping, it is impossible to compare apples to apples, so you just end up going with the company who's commercials annoy you the least.

I have often thought that I'd like to get rid of our land line and just rely on a cell phone. I work from an office all day where I have my own land line (although it startles me when it rings since it happens so seldom), and I don't make that many phone calls on the evenings and weekends, so why have both a cell and land line? Plus, I can supplement the long distance calls with Skype. But, I don't really like talking on a cell phone -- reception is not great and I don't like the ergonomics. I always feel like I'm talking into a tiny spy device that sounds like a tin can, so I haven't made that bold move yet.

My latest telecommunications problem forcing me to make a change is that my voice mail does not work for long distance calls. This is particularly annoying since both our parents live outside our calling area, and all they ever get are three beeps and then it disconnects. I have reported it four times and Rogers still has not fixed it nor followed up with me! I was just going to cancel my voice mail plan and buy a new phone that has a built-in answering machine. We'll save $5 per month and have a "solution" that actually solves the problem. Plus, we need a new cordless phone anyway. But when I was in the store, I saw a Vtech set of two cordless phones that works with Vonage, a local VoIP provider. It was the same price as the other set of phones, BUT it comes with tons of nice features, and the monthly charges are half of my current bill. Humm. Getting away from one of the monolithic telecoms and saving money is very appealing to me.

I had considered going with VoIP three years ago when we moved here because Bell screwed up our order and we were not going to get a land line for 5 weeks. But Dan needed the land line for his job at the time and I could not guarantee that the VoIP line would be reliable. With all the other decisions that need to be made when you've moving to a new house, deciding on a new tele technology was just too much. So we did what Bell recommended and went with the competition. Rogers was happy to set us up with a land line in the newly created 647 area code and has been charging us about $45 a month for it ever since.

Yesterday I did a live chat with a Vonage rep and found out that I can get 500 minutes of long distance plus all the call features (voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, phone messages emailed to you, you can retrieve your message anywhere that there is an internet connection, etc.) for $19.95 per month. That includes the 911 charge and there is no additional charge for system access, etc. Plus, I can still use my fax machine on occasion without issue. So, it seems like I'm ready to take the plunge but a few questions remain:
  1. Which service provider should I use? Vonage sounds like the most established but there are plenty of others that I don't know about. My friend Andrew uses so I should look into that. Does anybody have any suggestions for me?

  2. Should I use my old analog phones with an adapter or buy IP phones? One FAQ that I was reading says that using your existing analog phones saves money but then you don't have all the features like transfer, hold, etc. Since I'm not running a business out of my home, I don't really need those features. I can set the phone on the table if I need to put the call on hold. I just need to know if there is improved reception and service by using the IP phones?

  3. Can I use a mix IP phones and analog phones with adapters? Or if I do go with the IP phones, will my fax machine still work?

  4. Can I set it up so that all my existing jacks and analog phones will work with VoIP? Right now I have Rogers digital home phone, which is VoIP, but at the price of conventional analog phone service. (No wonder they can afford to bring the Buffalo Bills to Toronto and give away $545 tickets to hundreds of people.) The technician set it up so that all the jacks work. Can I just set up the new VoIP system to the existing wiring? Or will I be limited to only one phone in the house? (Or a set of handsets that are grouped to one base unit?)
Hopefully I will find answers to all these questions soon so that our families and out of town friends can start leaving us messages. We were really starting to think that we were no longer message worthy out here in the 647s.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How Bell Canada lost a customer for life - will Rogers be next?

Bell Canada dropped the ball. I tried to stay with them when we moved but they drove us away. I have heard that it costs more money to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing customer, but how much does it cost to drive one away? Bell wastes their money by calling us every 10 days asking what it will take for us to switch back. We always tell them our sad story but unfortunately their script cannot answer our questions nor offer us what we really need to repair this damaged relationship. I often ask them to pass this info onto their supervisors, yet we get the same call again about 10 days later. If there is no feedback loop on the customer acquisition team, how can I trust that they can even provide me with service, when they let me down three years earlier?

Before I moved three years ago, I was a Bell Canada girl all the way -- so was Dan. I was happy with the service and had no intention of changing. So when we moved, I called all my service providers and arranged to take them with me. Days before moving, I thought that maybe we could get a dedicated phone number for Dan's home office and that's when I discovered the problem. Our phone would not be connected until five weeks after we moved due a labour strike and the earlier customer service person gave me the wrong information. If I had not made this call, we would not have learned about this error until the day that we moved. And unfortunately, there was no recourse. I was tempted to kill the landline and go mobile, but Dan needed it for work. Our only landline alternative was to go with the provider of the previous homeowner's telephone provider: Sprint (which had been just bought out by Rogers).

The problem extended into our internet service provider (ISP). We were both with Sympatico DSL provided by Bell and were planning to take it with us too. After being slapped in the face with the five week wait for the Bell landline installation, we found out that we'd have to pay an additional $10/month for our DSL since we would not have Bell as our TSP. And since we didn't cancel with 30 days notice, we'd have to pay for an additional month. They did not offer me a special rate for a few months until I could switch back to Bell. Instead, they told me that my only choice was to cancel Sympatico or pay the higher fee. This was the nail in the coffin for Bell.

Will Bell's current re-branding save them? They have gotten rid of those horrible beaver commercials. They've abandoned all the other brands such as Sympatico. I'm not sure what the blue "er" is all about, but the new print campaigns have an "er" suffix like faster or sexier. Are they implying that they are better? I am not fooled by the crisp and clean aesthetic even if I do like the casting choice in their latest commercials. I'm curious to see what the Teacher's Pension Plan is going to do with Ma Bell after the world's largest leveraged buyout. But I do know that a new ad campaign is not going to pull me back.

Am I happy with Rogers Home Phone? I was until June 2008 when I was told that I had to switch to the Rogers digital home phone or cancel my service. They were forcing me into the arms of the competition. I wanted to keep an analog landline because it will work in a power outage. I guess that we're all frightened after the big blackout in the summer of 2003. I've learned to stock drinking water in the basement, get a solar powered radio, always keep a healthy supply of beer, and keep an old analog phone that will work in case of power outage. But VoIP & Rogers digital phone will not work when the power is out. So I have played it safe and kept the landline. But this aggressive action on Rogers side has made me take a look around and I'm realizing that I'm paying far too much for this service. A traditional VoIP service offers much better features at lower prices. Sure, there may be issues with quality of service, but if I'm paying about 40% of what I'm paying now, it will be worth it. I can supplement the bad times with a cell phone.

It is the lesser of all evils - instead of going with the best, I'm settling for the service that bothers me the least. It makes me wonder that if I'll be looking to switch in another three months or even three years. What new technology will temp with? But will their marketing and advertising turn me off? Only time will tell.

When blogging goes offline

Last week I came home to something very different: fan mail - delivered by Canada Post.

The handwritten envelope was addressed to "Occupant". The only thing that comes handwritten by mail these days are greeting cards, but this was a standard size envelope. Plus, whenever I get a card, the sender usually knows my name! I hesitantly opened the letter, wondering what it could be.

The typed two page letter started out with the words, "you don't know me, but I believe that we have something in common". This heightened my concern, so I quickly scanned the pages, trying to find out what this person wanted. It is terrible that I assume that somebody wants something, but in our accelerated society, people rarely use snail mail for personal greetings (except for my friend Chris, who lives on my street, yet regularly sends me post cards by mail, just to say hi.)

Scanning the letter, I couldn't find the pitch, so I re-read it slowly, enjoying the fact that it was simply a letter full of nostalgia for my neighbourhood. This man had lived on my street in the 50's and his friend lived in my house. He went on to tell me about the way things were back then: collecting green stamps at the mom and pop grocery stores, the listening booths at the original Sam the Record Man location on College Street at Crawford, his friend doing bike deliveries for the old Capp's Pharmacy, going to the Italian barber shops, etc. He fondly remembers the people, the sights and the reassuring sound of the College Street car rounding the curve at Grace Street.

He asked if I had checked out the Toronto Archives website, telling me that there are lots of great resources online. I had already heard that there was a bridge spanning a ravine just south of us, on the north edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park. The bridge is still there, but the ravine was filled in, bringing the street level up to the bridge. It is close to the location of the Trinity Bellwoods farmer's market on Tuesdays. My new pen pal confirmed that this bridge does indeed exist and that there are photos of it online. He also reminded me that Montrose was formerly called Sully Crescent. One of these days, I need to visit the archives.

I'm always surprised when I have comments on my blog from people that I don't know, but I guess that when you put your stories out there, it can happen. I just never expected that I would get snail mail from my blog, but I'm happy that I did. It gives me a whole new perspective on my home and neighbourhood.