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Hands On

My ooma evaluation unit was configured as a standalone unit, so my existing landline with Verizon was not re-provisioned. Connecting the ooma Hub to my home network took only a matter of a few minutes and in less than a minute after plugging it in, the "ooma" tab glowed a solid blue indicating that ooma was working properly. 

When you pick up the phone with oooma active, you’ll hear a musical ooma dial tone rather than your phone company’s dial tone. You dial long distance calls as though you were on a cell phone—i.e., you don’t need to prefix the number with a "1."

Comparing ooma with the two other VoIP services I have running in my office, there didn’t appear to be any noticeable difference in call connection time. Calls to the phone number that ooma assigned to me rang on the phone connected to the hub, and, if not answered by the fourth ring, automatically were forwarded to voice mail. 

The broadband answering machine lets you monitor the voice mail as it’s being received. If there are voice messages waiting for you, the "Play" button flashes red. You can play back your messages using the built-in speaker in the Hub (or Scout) by pressing the play button, or you can pick up the phone and listen via the handset. 

You can also pick up your messages remotely by either logging into your ooma account at the ooma "lounge" (Figure 4), or by dialing your number and pressing "*" while the greeting is being played. After entering your PIN, you can retrieve your messages. Your voice mail is stored on ooma’s servers, not on the local Hub, so you can retrieve your messages from anywhere. Through the ooma lounge, you can also set up email notification of received voice mail, configure how many seconds to wait before voice mail picks up, and whether or not to block outgoing caller ID.

ooma Lounge

Figure 4: ooma Lounge Voicemail player

ooma supports three way calling as well as call waiting. If you’re on a call on line one when a second call comes in, you’ll hear a "call waiting" beep in the headset. You can either press the flash key or hit the flashing second line button. Line one is put on hold and you are connected to the "instant second line." You can alternate between the calls, or, by pressing both line buttons simultaneously, connect them in a three-way call.

I made numerous calls during the review process. I called some people and didn’t tell them that I was using a different service and no one noticed the difference. I also called some of my tech friends both on Vonage as well as on ooma, and asked them to listen critically for any differences. When listening critically, they could tell a difference, but it wasn’t very significant. Though Vonage sounded slightly better, ooma provided perfectly acceptable voice quality on my cable Internet connection.

ooma uses the Internet low-bandwidth codec (iLBC) which uses higher compression than Vonage’s default G.711. iLBC is the same codec used by Skype, Yahoo Messenger, and others. ooma consumes only about 32 Kbps of bandwidth as compared to the approximately 90 Kbps used by Vonage.

According to ooma, the higher compression/lower bandwidth is crucial since there’s a possibility of three simultaneous audio streams (two lines plus the answering machine). While my cable Internet connection is currently giving me around 10 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up, many DSL services still provide only around 300 Kbps of upstream traffic. So ooma’s use of a low-bandwidth codec is a wise move.

I’ve been using ooma for about two weeks, and in that time, the service has been fairly reliable. I have had to reboot the device twice, and had one configuration issue that was resolved quickly by a knowledgeable tech support agent who picked up my call with no waiting time. The issue related to the Hub not having properly initialized after a reboot. I had unplugged it and only waited a few seconds before plugging it in again. After unplugging and waiting for around 30 seconds before powering it up again, the configuration issue was resolved.

Final Thoughts

ooma takes a revolutionary approach to providing Internet telephony services. Many Internet users, already familiar and comfortable with the advantages of peer-to-peer networking, may well see ooma’s distributed termination technology as the next logical extension. It offers virtually free and unlimited domestic long distance calling after an initial investment in the hardware. 

However, it’s not an insignificant investment. The hub sells for $599, but is available for a "limited time" for $399. Having paid $199 for a year’s service on SunRocket, only to see them vanish, has caused me to be skeptical about coughing up a lot of up-front money again for Internet phone service, particularly from a start-up.

In fact, I asked ooma’s co-founder, Dennis Peng, this question directly. How, if SunRocket charged $199/year and went out of business, can ooma offer virtually unlimited domestic calling for $399 and stay in business? Dennis explained that SunRocket, like Vonage, had a completely different cost structure because a significant amount of their revenue went to their termination partners.

Dennis said, "ooma has a different operational cost structure and a peer-to-peer network that allows us to bypass or avoid much of the operational costs associated with traditional VOIP termination. We have a much leaner operational cost structure and differentiator features such as second line and the broadband answering machine."

Dennis’ comments aside, ooma is still a crapshoot at this point in time. It’s essentially a start-up with an unproven track record that requires a significant up-front investment in a field where the competition is either essentially giving it away (Skype) or being sued by competitors (Vonage). ooma may be a great deal today, but you could also own an elegant (but expensive) doorstop tomorrow.

However, if ooma’s approach appeals to you, now is the time to buy in before the price goes up. ooma offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, so if it doesn’t work out for you, you won’t get burned... at least not in the near term.

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