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Thursday, June 09, 2005

AT&T CallVantage Intro - AT&T CallVantage review - VoIP - CNET Reviews

AT&T CallVantage Intro - AT&T CallVantage review - VoIP - CNET ReviewsReviewed by Neil Randall
Edited by Matthew Elliott
Reviewed June 28, 2004
(updated March 22, 2005)

Editors' rating:
out of 10
How we rate

If you've been harboring any doubt about the viability of VoIP services, you can put them to rest. AT&T, once the center of the telephone universe in the United States, rolled out its own VoIP service, CallVantage, last year, and it has since added to and improved the service. The company launched CallVantage with a lone calling plan but now offers three plans that range in price from $19.99 to $49.99 per month. At $29.99 per month, its unlimited-minutes plan is pricier than those of competitors such as Lingo and Packet8, but CallVantage was one of the strongest performers on CNET Labs' voice-quality tests. You also have a host of features at your disposal, including virtual numbers, conference calling, call filtering, and call forwarding. In addition to a standard telephone adapter that requires a connection to a broadband router, you can choose to combine those two devices with a VoIP-enabled Linksys wireless router. It'll save you from having to buy a router if you don't already own one, and it's well equipped to juggle voice and data traffic on your network. AT&T CallVantage costs a bit more per month than its competitors, but it's worth the premium for its long list of features and excellent call quality.

Installation and interface
Unlike services such as Broadvox, which require only that you connect a phone adapter to your router, wall outlet, and phone before making calls, AT&T CallVantage requires you to hop through a few more hoops. Granted, our test bed was a little more complicated than some: We added the D-Link telephone adapter (TA), which is used to connect a standard telephone to your broadband connection, to a small network with DSL service instead of to a single computer with a cable connection. This same arrangement, however, presented no problem with other VoIP services: run an Ethernet cable from the telephone adapter to the router, and--presto! Instant telephone.

The online Personal Call Manager gives you access to your account settings and features such as call logs and contacts.

With CallVantage, however, the sequence proved more tedious. First, we had to find a space for the included D-Link TA, the largest of these devices we've seen so far. Next, we had to power down the computer, the router, and the DSL modem and run the included Ethernet cable from the TA's Ethernet port to the router's WAN port and another from the DSL modem to the TA's WAN port, which places the TA between the modem and the router. The next step was to power up the modem, wait for it to initialize, then plug in the TA and wait for its status light to blink. Then, as instructed, we powered on the router, at which point a cable user would have been finished. A DSL connection requires a further step: logging in to the TA's Web administration utility and entering the PPPoE username and password. The final step requires you to log in to your account on the CallVantage Web site and step through the TA activation process.

Once you are set up and have a dial tone, the next step is to log on to the CallVantage Web site and customize your settings. From the Personal Call Manager, you can access help pages, a screen of usage tips, and all of the configurable features. You also get a brief summary of new messages, calls made, and information on whether certain features have been activated. Although this interface appears busy on first glance, it provides quite possibly the most useful VoIP account interface we've seen.

By comparison, Broadvox is easy to set up; without an Ethernet pass-through, however, it can't connect between your broadband modem and your router, meaning it won't prioritize voice traffic under heavy network conditions. VoicePulse works similarly. The CallVantage method performs this prioritization to insure voice quality, but you might find it frustrating if you don't have some experience setting up small networks and especially if you're a DSL customer. Call quality with the D-Link TA was strong in our anecdotal tests.

Order residential CallVantage service online, and you'll receive the D-Link TA or a TA from Centillium. If you order the Small Office plan, you'll get a Linksys unit that's a wired router and a TA. CallVantage hardware is also sold at retail. For CNET Labs' voice-quality tests, AT&T sent us the Linksys WRT54GP2A, which is a TA and a wireless router.

Since AT&T first launched its CallVantage VoIP service last year, the company has added a host of useful features and two additional calling plans. The service we suspect will appeal to most users is the $29.99-per-month, residential unlimited-minutes plan. It's $10 more per month than competing plans from Packet8 and $5 more a month than Vonage. But only Vonage rivals CallVantage in terms of voice quality. For $19.99 a month, the CallVantage Local Plan provides unlimited local calls and costs 4 cents per minute for long distance. The $49.99 Small Office Plan gives businesses two lines (both the D-Link telephone adapter and the Linksys TA/router have two phone jacks). You get unlimited minutes on line one and 500 long-distance minutes on line two, and you can connect a fax machine to either. Unlimited minutes for all three plans cover calls within the United States and Canada. All three plans include a $29.99 activation fee. If you order the $29.99 unlimited-minutes plan online, the first month is free, which covers the activation fee. If you cancel within the first year, you'll avoid a cancellation fee as long as you return the telephone adapter.

When you sign up for your service, you specify whether you want to get a new phone number or transfer your existing number. Your odds of being able to get a number in your area code has greatly increased since AT&T first introduced CallVantage; area codes in 39 states are available. If you are a DSL subscriber and you want to cancel your current phone service altogether for AT&T CallVantage, you can't transfer the phone number to which your DSL service is attached (this limitation is standard for all VoIP providers, however). Note also that transferring your existing AT&T number to CallVantage means you lose the ability to gain points in AT&T rewards programs, and your AT&T calling cards and Easy Reach 800 service will no longer function, either.

CallVantage now offers virtual numbers, which it calls Simple Reach Numbers, for $4.99 a month. A Simple Reach Number gives you a second number outside your own area code so that callers in that area--your mother or business partner, for instance--can make locals calls to you. You can also add a second line to either the unlimited-minutes or local home plan for $29.99 and $19.99, respectively.

AT&T CallVantage offers emergency 911 support, a feature not found with all VoIP services at this time. AT&T uses the address you provide upon signing up to direct any 911 calls to the proper answering point. Like most VoIP services that provide 911 service, the process differs from 911 calls from a traditional landline phone. Instead of connecting to a 911 emergency response center, 911 calls on CallVantage go to a PSAP (public safety answering point), and you'll need to provide your address when you call. This difference might not sound like too big a deal, but families with small children (and babysitters) might feel more comfortable knowing their 911 service is as quick and efficient as possible. Another safety feature: you can enter a phone number (your cell phone, for example) on the CallVantage Web site where calls will be forwarded in the event of a power failure or Internet outage.

With your CallVantage service, you get a standard voicemail in-box. When you're away from home, you can have e-mail alerts sent to you when you receive a voicemail or have the message e-mailed to you as a WAV file attachment. A feature called Locate Me lets you specify up to five phone numbers that CallVantage will use to attempt to reach you, should you not answer your phone. This feature essentially amends your voicemail service with a message replacing the voicemail greeting, informing your callers that the system is trying to reach you, then it either cycles through the specified phone numbers or rings all of the phones simultaneously. Your callers can press 1 to bypass the Locate Me feature and leave a standard voice message.

You can schedule conferences on the fly or for a future date.

Three-way calling is free with any calling plan, and you can conference between 4 and 10 people for 35 cents a minute. Also included with CallVantage are standard features including caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, and three-way calling, all of which function much like those on a standard phone service. The Do Not Disturb feature is handy for keeping, say, telemarketers at bay during your dinner hour, and for $1.99 a month, the Call Filtering feature lets you set exceptions so that certain callers (your daughter away at school, for example) are let through.

We judge a VoIP service's performance on how calls sound under baseline conditions, as well as during data uploads and data downloads. The overall weighted average is based on calls made under these three conditions. Baseline conditions are given the highest weight of 66 percent; audio quality during data uploads and data downloads each factor 17 percent of the weightings. The scale for the voice-quality ratings is from 0 to 10.0, with a perfect score of 10.0 equaling our reference analog connection.

Voice-quality rating
(Higher scores are better)
Overall weighted average
All PCs off
During download
During upload
Baseline (landline)
AT&T CallVantage (TA/router: Linksys WRT54GP2A)
Vonage (TA/router: Linksys RT31P2)
BroadVoice (TA: Sipura SPA-1001)
Packet8 (TA: 8x8 DTA310)
Broadvox (TA: Mediatrix 2102)
Verizon VoiceWing (TA: Linksys PAP2-VN)
Lingo (TA: Lingo iAN-02EX)

In our experience, nearly all the VoIP services we've tested deliver baseline audio quality that is almost indistinguishable from regular analog (landline) telephone connections. (We define baseline quality as the audio quality of the VoIP service when the telephone adapter (TA) is the only device sending and receiving substantial amounts of data over the local network on our tests. During these tests, the only other devices permitted to transmit and receive network traffic are the broadband modem and router.) In the case of AT&T CallVantage, the audio quality is so clear that it equals that of what we're used to from analog connections--even during heavy network traffic conditions. The only other VoIP service we've tested in which the same can be said is Vonage.

The Achilles' heel of the VoIP services we've tested, however, is that all of them exhibit a certain amount of background noise during calls. This noise amounts to a very faint hiss with CallVantage, which is perceptible only by the person on the CallVantage end of the call; the person on the other end did not hear the noise during testing. Users less sensitive to such auditory distractions might not even notice it, and it did not affect our ability to make or receive calls.

Unique among the VoIP services we've reviewed, AT&T CallVantage is the only service to come with a TA that is integrated into a wireless broadband router: The Linksys WRT54GP2A lets you connect your phone to it for use on the CallVantage service, and it's also an 802.11b/g wireless and four-port wired Ethernet router. Combining the TA and router into a single device permits the TA to have much more control over how the voice data packets are given priority in relation to other network traffic. This helps minimize the potential loss of VoIP audio quality when the local network bandwidth starts filling up with other types of data traffic, such as files being uploaded to the Internet from a PC.

Network bandwidth is a significant issue for most small-business and home-broadband users, whose upstream data throughput is not large enough to support both voice and data packets simultaneously. With many of the VoIP services we've tested, the end result is that VoIP audio quality is seriously degraded--often to the point of unintelligibility--during phone calls when a user is simultaneously generating a lot of upstream traffic from a PC (such as uploading photographs to an online photo-finishing service) while conducting a VoIP call. CallVantage did not suffer from this problem because the Linksys TA/router is designed specifically to avoid such issues; audio quality was maintained despite the additional traffic we placed on the network.

The trade-off is that the Internet data throughput speeds of your PC(s) drop precipitously when you make or receive VoIP calls. Upstream throughput saw more than an eightfold drop in performance; our 1.37MB photo upload to, which usually takes only about 35 seconds, took more than five minutes to complete when a VoIP call was active. Even downstream throughput took more than a 50 percent nosedive. These throughput performance drops are the worse we've seen from any VoIP service we've tested, which is good news for voice traffic. CallVantage obviously puts its highest priority in maintaining the integrity of audio quality, even at the expense of data throughput. We saw a similar effect with Vonage, but its throughput performance hit wasn't as severely while still maintaining the audio quality. How frequently you use your PC for Internet access or upload files from your computer will help dictate if you can live with this limitation.

We also measure how quickly calls are connected by timing how long it takes from the moment the last digit of a phone number is dialed to the moment we hear ringing. CallVantage was the speediest of all the VoIP services we've tested in connecting calls. In fact, its consistent connect time of about two seconds matched that of our reference analog telephone line.

Since the Linksys WRT54GP2A is also an 802.11b/g wireless router, we tested how well it performs as a wireless router, using the CNET Labs test procedures for access points. In 802.11g mode, the WRT54GP2A-AT wireless router has one of the fastest throughput rates (25Mbps) we've seen from an 802.11g wireless router. It also has excellent range capabilities, able to sustain an 11.3Mbps throughput rate at a distance of 200 feet in 802.11g mode. In mixed mode (802.11g and 802.11b), its performance drops somewhat, as is typical for most mixed-mode routers. The throughput rate of 15.1Mbps in mixed mode is respectable, but other routers have speedier mixed-mode performance.

Performance analysis written by CNET Labs manager Daniel A. Begun and lab technician Matthew Wood.

Find out more about how we test VoIP.

Service and support
Although it lacks features and ease of installation, AT&T CallVantage shines in services and support. With your account, you get 24/7 technical or repair assistance through a toll-free phone number, and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., toll-free billing or service-management support. In addition, the CallVantage Web site hosts separate forms for both types of issues, and the installation guide and the user guide are downloadable directly from the contact page.


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