Broadvox Direct’s Rocky Road

The company's much-anticipated VoIP service met with unexpected difficulties getting to the starting line. Now it's finally available and Broadvox executives are itching for a competitive foot race.

Some three months after the company's president first announced the launch of what he calls the “market's most powerful residential and small office/home office broadband phone service,” Broadvox Direct has finally opened its doors for service.

Initially offering area codes covering 20 states and the District of Columbia , Broadvox Direct boasts an advanced set of features, including a personal web-based user portal for each account and a unique “Click-to-call” service allowing users to “bridge” calls from any telephone over their Voice over IP line.

The company is already making plans to expand area code coverage to six other states soon and Broadvox Direct President Jeffery Williams says the service – which comes in five different packages, including a $29.95/mo unlimited calling plan throughout the U.S. and Canada — will eventually cover the country.

Williams says that Broadvox Llc, Broadvox Direct's parent company, which has focused primarily on the carrier and IP-based enterprise telephony business, has been working to expand into the consumer market since early 2003.

“A lot of people are under the impression that we're a new kid on the block, a new company,” he said, noting that Broadvox has been offering VoIP service to businesses since 2001. “We are the new kid on the block for residential, but we're not a new company.”

The road from the service's announcement in November to launch has been a bit rocky for Broadvox Direct.

Williams had promised on public forums on BroadbandReports.com and Voxilla.com that users would be able to sign up for the service by the end of 2003. That promise was kept – technically – and the company did allow sign-ups for two days.

But the 100 or so Williams estimates the company signed up got a bit of a bumpy ride. Several new users reported shipping problems with Airborne Express, a few had provisioning problems, some never got notification of their telephone numbers being assigned, and outgoing Caller ID did not function.

To make matters worse, the promised and much vaunted user portal was unfinished and users could make changes to their service only through a cumbersome over-the-phone customer-care ticket process.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Williams said. “The service itself was rock solid. But we ran into problems with software and the automated activation processes.”

Those problems garnered the company a great deal of skepticism on both forums, and Williams found himself responding to a barrage of public criticism while trying to get the launch back on track. But to Williams, interacting with potential users on public forums, no matter how critical some were, is part of the company's strategy.

“I believe that in order for a corporate vision to be executed, there must be a complete understanding of who your customer is, and what they expect,” he said. “Some of the criticism hurt, but some of it was true. And we learned from it.”

Williams says that the company's experience in the carrier business is a huge asset as it moves into the increasingly crowded consumer VoIP space. Because Broadvox has struck up partnership arrangements with CLECs in its service areas, Williams said, the company is able to offer “true E911 emergency services,” unlike other VoIP providers.

And he boasts that by relying on Class 5 soft switches – the same as used by traditional PSTN-based phone companies – to provide dial tone, Broadvox has an edge on the competition.

“Our service offerings – the features and the price points – are great,” he said “But the proof will be in the sustained quality of service we deliver. And that's where we'll be second to no one.”

Broadvox Direct settled on the well-regarded Sipura SPA-2000 as its VoIP telephone adaptor, and customers can obtain a unit directly from the company, or use their own purchased elsewhere. Service plans are offered in five flavors: A $12.95 monthly plan with unlimited incoming and 500 outgoing minutes; a $19.95 residential plan with unlimited incoming and outgoing “regional” minutes; an unlimited calling $29.95 residential plan; a $34.95 SOHO plan with 1,500 outgoing minutes; and a $44.95 unlimited calling SOHO plan.

In addition to the common features included with other consumer-level VoIP services, such as Call Waiting, Call Forwarding, Three-Way Calling, Voicemail, and Caller ID, Williams says there are features unique to Broadvox Direct that sets the service apart from others. These include:

G.729 codec : A high-quality codec that uses roughly 40kbps of bandwidth. While some have reported success in using this codec over dialup, it is not officially supported by the company.

Faxing : Voicemail system receives faxes and sends them to your email as TIF files. It can also send you voicemails as WAV files too.

Call Busy feature: When a customer receives a call while on the line, caller is given the option to "hold" (it tries again in about a minute, plays hold music for caller) or leave a message.

Friends and Family number : An alternate number in a different area code that people within that area can dial as a local call. Though similar to Vonage's "virtual numbers," Broadvox Direct's Residential Unlimited offers a single Friends and Family number at no additional charge.

Music on Hold : Call Waiting plays music for the holding party.

411 (Directory Assistance) : The charge for local and national directory assistance service is $0.75 per use.

611 (Customer Care): A toll-free support line staffed from 9am to 6pm Eastern (GMT -5).

911 (Emergency): Broadvox Direct's web site states that emergency calling services are available in many markets. However, the service it is not yet provisioned on residential accounts. “It is forthcoming,” says Williams.

Click-to-call: This feature allows a customer to use the Broadvox web-based portal to enter the number where he or she can be located and a number he or she wants to call. The service then dials both numbers and bridges the connection. This is useful in situations where outgoing calls are expensive (from hotel rooms, or international calls over a cell phone).

Address Book: Customers can define a number of contacts in their personal web portal with various details (name, address, multiple phone numbers). Numbers defined in the address book will show up on the user's Caller ID with the specified names. It is possible to click on calls in the incoming, outgoing, and missed call logs to add new entries into your address book.

Find-me, follow-me : This is a bit like call forwarding on steroids. The feature allows for different locations to ring depending on who the caller is. Three different "caller groups" can be configured with their own find-me, follow-me pattern with a fourth pattern for "everyone else." Specified numbers are rung in sequence with no action needed by the calling party, who is notified that you are being located. You can even forward to international numbers, though normal per-minute international charges apply.

Call Rejection: A fifth group of callers for the purpose of find-me, follow-me is called the Reject group. Callers who have been specifically identified as "Reject" will either hear a busy signal or be redirected to voice mail.

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