Making Sure Your VoIP Provider Is Here for the Long Haul

Updated: April 30, 2009

Sometimes the signs of a corporate collapse are easy to see, but sometimes it happens without warning. Given recent news about companies such as Vonage and SunRocket, it's only sensible to stay aware of your VoIP provider's strengths and weaknesses, as doing so could give you a sense of how long it's going to be around. At the very least, monitoring the state of your VoIP provider could give you some clues as to what to look for in a replacement should things go south.

The most obvious signs of trouble are the headlines. There might be, say, a patent suit that threatens your operator's business at its very core. There might be a delisting from a stock exchange or a failure to comply with filings deadlines. But a lot of VoIP providers are too small to have gone public or to be the target of lawsuits by giant competitors. With them, you'll have to look for other clues.

Some research firms provide fairly detailed subscriber numbers for even relatively small VoIP operators. Comparing these numbers quarter by quarter or year by year, particularly in relation to the competition, can give you some idea of how well your particular provider is doing. Unfortunately, some of those numbers are available only in reports that costs thousands of dollars, and buying them would defeat the penny-pinching purpose of going with VoIP in the first place. Scouring the trade press can also yield subscriber numbers and other information about individual companies, but it's a haphazard and time-consuming process.

Fortunately, though, all this uncertainty doesn't make you helpless. You can save the day with the classic strategy of converting potential disaster into opportunity. So if you're worried about your VoIP provider, use the chance to look for a better one by comparing what you're getting now with what you could get. All you need is some idea of what questions to ask.

One question should involve geography. VoIP providers can't provide service where they don't have E911 coverage, which can take a fair amount of effort and expense. So you can find out a lot by entering your address — as well as those of your college roommate, your ex-spouse, your Aunt Tillie and anyone else you know scattered across the country — into different providers' Web sites to find out which regions they serve. Lack of nationwide coverage isn't necessarily a handicap since some operators concentrate on being strong regional players. But consider hit-or-miss results in your unscientific survey a warning sign.

Another important question to ask is how much, and whether, the provider charges for various aspects of its service. For example, is local number porting — that is, transferring your existing phone number to their service — free, or do they charge for it? Do they charge for the adapters necessary to let your conventional phones connect to the Internet and work with their service? And do they charge a setup fee? If the answer to one or more of those questions is yes, it could negate a large part of the savings you were anticipating.

And how is their support? Do they have hot lines you can call 24/7, or do they merely list a support email address? Here's where it helps to know others who use the service you're looking at; they can tell you whether it's a delight or a nightmare.

Last, what are their international rates? Domestic rates are usually pretty similar, but overseas calling charges can vary widely. Do they have the lowest rates to the places you call most? Do they offer overseas virtual numbers in places where your relatives live, assuming you want them to call you at all hours?

If all the answers add up, you may find yourself deciding to move to a new provider regardless of the health of your current one.

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