Saturday, January 26, 2008

Are all VoIP carriers unreliable?

A couple of months ago, I switched my VoIP service from Packet8 to Lingo. We had network bottleneck issues with Packet8 (unable to surf the web while using VoIP) but the main issue is cost. So when it came time to switch (to use VoIP to keep my old home number in San Diego) we switched to Lingo.

At the time, Lingo had the best deal among the major VoIP carriers, providing free (no marginal cost) calls to the US, Canada and Western Europe for $22/month plus tax. Since switching over, Lingo has been providing better sound quality and fewer dropped calls than Skype. The Linksys hardware (a SPA2102-R) is would be even more useful if I knew the unlocking procedure (which is readily available for the boxes sold with Sunrocket).

Today, Lingo has exacted its revenge. Its network is down, although there’s no mention of any problem on their support website, and that website seems to be crashing under the traffic. If you call their support number (888-546-4699) and push “2” for tech support, you get this recording:

At this time we are temporarily experiencing problems with our phone system. In the meantime, you may wish to log onto and send us an e-mail with regards to your question.

Thank you for contacting Lingo technical support, and we thank you for your patience.
And then it hangs up. You get the same recording if you press “1” for new customers.

If I were more strategic (or rationally economic) in my thinking, as a Lingo subscriber I would not publicize their problems for fear of fueling another SunRocket-type implosion. On the other hand, a major cause of market failure is imperfect information, so providing better information to other consumers makes the market more efficient.

In the VoIP world, under-financed startups have trouble providing telco-level reliability. Even Skype (owned by E-bay) had its own outage in August. It didn’t own up immediately, but eventually it had to because it lasted two days. But such low reliability guarantees that people who care about reliable communications (even beyond 911 issues) will continue to pay Ma Bell (or Pa Verizon) for a landline.

I noted back in August that some say commoditization means that low-quality service has become the norm — as long as people prefer cheap, we get low quality. This is the same as the shift of manufacturing everything to China rather than pay even a 10-20% premium for production in a more developed economy. And, except for occasional lead paint on children’s toys — or the inevitable VoIP outage — people don’t seem to notice.

I certainly don’t want commoditization in airline travel or medical instruments to go this far. Much as I hate bureaucracy, regulation has its place.

Update, Saturday 5:05 pm: I called back again and found they were answering their phone. After waiting on hold for 10 minutes, I got the call center (in India?) that said the outage ended at 4:30 p.m. PST. After some additional tech support (including remote management of my MTA), my Lingo service is live again.

While half a day is not great, it was a weekend and it certainly beats the two days that Skype was offline in August.

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