VoIP on the Road, Wi-Fi Style

By Joseph Moran | Posted November 07, 2005

VoIP Internet telephony has been around for quite a while, but it has only recently become ubiquitous and reliable enough to be a serious alternative to placing calls via the old-school PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). The main benefit of VoIP is, of course, its significantly reduced cost of making calls. But ZyXEL's $199 Prestige 2000W Wireless VoIP phone takes that a step further by giving your VoIP account some mobility, letting you enjoy the cost savings outside the confines of your regular environment. Since the P-2000W can make VoIP calls via a Wi-Fi network, it allows you to place calls from many (though not necessarily any) wireless networks.

Compatibility
The P-2000W is available in Office Depot stores and carries a $50 rebate off the $199 price if you sign up with bundled service from tglo. If you want to use the P-2000W with another VoIP provider, you'll need to do some research first, because not all are compatible. It only works with VoIP providers that use the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). Services that use proprietary technology — like Skype, for example — won't cut it.

But there's another rub. Once you verify that a provider uses SIP, you must confirm that it will allow you to buy equipment from independent sources and provide you with the necessary SIP configuration information. Some major services like AT&T CallVantage require you to purchase pre-configured equipment directly from them, while Vonage makes you jump through significant hoops to use the hardware of your choice.

Setup


ZyXel P2000Wv2Physically speaking, the P-2000W is compact enough to put in a bag or a pocket. It measures 5 ¼ x 1 ¾ x ¾ inches (HWD — including a fixed stub antenna). That makes it smaller and thinner than most cordless phones, though larger than the most svelte mobile phones. A 1350 mAh Li-Ion battery — rated for 3.5 hours of talk time and 22.5 hours on standby — powers the P-2000W. That isn't a very long time when you consider that the typical mobile phone can often remain on standby for days, but the P-2000W's battery should get you through a long day. Our battery life test fell a bit short of the rated figures, providing about 18 hours of standby time.

When you turn on the P-2000W, it immediately scans for and associates with an available open network. If you have a particular network in mind, you can enter an SSID and/or a wireless encryption key using the phone keypad. Unfortunately, the P-2000W is no exception to the rule that entering text from a numeric keypad is always a hassle. (Just another reason people won't turn on encryption.)

It might seem that the P-2000W could work as well around the house as it does in a hotspot, but a conventional cordless phone connected to a VoIP adapter would be a more convenient and much less expensive way to go. This is because the P-2000W is an 802.11bdevice and it only supports WEP encryption. It won't work with non-mixed mode 802.11g or WPA-encrypted networks. While neither scenario is likely for most hotspots, the limitation may require you to adapt your home network to accommodate the P-2000W. (WPA support is planned through a future firmware update.)

Once the P-2000W is associated on a WLAN and has an IP address (it's a DHCP client by default), you can perform any further configuration via a Web browser. This will typically consist of entering account information from your VoIP provider including logon credentials, server names and port numbers. Some versions of the P-2000W come bundled with VoIP service and have all the required information pre-configured. If you're going to connect the P-2000W to a wireless network that uses NAT, you'll also need to select one of three NAT traversal methods, again using information given to you by your service provider.

Usage
Following the configuration and a reboot, the P-2000W is ready to use. Once it has a connection to the Internet, it registers with your service provider's SIP server, a process that can take up to 30 seconds. Placing a call with the P-2000W is essentially the same as with any other phone— you dial the number and press SEND, and within short order you should hear someone on the other end.

In several days of testing, calls placed or received through the P-2000W exhibited both excellent voice quality and reliability with no distorted audio or dropped calls, which is more than can often be said of cellular calls (in the U.S., anyway). Ultimately, the quality of a VoIP call will have as much to do with the service provider as the phone, but the P-2000W employs a number of methods to enhance call performance and convenience, including priority tagging of voice packets, voice activity detection (which reduces the bandwidth used when callers aren't speaking), and comfort noise generation, which creates subtle background noise lest complete silence should lead you to believe your connection has been dropped.

We used the P-2000W on several Wi-Fi networks, and each time, the phone found and connected to the network quickly and without any input from us. It's worth noting that the P-2000W won't currently connect to networks that require Web-based authentication — for example, a T-Mobile or similar hotspot. ZyXEL is planning to add this capability to a future version of the phone. In the meantime, you may be able to get around this by logging into a hotspot using a PC and then using a soft AP or similar function to give network access to the phone.

Like almost all conventional phones, the P-2000W offers a phonebook for more convenient dialing. The phonebook can hold 60 entries, and you can add or edit entries using the phone keypad — but thankfully, you can manage the phonebook much more easily via the browser administration interface. Phonebook entries can be either phone numbers of PSTN (or other VoIP) users, or actual IP addresses to bypass SIP for direct IP-to-IP communications.

Conclusion
Relying on the P-2000W to make phone calls from a hotspot certainly isn't a substitute for having a cell phone on the road, but it can be a good supplement, particularly for pricey international calls or as a way to keep from triggering high per-minute charges when one's monthly allotment of minutes is used up.

Until someone makes a cell phone with integrated VoWi-Fi capability, the P-2000W is probably the most convenient way to take VoIP with you when you travel.

  • Model: P-2000W
  • Price: $199.99 (street price)
  • Pros: Easy configuration; good voice quality.
  • Cons: Limited service provider compatibility; won't connect to hotspots requiring authentication; no 802.11g or WPA support (yet)

Adapted from wi-fiplanet.com.

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