Thursday, November 19, 2015

NetTalk - after a year

How has NetTalk fared after over a year of use?  Not too badly!

Back in May of 2014, I decided to drop the VoIP part of AT&T UVERSE internet service which cost about $30 a month with taxes.   I decided instead to use NetTalk, which costs about $40 a year (for the first year, with the "Duo" device, and about $29 a year after that).   I signed up for three years.

How has the service worked?  Pretty well, once you understand the technology and the business model.   While NetTalk initially got rave reviews, many complained after a while that the device did not work well - garbling speech and whatnot.  Many others complained about their service - being close to non-existent.

I have had similar experiences, but once I figured out the system, it has been smooth sailing.

To being with, the customer service model is based on doing everything online, with minimal help from people on the phone.  If you want someone to hold your hand every step of the way, well, forgetabout it.   For that reason, I hesitate to recommend this service to people who can't, for example, wire up a phone.  If you are coming from a landline (POTS) you will have to disconnect your landline at the interface box and then plug the NetTalk device into your house wiring.  If you didn't understand what I just said, then move on - and pay a lot more.   Ignorance is expensive, ain't it?

VoIP has its limitations.  If your internet connection has limited bandwidth, the sound is going to be crappy.  If you try to make a phone call while streaming Netflix, surfing the web, and downloading a document, the call quality is going to be crappy - if the call is not actually dropped.   So I make sure that if I am on an important call, I don't do those things. 

The business model is the "fuck you" model of customer service.  Before you get all riled up over this, get used to it, as many companies are going to this model.   And it is the model that saves you money by eliminating the 5% of customers who cause 99% of all the problems.   Vonage, another (far more expensive) VoIP provider started this model.   If you wanted the service, they shipped you the Vonage router and you plugged it in and if it worked, great.   If not, return it for a full refund and fuck off.  This sounds harsh, but the reality is, if your internet connection isn't going to support VoIP, they could spend hours on the phone with you and it wouldn't change that.  They could send out technicians, Engineers, even Albert Einstein, to your home, and the service still would not work.   So, just cut to the chase and move on, you're not going to be a customer.

On the other hand, if the thing works out of the box with no problems, they've got a customer who cost them nothing in terms of tech time or phone support and that is a profitable customer.   They'd like to keep you, thanks.

Now two things happened that caused me to call their customer service.  In the first instance, the DUO unit (shown above) failed within a few weeks, likely due to infant mortality.   I suspect to save money, they don't "burn in" these units very long, so they have a high initial failure rate in the field.  In the second case, it was the failure of the DUO unit which occurred right after a thunderstorm.  I have a surge protector on the line, but I guess it did not work properly or the surge was too large.

In the first instance, I called customer service and got through.   The technician wasn't very happy about it and sort of suggested I broke the thing (apparently the power plug is sensitive and they suggest not unplugging it from the device).    But they sent a new device which arrived in a few days and when I plugged it in, I got dialtone almost immediately - and my old number ported right over.

In the interim, I was able to call-forward my NetTalk number to my cell phone, so I missed no calls.  The website is a little hard to navigate at first.  Once you log in, you have to click on "manage" and then "more options" and then "phone numbers" to enable call-forwarding.   But it does have a nice range of features and voice-mails are forwarded to you by e-mail as WAV files you can play on your computer.  Kind of neat.    Also, for your $29 or $39 a year, you get unlimited calls to the US and Canada.

So far, so good.

In the second incident, I had left my DUO and UVERSE modem "on" while I was on vacation.  We had some sort of incident which caused both to blow up - likely a power surge.   Getting a hold of AT&T was no problem and within a week, my brand new UVERSE modem was up and running again.

When I contacted NetTalk, I did go through the dreaded "service ticket" routine - trying to set up a service "ticket" online or through their DTMF tree.   I was never called back and the status of the "ticket" was perpetually "unassigned."   I eventually reached a tech by hitting "1" for new customers instead of "2" for old ones.   An (Indian) tech tried to talk me through some things to get it to work., such as re-loading the software.  One thing he wanted me to do was load some software that would let him control my computer remotely.  I declined.   I finally told him, "Look, I don't think this is some software issue.  It died at the same time my UVERSE modem did - the thing is fried.  Why don't I just buy a new one?  And he agreed that was the easiest way to fix the problem.

So I went to their website and just bought a new one for $19.95.  While this is more money than I wanted to spend, bear in mind it is less than the $30 AT&T wants for one month's service.  Even if I bought  a new DUO every single month it would still be cheaper than AT&T or indeed most VoIP providers.  I think that is part of the problem with complaining customers.  They want unlimited telephone service for $29 a YEAR and then expect to have NetTalk at their beck and call 24/7 - or that the DUO should be warranted for a decade or more.

A few clicks later and a new DUO was on its way.   I called to get the device ported to my number.   Instead of pressing "2" for existing customers, I pressed "1" for new customers.   I explained what I wanted to do, and the tech tried to port the number.  For some reason, NetTalk in Miami sent me a Canadian model.  There is no physical difference between the two, but the Canadian models bill differently, so the serial number of my DUO had to be re-assigned in their database.  This took an extra day and while they said they would call back or e-mail me, I was never notified.  I called back two days later and they said, "Oh, yea, that's been ported, go ahead and plug it in!"

And again, like magic, I plugged it in and got dialtone right away - and the number was correctly ported (I tested it by calling from my cell phone).

So what is the verdict?  A number of things.

1.  It is the cheapest service around.  And like anything cheap, you get what you pay for.  You want to fly on Econ-O-Bus airlines for $29.95, you can't bitch about the legroom.

2.  You have to be a little tech-savvy to install and use the device.

3.  You have to be patient with customer service.   Call "new accounts" instead of "existing accounts" and you may get served faster.

4.  If the device fails out of warranty, just buy a new one.  Don't dick around for hours or days waiting or customer service to call you back.  Just spend the 20 bucks on a new DUO and then port it to your old number.

5.  When taking a call, don't play videos or whatever.

6.  Since most people also have cell phones, a landline is usually no longer the primary means of communication.   So, you can live with a little unreliability with NetTalk, as you have a backup phone option.

7.  Yea there are hassles and compromises.   But at 1/12th the cost of AT&T (and 1/6th the cost of Ooma and other services) the savings run into the hundreds of dollars, making the hassles worth the effort.

8.  Once it is set up and running, it is pretty painless and maintenance-free.

I will continue to use NetTalk at least for a couple more years.  The company actually has stock - trading in fractions of pennies on the NASDAQ after peaking at over a dollar a few years back.  The company isn't making money and doesn't seem poised to.

This is one reason I only signed up for three years of service - it is not clear to me the company will be around for the long haul at this rate.   Perhaps their ultra-low prices are a little too low.   The competition charges nearly as much a month as they do a year.  NetTalk could easily raise prices by a factor of two or three and remain comparative in the marketplace.

The problem is, of course, most folks just dumped their landlines entirely, in favor of expanded cell coverage.   So getting the new generation of "cell only" users to sign up for a landline - even a VoIP one - is going to be hard.   The DUO might end up being a legacy product, and down the road, not supported, much like Windows XP.  We'll see.

They are trying new tactics - going to cell phones with an "app" and offering add-on services for additional fees.  For example, call blocking is free - for one number.  You have to pay to block additional numbers.  So at least they are trying to improve their revenue model.

But all in all, I think that the service is an under-priced bargain, even if there are some minor hassles involved (hassles that I have had with AT&T, Vonage, etc. as well).