As much as I hate to use the phone, I don't really have a choice. I live in a world of touch-tone menus with customer service representatives who always experience an unexpected call volume, but they value my call and thank me for staying on the line. Unfortunately, living without a phone is marginally more difficult than actually speaking to a human with one, so most people get some variety of phone service.
Fortunately, technology has advanced so far that we can send compressed 8-bit monaural sound at 11 kHz over 3-megabit broadband internet connections. I'm not sure why it took this long - this only takes an 88-kbit network connection even if it's completely uncompressed. By using even the most basic perceptual compression techniques, this could be reduced to 10 kbit or less, which would work perfectly well on my old 33.6 modem. Too bad nobody actually put this technology on the market until recently.
After seeing hundreds of ads on The Register for Vonage, I decided to give it a try. The promise is enticing: unlimited calls, including long distance, for a flat rate of $25 per month (after taxes and fees, I pay $27.24). In most areas, this is very close to the price of basic phone service from any normal carrier without any long-distance calls or additional features. By comparison, Vonage service is loaded with features: call waiting, caller ID, voicemail, and a bunch of other stuff nobody ever uses like 3-way calling. But instead of running over standard phone lines, it runs over your internet connection.
The physical setup is simple. When you sign up for service, they mail you a box containing a box with a box inside bearing 4 ports: power-in, Ethernet-in, Ethernet-out, and phone-out. That's it. Then you plug in any regular phone you want - you don't need a special "internet phone", and there's nothing stopping you from splitting the line to multiple phones.
The box is unintrusive. It's about the size of most wireless routers. It can act as a simple pass-through device, giving your computer (or whatever you connect to the Ethernet-out port) a "real" IP address from your ISP. In this mode, it's completely transparent to the network and doesn't cause any trouble with online games or servers. It can also act as a router, performing basic NAT and firewall functionality to the other side, with basic port-forwarding and DMZ options (although you need to connect a hub to share this with multiple computers). I've had no trouble using either mode.
But nobody wants to know about that stuff. Everyone has the same question that I did: how's the sound quality? Well, after months of use, I can finally give a definitive answer:
It's a phone.
It's completely indistinguishable from normal phone service. It's no better or worse. Nobody has noticed a difference on either end of the call.
There are some unique features, too:
One final note: don't buy the "Vonage starter kit" at Best Buy (XSPZ). I'm not sure what's so special about it, but as far as I can tell, they want you to pay $80 for the phone box - the one that Vonage sends you for free.