Keeping Your Landline Using A SIP VoIP Service – Part 2
This is the second of two articles looking at internet phone service as a way to reduce costs without losing your home phone. In Part One, we asked if you need to have a landline phone at all. Here in Part Two, we compare some of the options for a VoIP or SIP service.
You’ve probably seen the TV ads over the years. First there was Vonage, then later MagicJack, and a whole plethora of internet based phone systems. You may have had sales people approach your business or employer and offer SIP trunking as a way to reduce business operating costs. What’s the difference between SIP and VoIP for home use? For all intents and purposes, there is no difference. VoIP is an internet protocol dedicated to transporting voice communication over the internet. SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol, is more of an umbrella system for creating communication sessions and then utilizing other protocols, including VoIP, to encode and transfer the required data.
There are several retail solutions that either charge a monthly subscription for services or that require the purchase of branded equipment and then charge per-call.
Vonage began offering services in 2004 and by curious set of circumstances, my wife and I signed up for the service in June of that year. At that time is was $20 per month and offered unlimited calling to North America and a few western European countries. It included 911 service too. At the time, the price was unbeatable. Most people were paying that amount for local line rental and, separately, being gouged for something called long distance service. Remember that? Over time, the price went up to around $25 a month and, in a customer relations gaff, a separate charge for 911 service was added, even though 911 had always been included in the monthly subscription. My wife and I found Vonage’s customer service to be superlative, and I’m told that today it remains very highly rated.
At the other end of the customer service spectrum comes MagicJack. After a few years, when VoIP prices came down but Vonage’s did not, we switched to a small device that plugged into my desktop computer’s USB port. The problems I found was that the device would regularly overheat and stop working, and that MagicJack would not replace the device. Also, it required my desktop computer to be on all the time. I got around the latter problem by going on eBay and buying a used HP thin client device to which I flashed new firmware to run the MagicJack 24/7. A year later, MagicJack released a new device named MagicJack Plus that did the same job in one small box. The trouble I found was that I needed to keep rebooting it, customer service was non-existent, I had to pay yet again for another replacement; and when I finally decided to move to a new provider, MagicJack tried to charge me $20 to port-out my phone number. I didn’t pay the $20, but still got my number back within a week.
These days, there are several good quality providers who, like Vonage, offer plug and play service. You buy or rent the equipment, plug it in, port in your number, or just take a new one. Ooma is one such service. With Ooma, you pay $200 for plug and play equipment and then between $10 and $30 per month depending upon whether or not you wish to include unlimited international calling. There is a fantastic number of included features that the traditional baby-Bells usually charge for. Vonage offers similar features for slightly more per month, however the Vonage Box (modem) is included in the monthly subscription – you don’t need to buy it.
These types of services are plug and play – everything is done for you. But what if you don’t want to pay even $25 per month? What if you make all your regular calls on your cellphone? Then you should consider a universal VoIP phone adapter, one that is not tied to a particular provider. The best known range of adapters is from Obihai, out of Cupertino, California. What is great about these adapters is that they are completely unlocked and unconfigured, and their purchase price is low. There are several versions from $40 to $100. My preferred model is the Obi 200. It has been running now for several years without a single crash and can be configured to connect to up to four SIP/VoIP lines, though they all come through on one physical phone line – that then connects throughout our home to several extensions.
There are several phone service providers that compete to offer affordable services, and each have online tutorials as to how to configure the Obi device. I currently use services from Callcentric and Anvio, both of which are very affordable and offer many bells and whistles at little or no extra cost. Typically they cost around one third of the plug and play solutions mentioned above, the downside being that you need to have a lot of confidence or know-how to configure them.
Many people go a stage further and configure their device for Google Voice. At present, Google Voice charges zero cents to make calls inside the US and Canada and rock-bottom prices for foreign calls. For example, calls to western Europe are one cent per minute. It is important to note that Google Voice does not offer 911 service at all. 911 is the main reason I want a landline. The Obi devices, however, can be configured for two or four lines. Therefore, regular inbound and outbound calls will be automatically routed to Google Voice while 911 calls will be routed to the paid provider such as Callcentric or Anvio. For example, Anvio offers 911 service for $20 per year (per year, not per month) and will send automatic text and email alerts to friends and family should 911 be called.
There is one extra piece of equipment you will need if you intend to rely on a VoIP service for your 911 coverage, and that is an uninterruptible power supply. You may already have a UPS protecting some of your computer equipment. You need to make sure your internet modem, telephone adapter and physical phone will remain powered by the UPS if ever your home suffers an electricity outage. For Frontier/Verizon FiOS users, you also need to feed your 48 volt DC network box from the UPS. For reasons I’ve never understood, the FiOS back-up battery does not protect your internet connection.
I’ve covered the above information very quickly. If you’d like to know more, please contact me at the usual address.
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*Important note: Many people in trouble have mistakenly not called 911 because they saw no bars on their cellphone. During an emergency, even if you believe your phone cannot make a personal call, you should still dial 911. Your phone will attempt to connect using all its on-board radio frequencies. It automatically tries to connect to ANY carrier.