Home Telephone Providers

VoIP to the rescue!

Before diving into this particular topic, I should briefly touch on what VoIP is and how it can save you money. VoIP is short for Voice over Internet Protocol, and is a data communications technology that bridges internet-based voice communications with the global Bell-based plain old telephone system, or POTS. Google Voice is based on VoIP, so is Vonage, and AT&T uses it in their traditional phone service between exchanges to keep their costs down (even if they don’t pass that savings on to you). So long as you have an internet connection and a VoIP provider that can provide you a phone number and a connection to local exchanges, you can make calls to anybody on the planet with a traditional phone line or cell phone through your internet connection.

The great thing is that VoIP leverages the internet’s bandwidth to keep connection costs low by keeping your call as data up to the point of the local exchange of the person you’re calling, which especially helps with international call costs. It will also provide the cheapest per minute calling rates you’ll ever see (a fraction of wireless minute or traditional wired long distance costs), which is why it’s best to offload as much of your calling time as possible to a VoIP provider at home instead of spending money on some wireless “unlimited” minutes package.

It’s also important to point out that you need a good internet connection to make this service work reliably. Available bandwidth isn’t as important as latency is, so if you have noisy lines or high ping time, you might be in trouble. If in doubt, run tests.

As we look at providers, we should establish some criteria to help guide us in our decision making process. How many minutes are needed? Would the freedom to bring your own device be better for your needs over obtaining a pre-configured device? Will you be making a lot of international calls? Would you like the freedom to leverage free internet calling from a regular telephone? Might FAX services be needed? Would you like to have SMS functionality attached to the number? Do you have a loved one in another country and want to give them a phone number local to their area for calling you? Would you like to reuse your old house phones?

One of the great things about VoIP services is that with the right carrier based on open SIP standards, the features and flexible options available in usage and configuration are only limited by your imagination and skill (and a little bit of physical technical limitations). By sticking with these more open carriers and potentially putting in a little extra technical effort, you can do everything from replicate Google Voice functionality to setting up your own IVR call routing system, or direct dial local phone number access for heavily discounted international calls, and using the system as a calling card style long distance portal… all things that if implemented appropriately could be leveraged to save even more money. Although this guide will not cover how to set up these services to do these more advanced VoIP tricks (this topic is best reserved for the support and wiki portals provided by each provider), I feel it important to mention them anyway to help spur your imagination.

Another great thing with VoIP is that with the right equipment and dial plan, you can mix and match providers as well. Like the domestic rates from one provider but they don’t offer good international rates to a specific country that you call frequently? With a little technical know-how and the right ATA, you could route all your domestic calls through one provider and your international calls through another! Even if you don’t want multiple phone numbers and would rather just route everything through your cell number, VoIP can still help you save money with outbound calls at home by using outbound only plans that let you set your outbound Caller ID information to show your cell phone number.

The options can almost be overwhelming, but don’t let yourself get lost in the potential when trying to pick a home phone provider. Figure out the core functions you could really use most at the best price, and KISS. Once you’ve successfully filled your most needed communications as simply as possible, only then start to tweak and optimize with some of the crazier ideas as you learn more (and only if they’re even worth pursuing in the first place).

If you’d like a more complete primer on the subject, read my three page guide: VoIP and the return of the home phone. Anyway, on with the providers!

VOIP.ms – voip.ms

One of the older, gearhead friendly, BYOD VoIP providers around. VOIP.ms is also one of the cheapest and most competitively priced per minute providers available for bill-per-minute usage (good for infrequent/sporadic calling and high-volume business). There’s an assortment of mix-and-match plans with reasonable set-up prices, and multiple server locations throughout North America helps to provide lower network/call latency for most users. Phone and e-mail support is provided in addition to an extensively detailed wiki. Call filtering, global call hunt, and an assortment of unique technical options like call recording and IVR (interactive voice response – digital receptionist) are provided.

Pros: Six-second billing. Lots of calling features. Some of the cheapest per  minute domestic calling rates for the US and Canada. Excellent support, and well set-up with plenty of system redundancy. Transparency with customers over system outages. E911 support is optional. Incredibly flexible service with a little effort and creative thinking. Supports SIP-to-SIP calling to any SIP provider. SMS texting support on some numbers. Value and premium call routing options. Outbound only plans. Customizable Caller ID. International phone number options.

Cons: No flat bundle pricing or freebie service promotions. Awareness of system outages due to e-mail notifications makes you think they have more outages than competitors (sometimes ignorance is bliss – especially with the sub-five minute outage stuff). Requires at least a little effort to set up and configure. Must provide your own device.

VOIPo – voipo.com

A feature rich VoIP provider that although is relatively expensive for month-to-month payment, has had bundled offers that have dropped the price of service as low as $5.30/month for 5,000 minutes or less so long as you pay in yearly chunks. Many of the convenience factors of Google Voice like number blocking are available with VOIPo, and e911 is included as part of the service (though that fee is hidden from the quoted price). They also provide a free ATA bridge for use with their service so long as your account is active, though the device is only leased and you don’t actually own it. Officially they also state they don’t support third party devices, but their official support forums have an entire section devoted to community supported third party devices.

Pros: Good call quality. Reasonably good customer support. One of the cheapest total package VoIP providers. e911 included as part of basic service. Thriving support forums for DIY users. Supports SIP-to-SIP calling to any SIP provider. Similar features to Google Voice. Free number porting. US and Canada treated as the same calling area. Softphone access (use with your WiFi enabled Android). 30 day trial with full refund if canceled. Limited SMS and virtual FAX support. Overage billing for minutes exceeded on “unlimited” plan (as opposed to account termination).

Cons: Good pricing only in one year/two year chunks, canceling service gets used months billed at full $15/month price before refund. “Free” leased ATA has expensive return costs if returned outside of active service dates. Only “unlimited” minute packages.

Future Nine – future-nine.com

One of the cheapest gearhead friendly VoIP providers available, Future Nine provides month-to-month basic phone packages starting at $7/month for a phone number, 250 outbound minutes, 2000 inbound minutes, and no e911 service (e911 is an extra $1 a month). Their feature list isn’t the greatest compared to most other providers, but what they lack in features, they make up for in some of the lowest international rates available through any VoIP provider around. Here’s a great example: I have a friend who lives in Ireland, and he has a cell phone with Meteor. Calling a Meteor phone in Ireland costs on average about 25¢ a minute or higher through every single VoIP and cell phone service I’ve found but F9. On F9, it’s 6.6¢, and the call quality is quite good. The owner of the company frequents the Broadband Reports forums and frequently tosses in on tech support himself. Even if you don’t decide to use F9 as your primary VoIP provider, they’re an excellent secondary provider for routing calls out on if you do any regular international calling.

Pros: Good call quality. Excellent international rates. Good tech support with supported devices. Account can be used as a calling card while away from home. Supports SIP-to-SIP (100% internet, 100% free) calling to any SIP provider. US and Canada treated as the same calling area. Softphone access (use with your WiFi enabled Android). e911 is an optional add-on feature so you don’t have “hidden” fees on top of the quoted base price to provide the service.

Cons: Documentation on device configuration is sparse. You’re on your own for exotic configurations. Website doesn’t have that professional polish if you care about that sort of thing. Not many advanced features that most other providers offer. Expensive to port phone number in. e911 is an add-on feature.

CallCentric – callcentric.com

Although not one of the cheapest VoIP calling package providers out there, CallCentric makes up for it in consistent customer support, documentation and reliability (even if support is e-mail only). They provide several custom mix-and-match calling packages to fit various needs, including the ability to mix flat rates with pay-per-minute on incoming/outgoing services. Excellent documentation for BYOD support and smartphone integration. They also provide a lot of unique and less common features such as FAX support.

Pros: Good call quality and reliability. One of the older operating consumer VoIP providers. Open standards support. Good assortment of calling packages. Non-mandatory e911 fees for users outside US/Canada. Consistent support. Excellent documentation for BYOD support and smartphone integration. Incoming virtual FAX support. Anonymous call reject, call filtering, and global call hunt. Free DID (phone) number options in select area exchanges.

Cons: E-mail support only. Servers are all located in a single location. Not the most competitive domestic calling rates. Requires at least a little effort to set up and configure. Must provide your own device. No guarantee on FAX services for reliability.

PhonePower – phonepower.com

Although the most expensive provider in this list on a month-to-month basis without discounts, PhonePower is a happy medium from a feature and flexibility standpoint between VOIPo and VOIP.ms for many users. They’re also only expensive in relation to these other specific providers, but still cheaper than alternatives like Vonage and traditional phone service.

Pros: Good quality. Good uptime. Good customer support via phone, e-mail and documentation. Offers pre-configured device or BYOD support. Free cloned second phone line. Good intro rates. Free number porting. Good selection of additional features. International phone number options.

Cons: Expensive renewal rates. Cheap monthly rates only with annual pre-pay. Cancellation refund gets pro-rated at full price. Only “unlimited” minute packages.

FAX Alternatives

Sometimes, you just need to FAX a document. It doesn’t happen often anymore, but it does happen. There’s even businesses that still need to rely on the service. If we’re covering VoIP, we should cover the kid brother FoIP as well. One thing to understand with most VoIP services is that they’re optimized for voice, and not electronic modem carrier communications, which makes VoIP phone service less than ideal for sending low resolution black and white images between traditional FAX machines. The most obvious solution if you’d rather keep using your existing FAX equipment is to just find a VoIP provider and ATA that supports T.38, but that’s not always ideal or doable. There’s also using a carrier and ATA that supports the G.711μ protocol without silence suppression, but you need to ensure you have plenty of bandwidth and a stable network connection. Clearly, the most convenient alternative would be a solution that bridges an old technology with another more ubiquitous old technology: e-mail. Enter the FAX to e-mail gateway provider.

You might have noticed in the above list of VoIP carriers that CallCentric, PhonePower and VOIPo all have support for FAX services. While all three provide FAX to e-mail gateways for receiving, only VOIPo supports sending PDF files as FAX messages from the user control panel as well. If your FAX needs are few and far between and going with a carrier like VOIPo anyway, you’re set with minimal inconvenience. CallCentric’s service is great for incoming, but doesn’t address outgoing. For occasional outgoing, there’s always FaxZero for “free” limited outbound FAX sending in exchange for a cap in page numbers sent and the addition of an advertisement on the cover page. Alternately, for more infrequent and private (not that FAX is a very secure communications method) outbound FAX sending using an e-mail to FAX gateway, there’s InterFAX, with domestic rates starting at 11¢ a page at their highest.

For people who actually handle a fair bit of FAX traffic a month, a wholly virtual provider with monthly volume discounts might be worth looking into. Again, InterFAX would potentially be a good option, as would Nextiva. Both options do FAX to e-mail in addition to providing Windows print drivers that can be used to send documents as well. There are other alternatives, many of which prefer to rely on proprietary software utilities, but as with the VoIP advice, it’s best to stick with providers that operate with more open and common standards.

Of course, going virtual with your FAX services using email gateways usually requires you to create PDF files of the documents you’re looking to send out to others. For Linux and OSX users, this is no big deal as the function is provided as part of the desktop, but not so with Windows or smartphone users. Good news, you don’t have to purchase Adobe Acrobat if you fall into that category. For Windows users who aren’t needing to scan physical paper documents, there’s PDFCreator (open source) from PDFForge, which creates a virtual PDF printer for Windows applications to print to. If you install this utility, do a custom install and do be mindful of the installation as it tries to slip in toolbars and other superfluous crapware, but they can be dodged if you just pay very close attention. If you don’t, you’ll have a mess to clean up. There’s also doPDF that seems to be gaining some manner of popularity amongst Windows users. For Android and iOS users, there’s CamScanner that allows you to take photos of paper documents and converts them into PDF files.

Security Systems and PERS

For those of you who have security systems for your home or a PERS system for a limited mobility loved one, many of these systems can be made to work with VoIP providers. It’s important that you use a VoIP provider and system that supports the afore mentioned G.711μ protocol, and have the alarm system set to utilize by the monitoring company (if an option) to the ADEMCO 4+2 Express protocol for reporting, or use an alarm system that notifies via recorded voice message notifications. This technique can also work with a GSM gateway. The important thing is that these systems be set up on their own dedicated FXS port with the ATA (this will make more sense after the next section) to guarantee the device can seize the line in the case of an alarm event. Many monitoring companies can provide GSM and network based reporting modules as well if the dial system cannot be made to work.

Honestly though, re-evaluate the true value of your alarm system. Is it a manifested symptom of your fear, paranoia, and conspicuous consumption? If you’re not materialistic, there won’t be anything that thieves could take from you that you would miss in the first place. If you still have a situation where you might be able to justify an alarm system, consider a self monitoring solution like the Fortress GSM-B alarm system, which can even patch in existing wired alarm sensors. It can be set up to sequentially call up to six phone numbers until a person responds with alerts, or send out SMS text message alerts to three numbers.

As for the PERS systems, I can understand and sympathize with the idea behind them as it allows individuals to carry on with their independence a bit longer than they might not have otherwise. That said, if you decide to use one? Don’t flush money down the toilet for a subscription based system. Much like the self-monitoring alarm systems, there are self monitoring medical alarm solutions as well, like the LogicMark Freedom Alert II DECT Pro. These units can be set up to sequentially auto-dial up to four phone numbers followed by 911 emergency services if there’s no answer. That said, consider moving in with family instead of trying to cling onto your freedom with convoluted technical alarm systems. Loved ones should be cherished, and family should take care of one another.

Regarding 911 Emergency Calling

I know having access to 911 can be important, and this can be a sticking point for a lot of landline defenders who are worried about cutting the copper. The major argument against VoIP from these folks is usually in regard to service availability in a power outage. Well, that’s easily remedied with a beefy uninterruptible power supply (UPS), as a broadband modem, router and ATA don’t use that much electricity. Understand that a power outage, depending on its cause and duration, typically has just as much of an availability impact on your ISP connectivity as it would your home phone line. So long as the line isn’t severed, you should still have access. Remember too that the major communications sheds that phone and cable providers use have battery backups themselves that will only last 48-72 hours at most. If you park your modem, router and ATA on a dedicated UPS, depending on its size, you should theoretically be able to keep VoIP phone service active for several hours to days in a power outage.

It’s also valuable to understand how proper modern E911 service is handled with a VoIP carrier, and the features that the enhancement has brought. When implemented correctly with a VoIP carrier in the United States, you set the physical address location of your phone service with your provider, who then selects and routes emergency calls to the appropriate PSAP for your area, and also sends your address information to the operator of the call center you’re connected with when you call. Clearly, it’s important with this setup to always make sure your home address information is accurate for the ATA in question to ensure timely dispatching of first responders aren’t mis-routed. Knowing this helps too as you can ask how E911 services are implemented with various VoIP providers that you might look into, as not all VoIP providers will provide E911 service at all (Google Voice, Skype), or their implementation is just setting a dial-plan to your closest police station dispatcher or a national call center and not having the infrastructure in place to connect with the appropriate PSAPs, or send along the necessary location information with the call.

If 911 service is this critical to your family, be willing to have alternate methods available to call for help such as cell phones or GMRS/FRS radio equipment (and licensing), and take the necessary steps to learn how to respond to emergencies yourself. Remember that safety is an illusion, and that first aid, self defense and firefighting skills are all valuable life skills for anybody to know. Get the training and equip yourself with the appropriate tools. Remember, emergency response time of a person on site who knows how to hold their own in a crisis is immediate… prepare, but don’t run away from risk, and don’t obsess about safety.

You Get What You Pay For

I would be remiss to not at least give Google Voice another quick mention here. Personally, I’ve grown tired of using it and don’t value the “free” services offered for the level of datamining anymore, but it is still an incredibly useful service for those who need its features or want it. GV is also a great workaround for the cellphone use to save money on SMS text messaging with people you know who refuse to use anything but SMS and for providing a phone number other than your cell number to hand out to everyone. It’s also useful for those who whine about not wanting to tell people, “Give me a minute, I’ll call you back,” as it’s just a quick (*) key to ring the GV call over to their VoIP account even on their own cellphone (if they’re in a WiFi hotspot) so long as the GV number is given out instead of the actual cell number.

There’s also services like MagicJack and Ooma. MagicJack offers a dirt cheap price per year on phone service and a proprietary device, but they don’t permit using your own devices or software to make or receive calls, which is one of the cost savings benefits of using a VoIP provider with a WiFi enabled cell phone. Their call quality is rather inconsistent as well and “unlimited” comes with some fine print and monthly minute restrictions. Then there’s the issues with their customer support.

Ooma’s actually a bit of a racket as their “unlimited” free phone service still costs about $3-5 a month for the phone number, e911 support and regulatory fees, their “unlimited” comes with fine print as well, and their hardware is proprietary and starts at $200. Unfortunately, the Ooma hardware also has a bit of a track record of dying due to shoddy electronics components just outside the warranty period (around the 18 month mark, likely cheap capacitors – as is the bane of all electronics these days) and the issues with customer support themselves. You also have the same limitations on flexibility with the service as you do with MagicJack, and all of the useful VoIP features that get given away with other providers (Canada included in call area, Caller ID name, call forwarding during outages, anonymous call block, voicemail to email, call routing rules, etc.) winds up costing more per month to add to the Ooma account than competitors charge in total for an equal number of “unlimited” minutes with all the same features and without the overpriced proprietary hardware buy-in.

They might seem like decent options for lazy shut-ins who can’t do math and don’t care about call quality and spend all day glued to the phone, but we want workable, reliable, frugal solutions. Intelligent frugality requires the resourcefulness to use your services how you need them with your own devices.

If you’re still interested in MagicJack and Ooma despite the caveats already cited, read these posts on the math. It’s not pretty. If you insist on going with an ultra-cheap, proprietary service, go with netTALK instead. It’s forum user approved within limitations.

Just remember, you get what you pay for. There’s no sense going with the absolute cheapest, cut-rate services available and sacrificing on call quality and customer support when the financial line between cheap/free service and reliable quality service is so marginal in the first place. Often times, the difference is less than $5-10 a month. Is that additional marginal savings worth sacrificing your personal privacy or service quality when you’re already able to save so much in the first place even using the higher-end paid alternatives versus the traditional carriers?

As with all things since I can’t say it enough, RESEARCH! Nothing is a one-size fits all situation, and that applies with these carriers, your usage, and if you want to use it for personal or business needs. A good place to do a lot of VoIP provider research is over at Broadband Reports. They have extensive reviews of VoIP providers, user forums, and they cover other topics such as ISPs and networking hardware.

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