At first glance, a home phone seems like a somewhat quaint, old-fashioned thing to have these days. With mobile phones everywhere, it seems unnecessary and perhaps a little wasteful. Call me nostalgic, then, but I really like to have one. I have a few specific reasons for this: calling long distance (internationally) still seems cheaper, on average, because the world of home phone lines from big providers is strongly regulated to offer choice. I also don’t like running down my cell phone battery while listening to ‘lite jazz’ hold music and canned voices assuring me that my call is important to whoever I’m trying to talk to. And I can have multiple ‘handsets’ (quaint expression, that) strategically distributed around the house, DECT 6 wireless phones being just about the cheapest gadget you can have in your home (it’s actually hard to buy a home phone these days that doesn’t come with at least two handsets).
The price of maintaining a home phone, however, tends to be outrageous if you’re using one of the big ‘default’ providers (in Canada, that would be Bell, Rogers, Telus on the West Coast, or your friendly local telco elsewhere). Pricing, it seems, has not really changed much since the days when everyone had a home phone line: somewhere between $25 (minimum) and $50 (with a basic long distance plan). The technologies vary a bit (the incumbent local telcos are the only ones actually providing ‘proper’ PSTN copper to the home) and now also include cable and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP). For example, Rogers will either let you rent a phone box connected directly to its cable system (‘Rogers Home Phone’) or — through its Fido brand — sell you a VOIP solution for $9.99 per month (provided you already have a high speed internet connection).
Once you decide to look into VOIP service providers, you quickly discover many other pre-packaged, branded options: Vonage, Ooma, netTALK, etc. I have no doubt that they all work, and that some of them offer specific benefits, particularly in the long distance realm (most include either limited or unlimited international calling to certain locations in their monthly flat rate).
The stability and quality of any VOIP solution depend primarily on two factors: the quality and stability of your home network and internet connection, and the quality of the upstream voice carriers your provider uses to route your calls. Since profit margins in plain old voice telephony services are measured in fractions of a cent, it’s probably safe to assume that the branded retail VOIP providers are using the cheapest bulk upstream carriers they can find. It is, after all, less important to shed a few attentive end users who complain about poor voice quality than to make as much profit as possible. Since consumer services also tend to be non-transparent about their technical choices, I feel skeptical about using them.
Thankfully, some googling quickly reveals that VOIP does not actually have to involve any ‘branded’ providers (Vonage, Ooma, etc.). There are countless VOIP providers out there; in fact, the market is a race to the bottom, and that’s something you can exploit to maximize your savings — particularly if you’re prepared to learn a little bit of ‘configuration jargon,’ buy your own equipment and maintain it yourself. In fact, providers that have a nice looking website and sell branded equipment in big box stores are evidently spending their immense profits1  on convincing you they’re better than the next guy; I’m here to tell you that’s not the case.
It is worth, of course, to read the reviews and familiarize yourself with what’s out there before jumping in head first. In my own research, one provider that kept popping up with overwhelmingly positive reviews (from the tech community) was VOIP.ms . This Montreal-based company provides VOIP services to resellers, organizations and individuals (provided, as I said, you’re willing to do the work yourself — this is not a packaged consumer offering).
Here’s what you need:
- To connect your existing analogue home phone to the internet, you need an Analogue Telephone Adapter (ATA) . These are available to purchase for around $50. I opted for a Grandstream HT702  for $41 plus applicable taxes. Similar devices are available from Cisco  and Obihai  (the Obihai devices seem to get particularly good reviews but aren’t as readily available at retailers; I didn’t want to wait for shipping). An ATA is a small, powered device (see picture above — mine sits under my desk, comfortably invisible) that connects to your internet router with a network cable. Wireless ATAs are available but cost in the $80-$100 range, and the jury seems to still be out in terms of their reliability and performance.
- A VOIP.ms account. VOIP.ms is a pre-paid only service: you load up your account via PayPal or credit card, so you’re working off a positive balance. You can configure it to receive an email alert once you hit a particular credit level, leaving yourself plenty of time to reload your account.
- A DID  (Direct Inward Dialing) number. This is something you sign up for once you’ve got your VOIP.ms account. Basically, you need to pick a phone number (ideally, in your local dialing area — although you may decide to get a number that’s deliberately in a different city; more about that later). Numbers are available in major Canadian and US cities as well as a huge selection of international locations. Be aware, however, that certain countries require you to actually be a resident (with proof) before you can order a local phone number. Canadian DIDs are available for a one-off fee of $1.49 (yes, that’s one dollar and forty-nine cents).
Optionally, you can move your existing phone number to the VOIP service. In Canada, this costs $10 (once off) and takes approximately 1-2 weeks. I decided it wasn’t worth it for my purposes as I was mostly using my previous home phone for making outgoing calls (and I was getting more than a little annoyed at the ever-growing number of telemarketers who seemed to magically have gotten hold of my number, despite the fact that I listed it in the Canadian National Do Not Call List  (DNCL)).
I won’t go into the technical details here (because this is not that kind of blog — and because VOIP.ms has an excellent wiki  where the specific configuration options for most ATAs are provided). In principle, you plug the ATA into your router, connect the phone to the ATA, dial a code on the phone to retrieve the ATA’s IP address, log into the ATA using your web browser — and you’re off to the races in terms of getting started. The rest was really just transferring the recommended configuration options from VOIP.ms’ wiki page to the ATA and testing the result. I had some initial hiccups related to not being able to reliably receive incoming calls — sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t. A quick trouble ticket with VOIP.ms’ very responsive support team resolved the issue (it turned out to be a configuration setting that I had missed).
One key thing to understand about a VOIP.ms solution like this is that you’ll be charged a (very low) per-minute rate for all calls, outgoing and incoming (you can see the rate structure here ). Before you panic, the charges are around a half cent per minute. For consumers, VOIP.ms offers a $4.95/month flat rate on incoming calls (3,500 incoming minutes), but I think it’s not worth it for my usage (perhaps your home phone is busier than mine though).
Here are some of the benefits of using a highly configurable VOIP provider such as VOIP.ms:
- Even with “premium” call routing options, it’s incredibly cheap. I estimate that my home phone will cost me somewhere between $2.50 and $4.00 per month, including international calls (I make about 2-3 hours of international calls a month, if that).
- You can get a phone number in another city. I’ve read stories where people have created local dial-in numbers for their parents (who were reluctant to pay ‘long distance’ fees). It costs the same regardless of where you put the number.
- You can create elaborate phone forwarding scenarios. For example, if you no longer want your old home phone number but don’t want to bother setting up an ATA, you could transfer your old number into VOIP.ms and simply permanently forward it to your cell phone. Total cost per year would be around $15.
- The VOIP.MS voice mail system is excellent and highly configurable. It has all the options of the better ‘corporate’ PABXes, such as multiple mailboxes, different options for ‘busy’ and ‘no answer,’ etc. You can also configure it to email you a sound file of each new voice mail message as it is received — incredibly practical if you’re traveling.
- The ability to hang up on annoying telemarketers automatically. The big open secret about the DNCL I mentioned above is that it doesn’t actually work. Unethical telemarketers don’t adhere to it, and the CRTC doesn’t follow up on complaints (at least not in a way that seems to make any kind of difference). With regular home phone providers, you have little recourse. Using VOIP.ms, simply set up a specific blocking filter for the incoming DID and you’re good to go. I simply hang up on previous offenders — automatically (and it never even rings my phone).
- You can also download a VOIP client for your cell phone and use your home phone line (and its cheap international rates) from your smartphone (provided you have good data connectivity — I think this scenario mostly makes sense while you’re connected to wifi).
Of course, the most important benefit of using VOIP is that I’ve given Rogers the boot for yet another overpriced service and am saving approximately $43 per month. And I get to feel sort of clever about it.
One important thing you should know about these VOIP services is that 911 emergency call support is an optional, paid extra. It’s not difficult to configure but it costs an additional $1.50 per month (which VOIP.ms says is a pure pass-through of their cost of providing it). I have opted not to turn on 911 support on my home phone for now (but may yet change my mind, if only for the added peace of mind).
Finally, VOIP.ms offers both value and premium VOIP routing service — for local, international and toll free calls. It describes the difference as being related to both call quality and caller ID pass-through. The price difference between the two different services is, in fact, so minimal that I have chosen ‘premium’ for all my calls (since one of the persistent complaints about the pre-packaged consumer VOIP services is poor call quality). For now, call quality seems superb, and everything is working as expected.
It is useful to reflect, for a moment, on the economics of the ‘home phone racket’. Rogers charges at least $33 per month for basic cable phone service. Bell charges at least $23. Vonage is $29.99 per month once you’re through the initial half price months. Fido’s VOIP phone service is $9.99 per month. My service — VOIP.ms — will cost me approximately $3 per month ($4.50 if I decide to turn on 911 emergency call support). And VOIP.ms is still making money, otherwise they would not be in business. They appear to be making enough of a profit, it seems, to be able to offer a superb technical helpdesk service that seemed to be more competent than anything I ever experienced from either Rogers or Bell. Just some food for thought. ↩