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A home phone for $3/month


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 [1] 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 [2]. 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:

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 [8] (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 [9] 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 [10]). 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:

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.

  1. 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.  [11]