First, a little background. Working at home and being on-call requires two things: Home Office phone service and mobile service. These are both expenses that I have to cover out of pocket--but I do have an amount to put toward one or the other from corporate expense reimbursement--but it doesn't cover everything.
For me, as I am on a family plan for mobile (to save money household wide) my corporate reimbursement limit actually covers a majority of my mobile phone expenses (which total $59.99 per month, assuming I have no overages.) Now, that means that I have to eat my home-office line costs if I want one. And I do. Unlimited mobile minutes plans are hugely expensive unless you do a discount provider like StraightTalk (which has limited coverage and I am often in non-metropolitan areas.) which won't work for me. So I set out to find a solution to my phone line woes.
In 2011, I landed on GoogleVoice. The issue was how to use this service in a convenient manner. After some research I found a device called an ObiHai 202 or Obi202--this a XMPP (extensible messaging and presence protocol) and SIP (session initiation protocol) gateway. XMPP and SIP are both protocols that provide VoIP functionality. XMPP is the protocol underneath GoogleVoice and SIP is underneath most other Voice over IP providers and is by far the most common protocol for VoIP functions. The Obi202 provided me a very easy way to use GoogleVoice (and any other VoIP provider) with a plain jane cordless/corded phone system.
GoogleVoice--previously the best option for cost-savings is discontinuing this year on May 15, 2014. I personally have used this as my primary line for nearly two years for zero dollars per month---thousands and thousands of minutes per month. My previous phone line was at a cost of 39.99 a month for VoIP (so-called "Digital" Phone as cable companies advertise them) service from my cable company. That's $39.99*24 months = $959.76 over two years! So it's been quite a run.
Now, however, me and my trusty Obi202 are looking at what's the closest to zero I can do for service, since GoogleVoice is going away. For VoIP services you have two conditions to fulfill: 1) Outbound Service and 2) Inbound Service. That's right--with VoIP you can actually split your inbound and outbound service between two providers!!! That's not to say you can't get sole-service for VoIP--GoogleVoice has provided me with excellent service--and every providers offers both types of service. But the opportunity to use two providers should not be ignored--because that gives you an extra layer of service interruption protection, so it's worth considering.
When I had a "Digital" (VoIP) phone from my cable company it was down once a month. So $40 dollars a month got me one service interruption per month---free got one one interruption in 2 years! Granted--I'm only counting the times the actual Voice Service was down (ie., nothing VoIP based survives internet loss, but web surfing can survive a bad internet connection.) but still, that's a pretty nice thing.
So interested in VoIP yet? Good. Let's talk about it.
Voice over Internet Protocol is actually a reference to a methodology; there are several actual protocols that make it possible; Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is the most common. That's why most providers are referred to as SIP Providers and not VoIP providers. Other protocols are XMPP (which GoogleVoice is/was based on) and IAX (Inter-Asterisk eXchange.) which is used in the popular Asterisk Open-Source PBX software. All of them provide methods to send voice over IP, and they all work pretty well. However, the setup for them has historically been complex. But with a gateway device, you basically get a device that takes all the work out of it. The Obi202 that I use (about 65 bucks one time charge on Amazon as of January 2014) provides you with 2 physical phone ports---use any standard corded or cordless phone--and the ability to configure 4 Service Providers---essentially as of this writing it supports SIP providers only as GoogleVoice (the only XMPP provider it supports) is shutting-down. Still, that gives you two separate physical phones or a phone and a fax as the device does support the T.38 protocol--better known as Fax over IP. Below is a look at the device:
Front View--top down, status LEDs visible
Rear View--Back Facing
From Left to Right:
Phone 1 = Physical phone port 1
Phone 2 = Physical phone port 2
USB = expansion port--Obihai makes a WiFi adapter so you can set your Obi wherever you like within range of an existing wireless router.
LAN = Wired Connection to your existing Wifi Router
Internet = Wired Connection to your cable or DSL modem
DC 12 Power = Power adapter for your Obi.
Now---a gotcha in the making I hope I can help you avoid---VoIP does need priority over pretty much everything or you voice quality will be horrible and grabbled. This means you need a Quality of Service (QoS) setup for any VoIP technology. QoS is notoriously as much an art as a science, but the good news is the Obihai202 provides this function for you in the form of an IMQ style QoS. This is a simple 3 tier setup and it will auto-configure for you. So you'd just plug the Obi202 into your cable modem and then your wifi-router into the LAN plug on the Obi202--Done. Move on. If you want to do something more complex or have trouble with voice quality, refer to the installation/user guide that came with your device.
So let's talk about the service providers. Finding good providers is the majority of the work in having a valid VoIP Solution. You can use your service provider profiles in two ways---you can get all-one-providers that give you both incoming and outbound service or you can split your profiles between incoming and outbound only providers. After a ton of research here's what I came up with:
Free phone service is where it's at. So how do we get free phone service now that GoogleVoice is being retired? Well, we have two services that need to be provided:1) inbound and 2) outbound. For the inbound callcentric.com offers free DID (Direct Inward Dial--that's telecommunications industry speak for "phone number") now. It provides a NY State located number and unlimited minutes inbound. Just remember to select a non-US location when you sign up--otherwise they give and charge you E911 service (about 1.50 per month) no choice in the matter. . . which may not be bad if you want affordable E911 service. For the outbound, the best we can do is get tollfree for free--which is hard to find--most providers charge for it. Callwithus.com offers a free toll-free only service and you don't even need an account for it (but the Obi will require you to sign up to register properly--no problem it's free). If you want to get full-service from callwithus.com, they do offer the cheapest per minute US-dial rates I've seen, but require an initial sign-up of 25 dollars--their in-bound DID service is fairly cheap at ~3 dollars per month (the typical rate is usually 6-8 dollars per month.) if you want a local in-city number. The other option is voipvoip.com, which provides free calling for tollfree numbers, but requires you spend 10 dollars in initial credits to make calls--that's about as cheap as it gets.
Pay-as-You-Go vs. Monthly Flat Rate
Monthly Flat Rate Plans are also available from most all providers. Most of these are geared toward consumers--ie., someone not on the phone 8+ hours per day---make sure you read the fine print. Plans should run been 6 and 15 dollars per month with various options included for the pricing. Higher-cost plans usually include more features.
Pay-as-You-Go plans work best if you can get a provider with no-charge tollfree service included or find a provider (like callwithus.com) that gives you free-tollfree dial-out serivce. That way your pay-as-you-go provider will only be used when you have to make non-tollfree calls. This is what I do, and typically 10 dollars with of service at 1.9 cents per minute lasts nearly a year. That's what I call value!
How much Bandwidth and latency do I need?
For every VoIP call you make, you need 10-12 Kilobytes/sec upload and download for every VoIP call you make--true of SIP and XMPP-based calls. . . IAX should be about the same. So if you want to make 2 calls at once you need ~20 kilobytes/sec upload and download. . . pretty straightforward. Latency--you need sub 120 milliseconds of latency and the lower the better. That means that those of you on satellite are out of luck--dial-up isn't going to cut it either, sorry. Wireless broadband cards should work in areas with 3G or better.
callwithus.com -- cheap inbound which is optional, free outbound to tollfree, cheapest per minute rates I've found @ less than 1 cent a minute, requires 25 dollars (actually there are lower-amounts but you get surcharged) for initial account.
callcentric.com -- free inbound which is optional, variety of outbound plans, requires 10 dollars for initial account.
voipvoip.com -- inbound is standard cost (about 7 dollars per month) which is optional, free calls to tollfree and 1.9 cents per minute for everything else, requires 10 dollars for initial account creation.
You of course are free to do your own research. There's a ton of providers on the web to choose from. The typical rate per minute for US and Canadian calls for SIP providers is 1.9 cents per minute, so don't pay more unless you known what you are getting. There are services like Obivoice (not affiliated with Obihai) that offer bulk plans--but beware of those---they only provide about 5 hours per day of calls or less before they bump you to business service which is considerably more at approximately $150 per year (but does provide virtual fax and really unlimited calling.)
Good luck and Happy Calling!
PS. What about MagicJack?
MagicJack has been around for years and years. These days they have a product called MagicJack PLUS, which no longer requires a computer, making them viable as a VoIP provider. Their service doesn't have the usual restrictions on call times that I can find. Let me know if you do. Their service is among the cheapest at (as of Jan 2014) $29.95 after the first year which is included in a $49.95 sign up. And since it's implemented via a USB-dongle you could take it with you when you travel. However, despite being a SIP-based service, for some reason they need more bandwidth--about 16KB/sec instead of the usual 10-12KB/sec. So this will make the service more sensitve to service quality issues.
Also, be aware that there is apparently NOT any built-in QoS for the service, and since it's a child device to your DSL/Cable Modem, it gets no preference for traffic priority unless your device provides it. I know of one co-worker who has crystal clear calls using MagicJack and another who has absolutely horrible call quality. At this time, I wouldn't personally choose it, but you are free to try it. . . .their price point is virtually impossible to beat from any single provider.
Note: This article reflects my own personal experience and views and not those of the IBM Corporation.