Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cutting the cord

Trying to connect
On the VoIP line


It's been awhile since I first used a telephone. Phone booths, when not in use by Superman as a dressing room or Dr. Who as a pre-Star Trek transporter, used to allow me to make a call for a dime.

But I've "kept up." I reluctantly gave up - there was no choice - classy phone numbers that included words - Pennsylvania 6-1000 (PA6-1000), Cherry 9-1674 (CH9-1674), etc. At one point in my brief military career, I used a "plug board" - think of the great Lily Tomlin's Ernestine and you will see her with a plug board. Now I have, in addition to copper (landline), a cellular phone - just a "dumb" one, but mobile none-the-less.

Over the course of my tech pubs career, I documented PBXs for the Japanese (OKI) and the Israelis (Tadiran).

But "Voice over Internet Protocol," a/k/a VoIP, has been avoided.

CAVEAT: In reviewing customer comments on the MagicJack/Sentiment/Cons, at least one customer complained that the telco providing internet connectivity cut off internet access when the customer canceled the telephone service. It might be a good idea to either talk to the phone service provider BEFORE cancelling landline service or to have an alternate internet service provider (ISP) in place before cancelling the landline.

VoIP has its problems, especially if you need emergency services "stat" - right now! Until recently, there was no way for emergency services to locate a VoIP caller; it still can't be accomplished in many communities.

On top of the 9-1-1 problem, when the AC is interrupted, VoIP service in interrupted - unless the user has an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) providing backup power to a modem/router and the VoIP adapter..

But, since almost everyone now is chained to someplace with a cell/mobile phone, maybe the absence of a landline can be tolerated.

There are a couple of remaining problems.

Sometimes cell reception is "if'fy."

Worse, my wife prefers to use the cordless handsets or even the corded phone's handset, to the tiny cell phone. Gone are the days when a mobile phone either had a telephone handset attached or looked like a military PRC-6.

Still, the monthly bills seem to be inching up, cent by cent. It's a double hit. As the telco raises its rates, the tax bite also climbs. What started off as a reasonable rate for the time has now inched up sufficiently that we are considering VoIP.

We already have Internet connectivity (obviously) and daily overseas calls are via Skype - great when it works from point-to-point (meaning that all problems encountered could be the result of an ISP at either end, or the WWW, or Skype. There is an alternative - TinyChat, similar to Skype but accommodating many more participants for free at one time. It is a little less "user friendly" than Skype so computerphobes won't use it.)

There are several "click-n-go" VoIP systems out there. I've been looking at five:

  1. Axvoice

  2. BasicTalk by Vonage

  3. MagicJack

  4. netTALK

  5. VOIPo

My current phone population consists of:

  • Cordless base station

  • Cordless extension

  • POTS (corded) station

The POTS (Plain Ol' Telephone System) station is the odd-man-out, so to speak.

Each product has its pros and each has its cons.

Axvoice This company has several plans. All start off with a $20 initial fee to ship the free VoIP adapter, but then the annual fee kicks in. For the Axvoice basic plan, the user pays $118/year; this includes an $18 "911" levy. The company's world plan, which includes international long distance to select phones, comes in at $218/year. For most destinations - including the one we call most often, that is for landline (corded phones) only; mobile/cell phones are not included. Number porting is free. The service currently works only with wireless phones; corded phones are not supported, nor is there a WiFi option currently offered.

BasicTalk One of the two well-advertised companies, BasicTalk is $10/month ($120/year) plus taxes and is paid monthly by credit card. According to BasicTalk tech support, the equipment works with both corded and wireless phones. However, there is one caveat: The telco line (the wire from AT&T, Verizon, etc.) must be disconnected if BasicTalk is to work with a corded phone. If DSL is the connection to the Internet, then the options are:
(a) toss out the corded phone or
(b) dump DSL and get Internet via cable; wireless (dish) Internet service is not recommended.
If your home setup is similar to mine, the modem and router are on one side of the house and the corded phone is on the other. Number porting is free.

I thought BasicTalk had a WiFi version similar to netTALK; BasicTalk support reports that it does NOT have a WiFi option.

netTALK There are two - actually 3, but two are almost twins - versions available: Duo WiFi and Duo II.

According to netTALK tech support, Duo WiFi solves the corded phone issue (see BasicTalk, ibid.) by allowing the user to put the WiFi adapter wherever convenient; in my case, next to the corded phone. My TP-Link router reaches all corners of the relatively compact residence. Since the corded phone is plugged into the adapter, not the phone line, there is no problem with keeping DSL. netTALK Duo WiFi has the second highest up-front cost of $65, but that includes one year of service ($30 for the least expensive plan). By comparison, Duo II is $35 for the equipment and first year, with three months free, then $30/year thereafter. Number porting is free.

netTALK won't let me automatically route my international long distance calls via Telna, my LD service. Now, with AT&T and Verizon, when I dial 011 (the international gateway code), AT&T/Verizon routes the call directly to Telna. Convenient; out of sight, out of mind. The cells, with free long distance in the U.S. and Canada are programmed to dial Telna's toll number, pause, then dial the destination number. Worst case, with netTALK, I will program Telna's toll number into the handsets and wait for Telna's prompt, then manually dial the destination number. (For all that, netTALK's international rates are competitive.)

MagicJack probably has been around the longest in the residential market. While it seems to be the least expensive option, it has it's "got-cha's."

MagicJack will port (transfer) a current number for a fee: $20 the first year and then $10 every year thereafter. That's on top of its $35 annual fee. That seems to me unreasonable since a "Number Portability Fee" (tax) is included in my monthly phone bill. Moreover, why an annual porting fee - it is a one-time process? It "does not compute."

MagicJack connects directly to a computer, modem, or router; as with all but netTALK, there currently is no WiFi option.

MagicJack is not without its detractors. (None of the VoIP candidates are "complaint free.") WikiBooks MagicJack/Sentiment/Cons lists a litany of woes.

VoIPO At an initial fee $150, VoIPO has the highest up-front costs and the second highest ($150) annual cost, but it does offer 60 minutes-a-month free international calling … but, like netTALK, calls to most mobile phones are excluded from the free minutes.

VoIPO tells me I can connect the corded phone to the adapter, but the phone must be within cable distance to the modem and router; there currently is no WiFi option. I suspect that, as with BasicTalk, I must either forego the corded phone or switch to a cable ISP. As with netTALK, Telna is not a (direct) option.

There are a number of other VoIP options, but almost all have higher initial or operating costs than the ones I've researched in some depth.

Is it worth giving up your corded phone?

Two things to consider:

  1. What will you do in the power is off and there is an emergency? The corded phone will work, but so will a charged cell phone - assuming your area has good reception.
  2. Do the math (and don't forget taxes and 911 charges). How much does the landline cost per year, without long distance. (You always can get a long distance carrier such as Telna to lower your long distance charges.)

We did the math. Our cell phone reception is reliable.

One extra item to consider, but this has only peripheral interest to VoIP: a small Uninterruptable Power Supply, a/k/a UPS. Affordable ones won't keep you talking for more than a few minutes, BUT they help protect the connected equipment - computer, modem, router, VoIP adapter - that is plugged into them from power dips and spikes; very little offers 100% protection from lightening strikes. Let calls to the VoIP system go to the provided voice mail and get them when power is restored.

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