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Cutting the land line (sort of)

Being old school—and just old in general—our family has always had a land line (i.e. Plain Old Telephone Service or POTS). We've also had the same POTS phone number for well over a decade, so it's the number that everyone uses to call us at home. Add in the fact that (at least until very recently) AT&T cell service at our home was marginal to poor, and there really wasn't much desire to cut our land line for all-cellular.

Until I looked at our bill, that is, and discovered that our POTS line was costing us over $30 a month. Even at that amount, we paid extra for caller ID, and still had to pay for long distance calls. So once AT&T upgraded the cell towers near our home, we started using our cell phones for all long distance calls. But still, our POTS number was well known to friends and family, so we didn't want to just kiss it goodbye. But that $30+ a month was basically a complete waste of money, so I started looking for other solutions.

Enter VOIP, or Voice Over IP. This technology has been around a long time, but I never really felt ready to make the move. Then I started looking into it, and found that I could save about 90% of the monthly cost of my POTS line, keep my phone number, and gain a number of useful features. That made the "go" decision quite easy to make; read on if you're curious about replacing a land line with a VOIP service.

To use a VOIP service, you need a few things:

  • A full-time internet connection. Speed isn't critical, but faster is always better, right?
  • A piece of hardware or software to handle the routing of inbound and outbound calls.
  • A device to make and receive calls. This can be a VOIP phone (which would handle both the routing requirement, and the actual calls) or a simple telephone connected to a piece of VOIP hardware. There are also software phones that run entirely on your computer.
  • A VOIP service provider.

There are any number of ways to install VOIP service in your home, and I'm not going to pretend to even know anything about any of them—other than describing the method I used.

Because our home has quite a few existing telephones, I wanted to use them in the VOIP setup, instead of using VOIP phones. That meant I'd need a hardware VOIP box, for which there are a befuddling number of options. I also needed to pick a VOIP service provider. And, of course, there are a huge number of VOIP service providers, too. So where to begin?

Like any good technically-oriented person, I dove right in and did hours and hours of research, visiting hundreds of web sites and…er, no, that wasn't what I did at all. Instead of doing my own research, I spoke with a couple friends who were already VOIP users, and asked them for their advice. (Hey, research is fun, but it's even more fun leveraging those who have already done the research!)

What I learned is that you need to make sure the VOIP hardware you buy is compatible wth the VOIP provider you choose. So before I bought a VOIP box, I chose my provider. I went with voip.ms, mainly because (a) it was what one of my friends was using, (b) they offered a plan with a near-zero fixed cost and a really cheap per-minute charge (under a penny), and (c) they have a really nice wiki with tons of setup and usage information. (They've also got a pretty nice web user interface that lets you see reports and control all sorts of features, i.e. disabling international dialing or setting a limit on the length of a call.)

Once I had the provider selected, I took a look at the wiki section on devices to make sure I picked a supported device. As before, I also relied on my friends' experience.

In the end, I chose the OBi202 VOIP adapter. It's well reviewed, relatively affordable, and fully covered in the voip.ms wiki. (The wiki covers the 100/110, but the 202 is very similar, and the instructions worked fine.)

The Obihai 202 has two telephone ports in the back, and each can be configured separately—you could use two different phone numbers, for instance, and configure each port to handle one of the numbers.

With the Obi in hand, and a VOIP service selected, I was ready to go—in theory. In reality, the thought of cutting the land line without some practical VOIP experience was a bit scary. So I signed up for a new direct line at VOIP.ms (which cost, I think, an entire dollar). I then used that phone number as I configured the VOIP box and service.

Once everything was set up (not necessarily trivial, but relatively easy if you can follow directions), I made and received a number of calls on the temporary inbound number. After a couple weeks of use, we were ready to make the switch. So I had our home phone number ported over to VOIP.ms, which can take a while—I don't recall exactly how long it took, but it was over a week.

Once the number was ported, I just had to modify my configuration to reflect the new (old) number, and we were set. Well, mostly…the other thing I did was to unplug the phone line at the outside box where it comes into the house, as it was no longer needed (and leaving it connected isn't a good idea, as I understand it).

We've now been on VOIP for about three months, and we're generally quite happy with the switch. Voice quality is definitely a notch or two below a true landline, but it's more than good enough—it's on par or better than my typical cell phone calls.

I really love the detailed reporting you can get, too. A quick login on the VOIP.ms site gets me a call-by-call record for any time period. You can also get graphical reports, showing any number of things. For instance, in August we made or received 92 calls for a total duration of just under two hours, costing a grand total of $1.18 in per-minute charges. Here's how that broke down each day:

Add in the $1.50 for enhanced 911 services and the $0.99 per-line charge, and our August bill was $3.67; under our old land line, it would have been $35 plus the cost of any long distance calls. Pretty much a no brainer, and I wish I'd made the switch years ago.

Are there downsides? Sure, if our internet goes down, so does our phone line—but we've got three cell phones in the family, so that's not a huge problem. Sometimes, for reasons unknown, I get short periods of really bad call quality. This is probably something on my end, but the incidents are so rare (and short in duration, as in a couple of seconds) that I haven't been bothered enough to find a fix yet.

Overall, we've been thrilled with the switch, especially the richer feature set and greatly reduced monthly cost. If you're still paying a lot for a land line, you may want to see what VOIP offers.

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