For those of us who’ve been around long enough, there used to be one phone company. You paid a monthly fee to rent a phone, and Ma Bell took care of everything. It was clunky, expensive and inflexible, but man, it worked. Where do you think the term dial-tone reliability came from?
Since then, from Bell breakup in the early ’80s, to the advent of cell phones, to the introduction of VOIP, to the explosion of smart phone and digital services, it’s a whole new world out there. A lot of people have cut the cord completely and gone to just using a smart phone for everything, but there’s still a demand for home-based phone services. It’s just changing rapidly and evolving every day.
Having two home offices in the house, I got tired of paying full freight for two lines, voice mail and all the other fees, so I’ve been experimenting to find the right mix for a long time. I found the best local deal, shopped LD providers, and reviewed my bills to make sure we had the right package. Still, I thought was paying too much for what I got.
When Vonage hit the market, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I already had good cable Internet service, why not put that bandwidth to use? It was good for a while, and certainly a lot less expensive than my POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) provider…..but between the poor carrier quality, low reliability and amazingly poor customer service, I dropped Vonage after about 5 months. Granted, they have improved – while a search of the term “Vonage bad customer service” returns 106,000 hits, the first ones are fairly dated at this point. At the time (around 2006-2007), the frustration was amazing.
Another player in the market has been MagicJack, and if you can get past the infomercial hype and blather, it’s not a bad little tool. Customer service is spotty at best, but for the price, I’m willing to put up with a lower level of service and reliability. For a 2nd line or desk-bound call use, it’s not bad. For $20 a year, it’s worth the price of admission. Would I pay more? Probably not. It requires a certain level of tolerance to get that cheap.
Skype has even become an alternative for those willing to use their computer as their phone. If I’m working from a desk, I like to wear a headset, so it’s a possibility, but it has its limitations, because there’s no forwarding or voice mail.
My local cable provider got into the voice market, and for a long time, I bundled my phone service with my cable and Internet provider. Initially cheaper than the local phone company, and mostly reliable, it became less of a good deal over time. Now, it’s about the same price as other local services or other full-service digital providers.
I’ve been a huge fan of Google Voice (GV) since its launch in 2009. I was lucky enough to snag an invitation, and continued to rave about its features as it moved to a much broader audience in 2010. What’s not to like? One single number with call routing, unlimited free calling in US and Canada, screening, voice mail, and a host of other features. If you have multiple phones between work, home, and cell, it’s an awesome tool.
One of my favorite features has been voice to text – where GV will translate a voice message to text and e-mail the results. Not only does it let you know that there’s a message, you can review it without having to get into voice mail. Most of the time, it worked well. Occasionally, the results came off as more entertaining than informative, but it’s frequently a useful tool, and that’s enough to make me a fan.
It’s not perfect, though – Google is abandoning the XMPP protocol in May, 2014, so fans of the OBIHai device will have to either migrate to another provider, or own a brick. Google is big enough that they can do that….(Google Reader, anyone?) They also killed off support for the Blackberry version of Google Voice, and took a long time to get a GV app on the AppStore…but for free, it’s still pretty good.
There are a number of VOIP providers that have recently sprung up, and a variety of devices that you can use, from StraightTalk, Vonage, Cisco, Ooma and Obi. The upside? You get lots of features, (more every day), and CHEAP phone service. The down side? It ain’t Ma Bell. While home VOIP service has become very reliable, if you can’t deal with less than perfect reliability, it might not be for you. Between the improvements in service and the amazing array of features available, for me, it’s a good deal. I no longer have a traditional land line, yet I use my home office all the time, despite its immunity to cell phone signals. I just route my cell calls to my GV number, using my OBIHai ATA adapter (for the next six months), then I’ll figure out something else. Again, it’s not perfect. Sometimes, it’s incredibly annoying. Overall, the balance of features and improvements in reliability have made it worth the effort.