VoIP :
Is it ready to replace conventional Home Phone Services?

With the ubiquity of the internet, and increasingly reliable high-speed, low cost access, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to free myself from the expensive and often frustrating relationship with the monopolistic telecommunications carriers for home phone services.

The opportunity has been enabled particularly through the advent of VoIP - Voice over Internet Protocol technology - sometimes referred to as an "internet phone", and initially popularized by Skype , and most recently by magicJack .

Many people have elected to simply discontinue home phone service altogether, deciding instead to use their mobile device as their primary telephone. Indeed, it can be said that wireless phone services have evolved virtually in parallel with internet services, so that now, they too are ubiquitous, reliable and affordable.

So much so in fact, that many developing nations have simply stopped rolling-out land-line infrastructure projects, deciding instead to largely base their telecommunications systems on wireless. It seems almost certain that today's teenagers in the developed world will never have a land line in their own homes, that for them, the home phone will be as quaint as a wrist-watch, and just bas redundant.

My own circumstances dictated that I try VoIP, rather than rely entirely on wireless, largely because comparable wireless services would cost at least twice as much as those offered through a land-line.

Back in the day...

My first introduction to VoIP had occurred a few years previously, when leading the development of web-based applications to manage VoIP systems for Mitel , an early provider of systems that could double as both a network and phone system for SME's. The challenge was not only to bridge the new and legacy technologies, but also to develop a user paradigm that took full advantage of what a browser interface could accomplish.

Now, rather than having to program a complex phone system with a 12 key phone pad, through multiple menu levels, one had simply to point and click. What a breakthrough! - even Bell bought the system from Mitel.

The problem however was that high-speed internet service was not at that time sufficiently refined or reliable, which meant generally inconsistent performance, despite the merits of the system. Since legacy PBX systems had, after 50 years of implementation, raised the performance bar pretty high, customer tolerance for remotely less-than perfect performance was just about zilch, so up-take for early VoIP was sluggish at best.

Darwin was right

Fast-forward to now, and broadband service is as reliable as legacy phone systems, and small, independent and competitive VoIP providers are thick on the ground. With tiny capital costs, (when compared to legacy phone systems), VoIP is a thriving internet-based industry with multiple players at every market level, virtually unconstrained by national boundaries or telecommunications regulation.

It's quite simply the perfect demonstration of Darwin's theory applied to phone communications.

While VoIP provided the perfect theoretic solution for my telephone services, there was still the problem of the pipe - how would I get the phone services delivered to me? It soon became clear that any solution had to include the carriers that owned the existing data-pipes in my neighborhood - either the phone or cable company. There simply was no way to completely sever the relationship. If I wanted home phone services, I could certainly purchase them from independant VoIP providers, but they had to be delivered through telecommunications carriers.

A three-legged stool

Available just about everywhere, satisfactory VoIP phone service at home requires three things :
  • A fast, reliable internet connection
  • A reliable VoIP provider with really, really good support
  • Decent VoIP phone hardware.
Lose any one of these, and you better have a backup - a mobile cellular, for example.

A good pipe, fast and true

For my internet connection, I had the choice of using the cable through which conventional phone service is delivered, or that which delivers television.

Since we subscribe to internet video services such as Netflix , and grab all the TV we need over the air through an antenna, we don't actually need Cable TV, so I chose to keep using our "phone line". This required me to acquire the so-called "dry-loop" service from the phone company, which they were happy to provide, essentially a "live connection", but with only broadband, rather than phone service.

Internet service itself was available either through the phone company or through smaller, independent providers, at a lower cost for more features. Needless to say, I opted for the latter!

VoIP providers - let the Buyer Beware

I wont deny it, your fears are justified - it is a jungle out there. But if you break down the elements of risk, and address them, you can avoid disaster.

Firstly, remember the adage "if it looks too good to be true, it probably is"? Just so. If a VOIP provider on the one end is charging $9.95 "unlimited use", versus $29.95 on the other end, you know that something's out of whack.

Assume, as a base cost, that a provider needs the basic infrastructure to offer the service. Additional costs occur in two other areas - scaling to increased demand, and customer support. Precisely the areas that you don't want your provider to cut. The former means performance failures, and the latter means there is no-one there to help when you need them most, or they don't have a clue how to help. So avoid the bargain - it's not!

The other end of the spectrum is the all inclusive, full feature, full price model, like Vonage . But why pay for features that you don't need, and, frankly, why pay as much as your conventional land line provider has been hosing you for all those years?

I was fortunate to find a provider somewhere in the middle, at Callcentric.com . Apples to apples, I pay half as much as my old service, but I have added another line (because its so easy and inexpensive), so in total pay about 25% less than I used to, but I have in addition all the features included that I can possibly imagine, and easy system configuration through a web browser.

What initially attracted me to this provider was my inability to find online anyone with a bad word to say about them, and the fact that I could bundle services in a variety of ways, exactly as I needed, or pay per use. Its also really easy to get additional numbers or to keep your existing number.

But what has really got me sold has been the customer support, because I ran into an unusual problem initially, and they did all the hand-holding that anyone could possibly need or want. As I have said before, successful marketing is all about the customer service.

Update
Here is a cautionary tale. While Callcentric provided excellent service under ideal conditions, when conditions change to anything but ideal, everything fell apart.

Callcentric operates out of facilities in Manhattan. When Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern United States and New York in 2012, much of Manhattan lost power for days, and there was extensive flooding. As a result, all Callcentric customers were without service for several weeks.

If you depend on phone service, you need a backup plan, and I had failed to do the due diligence required to discover that Callcentric had no backup plan for this eventuality. Certainly, they had backup generators to handle power failures, but apparently those were underwater, so of no use!

With this catastrophic failure, Callcentric were too overwhelmed to be able to adequately manage every customer's queries independently, so, everyone was essentially on their own. After about 4 days of no phone or substantive information about service resumption, I began to look for other providers, with the criterion that they had to have a redundant system, widely distributed geographically.

The provider I settled on was VoIP.ms , who has servers across the U.S. and Canada. They had also lost their servers in Manhattan, but had proven themselves able by successfully switching affected customers to alternate servers elsewhere. Generally, basic VoIP services are cheap enough, that, while I continue to maintain a secondary service at Callcentric, my primary phone service is now through VoIP.ms.

New phones are better

The third leg of the VOIP stool is the additional hardware needed to get the system working. This can be either a VOIP specific phone, or an adapter that enables your existing phone to function with VOIP. I opted for the latter, since there is a much wider variety of regular analog phones, which have more and better features.

I purchased online a Panasonic DECT 6.0 enabled phone . I generally use Panasonic phones because the sound quality is higher - especially their voice mail.

Panasonic KX-TG9344T
The KX-TG9344T has 4 Cordless handsets, standard rechargeable batteries, answering machine to screen callers, speaker phone, more features than I can even grasp, and best of all, "Using text-to-speech technology, the Caller ID information is announced between rings."

Exactly. When you are in the middle of say, a workout, the phone rings and actually announces "call from - insert name of child, wife, girlfriend, boss, etc". And if a Callcentric subscriber, you get to customize the Caller ID info yourself, so it says "call from the slave-master"... or whatever you wish. The possibilities are only limited by your level of maturity. Oh yes, we have lots of fun with this feature around here.

And because you get 4 handsets and bases for only marginally more money than two, you can hang on to the extras to replace those that get hard use.

This is a nice, light phone. You can plug in a headset/microphone, clip the handset to your pocket, and chat while you're doing barbecue, or knitting.

To get it to work though, I needed an adapter.

First time 'round

Following the advice from Callcentric, and after reading several reviews, I initially purchased a Grandstream HandyTone 486 from SunnyVoIP . I found SunnyVoIP on ebay. His prices were best, and, coincidently, he is located in my home town, so obtaining the unit was easy.

Sometimes, it really is the equipment's fault.

The adapter setup process was a bit elaborate, but Callcentric provide excellent step-by-step instructions.

Grandstream HandyTone 486
Despite this, in my case, the resulting sound quality was not good. There was also significant voice delay, and I couldn't connect to Cable telephone networks. Callcentric support worked diligently with me to improve quality, suggesting various configuration and codec changes. While performance improved as a result, I still didn't feel it was good enough. My baseline is that quality of performance needs to be virtually the same as conventional phone service.

Since I had tested the Callcentric system with a "softphone" - a phone application loaded onto my computer that requires neither a phone handset or VOIP adapter, just a headset and mike - I was pretty sure that the system itself was not the problem. I also tested the system with an older phone, and this produced the same poor results as the new one. I was left with the inevitable conclusion that the new HandyTone 486 was probably the culprit, despite assurances from both Callcentric and SunnyVoip that this model had never shown such behavior before.

It was time to move on. Too much time and effort had already been spent. Would I have to simply give up on VOIP, as something who's time had not yet come? Would I have to swallow my pride, crawl back to Bell, and pay the $50 re-connect fee/penalty, as well as their inflated prices in perpetuity? And, would I have to first spend the required hours on hold, getting bounced from rep to rep, and listening to the loop of their latest promotions, important new menu selections and bad music, all at different audio levels?

It was too horrible to even consider. On faith, I decided to simply get another adapter, but this time I would de-risk further, and go top-of-the-line, name brand, rather than good-value-but-good-rating, obscure brand.

You get what you pay for

Linksys SPA 1001 2T
I got in touch with SunnyVoip again, and we settled on a Linksys (Cisco) adapter. I purchased the SPA1001, their basic model, without router capabilities, since I already had the DSL router that came with Bell Internet service. SunnyVoip was pretty good about this, and promised to take the unit back if things didn't work out.

When setting up the Linksys, it immediately became apparent that you get what you pay for. It was faster and easier, and the user interface much better designed and much more clear than the HandyTone 486. And there are multiple configuration options that the HandyTone 486 just doesn't offer.

VoIP really works

Once setup and tested following the instructions provided by Callcentric, it was immediately apparent that the problem had indeed been adapter related. Quality and performance were now at least as good as conventional phone service. VOIP is, in other words, definitely ready for the home market.

At this point in time I have barely scratched the surface of available features from Callcentric , but telephony and communications are now far less costly, and system management is far easier. Rather than having to go through Bell to turn on or off features (at an additional cost), you can configure everything yourself, and all features are included in your base price.

My current favorite is to have office phone messages forwarded to my email, so I can more easily stay in touch when I'm at a client's location.

And whenever I get a spam call from the marketing department of my bank hyping a new promotion, the system automatically re-directs the call to their corporate headquarters without bothering me.

My advice? Try VOIP. Given that you have ensured the reliability of each of the 3 legs of your VoIP "stool", there is no longer a need to pay more money for fewer features from the conventional carriers.

comment by Frank Nash  
Thanks for the VoIP tips. Happy to hear there is an alternative to Bell and Rogers home phone service.
comment by Cheryl  
Hey thanks! I really needed this information!
comment by Cara  
Wow! What a great article. You didnt miss a thing.

I am also looking for an alternative to Bell (whom I already left) and use a Prepaid Fido Cell (using an international card BEYOND CANADA from CALLINGCARDS.com which proves to be really cheap even for long distances within the province of Quebec and Canada). Learned my lesson after calling a friend in the South of France without using a prepaid card. Outch! I think the call was 20min. and 40$ (instead of 2$). Live and learn...
However, the processus you went through seems to be too technical for my little brain (only on computer matters) and so I guess, there isnt much choiice, except waiting for a new product that will make it easier for me to handle.
Thanks a million for taking the time to write that wonderful article. Hope BELL gets to read it ...
Cara
comment by Justin  
Ive been into Internet Telephony for quite some time now, and my favorite VOIP providers (both due to low cost, quality and feature rich-ness) are the following:

Cantalk9000, FreePhoneLine.ca, tk6000, CanadianMagicjack.com, vbuzzer, Callcentric, Acanac, vonage, ooma

Hope that helps some of you with your research. Right now I pay around fourty dollars per year for my phone service (unlimited calls to us/canada, caller id, call waiting, etc). Just stay away from The American Magicjack that relys on your computer to be on all the time, that is the cheapest and crappiest one. The rest of them are fine.
comment by ZeeXT  
Wow a very long article!

I must tell you, you might need to go through a couple of VoIP providers before you get the VoIP service thats right for you. Not all VoIP service are created equal so you need to research and read the fine print.

You also need to know your calling habits so you just dont sign up for something you dont need. If you seldom make outgoing calls but has lots of incoming calls then getting an unlimited outgoing service is just a waste of your money.

I use Onesuite VoIP and it suits me better than the other voip providers and this is because I search first and made sure read those fine prints.
comment by glenn duncan  
Thisis a great article. I am just starting to look into a new home phone provider because of the 240.00 cell phone bill my 16 year old incurred in 1 month through bell. She was receiving incoming texts that were not on her plan and she had no control over receiving them because she did not have the 15.00 per month service which was never told about. Bell said it was our fault and would not help out with the bill so I am deciding to get rid of them after 40 years and told them so. I had the same problems earlier with Rogers cell as well and got rid of them. I need a provider for home phone only because I use Rogers for my cable and internet and have not had a problem other than probably paying too much per month. I do not long distance so I need basic home services. Any suggestions.
comment by Lise Rodrigue  
I truly appreciated your article. I left Bell last year in frustration and went to Distributel, only to become even more frustrated. To add insult to injury, their ISP provider is....you guessed it: Ma Bell!
I shall follow your advice.
comment by Fred  
The upside to a traditional landline though is that it works if the power goes out. Voip connected to cable internet would need your computer to be powered. Unfortunately spending $70 / month for a phoneline with a few basic features from bell (free with me $40/m mobile plan) is too ridiculous. Im trying to avoid cellphone brain cancer..but $840 a year for a landline is insane.
comment by Bill  
Thank you for this well-written article. VoIP takes care of my phone problem, now to get rid of my Satellite problem and get rid of Bell altogether. The way they conduct their business is comical...I get put on the "do not call" list and now I get 6 or 8 calls per week from........you guessed it,,the promotional people at Ma BELL! and if I have to watch those stupid VU instructional commercials much longer Ill go bald! Id go back to Cogeco, but theyre just as bad. Since I live on the border and have friends in the US, I think the answer is an to pay one of my American friends to get a second satellite receiver and keep the card updated through them.....much better programming and fewer h ###les.
comment by Fred  
Bell did offer a VOIP service called Bell Digital Voice Lite around 2005. I was intimately involved with it. worked very well but was overpriced. got cancelled.
Most VOIP experts I know use VOIP.ms as their provider. Mulltiple DIDs, DISA for use with cellphone for cheap LD calls, multiple subaccounts etc etc
comment by Peter  
I dont think it is possible to replace right now. I have a providers list website about Voip , based info what i have, there is no way right now to do it.
comment by Stan  
I have been using a product called the Talkit.ca Home Phone system for the past year, $59.99 a year for the service, call quality is the same as Bell, in this case the price being too good to be true was way off, Im completely satisfied and encourage anyone looking for a home phone solution check these guys out.
comment by Jobin  
very interesting article. I agree you must be careful with Voip providers as I have been burned in the past. Ive looked into the Talkit.ca service after Stans post and it has been pretty good so far. Had to purchase the hardware for $79.99 in the first year but no complaints with the service so far.
comment by Allan H  
Excellent article. I am using Yak right now and although they charge 13.95 per month
They have excellent tech support which I needed because I am using a bell wireless modem router. After getting the bugs ironed out the sound quality has been great.
Bell cant match it for price.
comment by Bill  
I use Bell HSPA Wireless hub for my hi speed internet. Will VOIP work for me?
comment by joseph  
I would recommend talkit voip. I am using it and absolutely no problems. The sound quality is good. It was good to start with, but I hooked up a dsl filter to the talkit adaptor itself..PERFECT. A dsl filter can be purchased for about 2 or 3 dollars from any electronic store. When I phone talkit in Hamilton for something...bingo..they are right there to talk to you.
comment by Phil  
Yes, I agree your comment on bell! For a company being here for long time, its strange they dont reduce prices. Did you know with bell mobility cost is the same as phone line? Enough is enough! Which Canadians voip services that allows paying monthly payments via online bill pay through Canadians bank? That I would like to know!
comment by M. Cox  
My wifes cousin has been using Talk-It (out of Hamilton, Ontario) for over a year now and has had absolutely no problem with it.. She has all the services she had with Bell and pays $60. annually. The initial installation modem was about $120, a one-time cost.
comment by jim k  
I am using OOMA: $130 for the OOMA device that you hook up with your phone; $5 a month for their basic service; ($15 a month for their premium service that no mortal human could ever fully use). I have had the service for about a week and am really impressed. You can test your internet at their site to see if it is adequate. If you have the "lite", it will probably need to be upgraded. Check out their web site. It is quite good.
comment by Sheila  
Thank you for such an informative and well-written article. As someone else noted, some of your experiences were a bit much for my non-technical brain, but I still learned a lot. Ive just disentangled myself from Ma Bell. Such a relief!
comment by PennyD  
What a delight! How refreshing to find a site which is Canada based. References are so real and valuable. Thank you. I definitely will try VOIP. I too am tired of Bell.
comment by don d  
it is my understanding that BELL is a VOIP system.
any thoughts on this????
i was told this by a friend who is a certified computer expert,
through a 3yr computer college course
please reply
comment by Frank  
Depending on your installation. But yes, VoIP for most recent installation from Bell and since a while for Videotron

You could check by following the RJ-11 cable: if it go from main entrance to the Bell box (their "modem"), this is VoIP and what they call ATA is built-in into the modem

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