Free phone calls in the US and Canada through 2012

Google announced today that it was continuing their free VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone service throughout 2012. Google Voice is a tremendous breakthrough in phone service, as it gives the user unprecedented control over which phones ring when (for instance, you can set it to send one person’s calls to your home after 5:00 pm, but to the office during the day), transcribing and/or saving and forwarding voice mail, blocking certain callers at certain times, and much more.

I’ve been running GV from my computer for most of 2011, and after a few hiccups, it has been excellent. Most of those hiccups had to do with running it through the Gmail/Google Chat interface on my browser, but now there’s a better way to make the connection.

The problem with using your computer as your phone is that the computer must always be left on if you want uninterrupted service. That’s inconvenient, and if you’re running a desktop it may be cost-prohibitive as well. A desktop computer can easily burn 300 watts, and at, say, $.20 per kilowatt-hour, that adds up to over $40 a month. If your computer has to be on all the time anyway, no sweat. But if not, you are adding a lot of hidden cost to your phone bill.

Enter telephone network adapters. Early adapters such as the MagicJack needed to be plugged into a computer that was left on. But now a new breed of telephone adapter has come on the market, that doesn’t need a computer to run at all. Instead, you plug the adapter, not into a computer, but directly into your router. The tiny adapter uses a minimal amount of electricity and stays on all the time, regardless of how you use your computer. You then attach the phone of your choice to the adapter, even including a multi-station cordless phone system, and start calling away.

We’ve been testing out an Obi100 unit, and have found it to work flawlessly. I found initial setup to be fairly tricky. It took some time to read through the introductory documents and learn new concepts. But the Obi online forums were populated with some very knowledgeable and helpful people, and in no time the unit was up and running. Since then it has required zero attention.

Obi is just the hardware, and you’re still going to need an online telephone service provider, such as Google Voice. After Obi’s one time purchase cost of $44, there were no other fees at all, so as long as GV remains free, we have unlimited phone service for free. That’s hard to beat. And now Google has made its announcement that it’s giving away GV for another year.

Think of it this way. If you have a Triple Play contract currently, you could drop the telephone leg and only pay for Internet and television. And the way things are going, unless you’re a serious TV addict, the day is quickly coming when you will be able to find enough TV free on the Internet. Think about reducing your communications bill down to Internet only. Sweet.

The only downside to using a VOIP phone adapter that I can think of may or may not be important to you. The Obi affords no 911 or 411 service. I don’t find the lack of 411 a problem, and I have the need for 911 covered by setting direct phone hotkeys for police, fire and ambulance. Making custom settings like that are easy in Obi, by logging into its interface with your browser at its local IP address. So you can even have hotkeys working on ancient phones that lack their own hotkey ability, since it’s the Obi unit that interprets the keystrokes.

All in all it’s a fantastic deal. It has me down to such minimal cell phone usage, for convenience and emergencies only, that on top of my free VOIP service, a $10 quarterly prepaid plan with T-Mobile is all I need.

You can check out the newer model Obi, the Obi110, which goes for under $50, HERE. MagicJack also has a computer-free model out now, the MagicJackPLUS, but I don’t have direct experience with it. And there may be other brands.

To summarize: to get started with this service, you need to do two things. First, set up a Google Voice number. That’s easy, but first you’ll need a Gmail account to base it on. And that too is easy. Second, buy a telephone VOIP adapter and set it up. That’s not quite as easy, but help is available. And while the Obi will work with any Internet phone service, it is designed to work hand-in-glove with Google Voice. It may take a good evening’s time to dot all the “i”s, but once you’re set up it’s all gravy. You can add hotkeys and other enhancements after the dust settles.

In this down economy a lot of people are hurting financially, and this might be one good way to trim expenses. It pays to look into new and better ways to do old things, and you may well save yourself a bunch of cash in the process.

Be blessed,
Paul

Addendum: I’ve reviewed the setup procedure for the Obi, with regard to the difficulty I initially had setting it up, and I’ve concluded that 90% of my problem lay in assigning the Obi unit to the wrong Gmail account/Google Voice number. It’s kind of hard to receive calls when you’re directing them to the wrong number, and a lot of the cause of the problem was that Google gave me a functioning GV interface on a Gmail account where I had never set GV up. So when I saw the number I thought I was at my desired account when I wasn’t. So I’m concluding that if you can avoid that pitfall, the Obi setup really isn’t hard to do. Take your time, check your settings as you go, and use the setup interface over at http://www.obitalk.com, and it should go smoothly.

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