Bye Bye Bell


During a recent conversation at work, a colleague (John) mentioned that his phone bills are usually under $10/month. I thought about our $60+ phone bills (not including mobile) and asked how on earth that was possible. He said that he uses VOIP and not only does he pay almost nothing, but he gets more features than Bell supplies. Again I asked how, and he pointed me at voip.ms. After a little research, I decided to try it out. It’s working now, but getting everything working was far from simple.

VOIP, for those of you who don’t know, is short for Voice Over IP, which basically means your telephone service is provided over your internet connection. As long as you have broadband always-on internet service, you can use it to provide telephone service as well. In my case, I pay $1.99 per phone number and then 0.5¢ per minute per call (both incoming and outgoing). Note that there are no long distance charges, so a call to friends around the corner costs the same as calling the other side of the country – but a one-hour call costs all of 30¢.

To make this work, I first needed to sign up for a voip.ms account. This was free and very easy. Then you need something to convert your phone signals into internet traffic; in my case I bought an analog telephone adapter (ATA) from Linksys. My research for this purchase was not exactly extensive – it consisted entirely of asking John which one he bought, and then buying the same one. I plugged the device into my router and then plugged a phone into the adapter. Guess what? No dial tone. This made sense, since I hadn’t told the adapter how to get to the voip.ms server, nor did it have a phone number for me to use, which means that I have some configuring to do.

(Attention technophobes – you might want to skip this paragraph.) The adapter supports both a web interface and a phone interface. The phone interface is minimal and cumbersome – I had to pick up the phone and dial * four times and that gave me a voice menu. The menu options (not many of them) are listed in the manual and everything seemed very cryptic. Luckily there is also a web-based interface, which would make life a lot easier, but getting that enabled was a bit of work as well. The adapter had already been assigned an IP address by DHCP, but to get the VOIP stuff working, I had to open ports in the firewall which requires a static IP address. I entered a key sequence to disable DHCP and another to assign a static IP address, and then another to enable the web interface. Then I hung up and went to the IP address in a browser. Success! Now I could modify all the settings. Except that there were a zillion different settings, each with meaningless (to me) acronyms, and I didn’t know what the settings were supposed to be.

The web interface was orders of magnitude easier than the phone interface, but even so, you’d be lost without a good knowledge of telephony terminology. Unfortunately, I don’t have such knowledge. I eventually found a description of how to configure my particular device on the voip.ms page. Once that was done, things should have worked, in theory. To test it out, I ordered a new phone number (what they call a “DID”) from voip.ms, which cost me $1.99 / month. It gave me a Waterdown number (area code 289) instantly, and I was able to make outgoing calls. Incoming calls required a little more configuration but with more help from John, I soon had that working. I then started the process of moving my existing phone number over from Bell, and a week and $25 later, that was done. I cancelled the temporary number, physically disconnected the Bell line, and away we went.

Cool options available with voip.ms:

  • You can set the name and number for call display. For example, when I call someone, I can set it so that their phone displays 867-5309 and “Jenny”.
  • I get emailed every time someone leaves a voicemail. A .wav file is attached containing the message. When I dial the number to get my voicemail from home, I don’t need to enter a PIN.
  • I can set up a dialing rule so that I don’t need to dial ‘905’ for local calls.
  • If there is no answer (after a time period that I choose), I can:
    • go to voicemail
    • forward the call to another number (for example, my cell phone)
    • play a recording
    • give a busy signal
    • hang up
    • give a “this number is not in service” message
    • give a “this number has been disconnected” message
    • do nothing
  • If the line is busy, I can choose any of the above options as well, and it doesn’t have to be the same as if there’s no answer.
  • I can set up any number of phone numbers that all ring on my phone. These numbers can be anywhere in North America, and it would be a local call for people there. For example, I can set up a phone number in Huntsville (for $1.99/month) that my parents and Gail’s dad could call locally, and it would ring here. Nobody would pay long distance for that call.
  • I can have the ring sound different depending on who’s calling or what number they dialled. In theory. John tried this, however, and couldn’t get it to work.
  • I can add numbers into my local address book for speed dial on any phone. If they call me, I can set the name that’s displayed. This is handy, for example, because our cell phones always show up as “Unknown name” and the boys don’t answer the phone unless they recognize the name. (They haven’t memorized our cell numbers yet.) So I added our numbers to the address book and now my cell comes up as “Graeme cell”.
  • I can set up multiple mailboxes and a “digital receptionist”. For example, I can say “Press 1 to leave a message for Graeme, 2 for Gail, 3 for Ryan, and 4 for Nicky”.
  • I can put calls into a calling queue, complete with hold music. “Your call is important to us, and is being held in priority sequence. Please hold for the first available Perrow family member.”
  • I can set up a “ring group” so that when a call comes in, both my home phone and my cell phone ring, and the first one to answer get it.
  • I can make rules for specific numbers, so that telemarketers get the “This number has been disconnected” message, or some go straight to voicemail without ringing the phone.
  • I can do almost anything above differently based on time of day. For example, I could say that between 11pm and 7am, only ring twice before going to voicemail, otherwise ring 5 times.
  • I can get a complete list of every incoming and outgoing call, and how long it was. There are a number of graphs available, showing things like call lengths and total cost.
  • 911 works, although it does not automatically forward our street address to the 911 operator. It also costs $1.99 / month extra.
  • Other than 911, all of the above options are free included in the price.

Drawbacks:

  • The 911 thing I mentioned. It works, but we have to tell the operator our address. Not a big deal.
  • No call waiting, but I don’t care. We didn’t have it for many years and only added it recently. I don’t remember why we even added it – we usually just let the second call go to voicemail.
  • If we’re doing a lot of internet stuff, like the boys are watching YouTube videos or I’m watching a lacrosse game, call quality could drop. John said he’s noticed this a few times but not often.

As I said, it was non-trivial to get everything set up, and the ATA device cost about $60, and moving the phone number cost $25. But if I end up with $10 monthly phone bills rather than $60+, those extra costs get covered pretty quickly. We’ve only been live for four days, but I have not noticed any drop in voice quality. And if nothing else, damn it’s cool.

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