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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Say Goodbye to Landlines with Obihai

It seems like fewer and fewer people these days have a landline phone. There is something to be said about having one in certain emergency scenarios, but I think for most, the $30 to $45 a month costs are simply too much to justify. Years ago, I thought I’d try to save a little cash and go with a Vonage line. It worked well for a while, but costs steadily rose and I found myself using it less and less. Eventually, I decided that even paying $18 a month for my entry-level Vonage plan was a waste of money. Thankfully, I found the perfect solution that allows me to retain my phone number without having to spend a dime in monthly fees.

Enter the Obi110, and Google Voice. Neither of these are new. I've been using Google Voice for a while as a way to allow people to call my mobile phone without exposing my real number, and the Obi devices have been on the market for a couple of years now. News to me, was realizing that the Obi even existed, and learning how it could pair with Google Voice to enable free calling throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Important Update (3-1-14): I just discovered that the Google Voice service described in this post will no longer be compatible with the Obi (or any third-party service relying on Google Voice for that matter) as of May 15, 2014. I have switched to Vestalink that allows for easy number porting from Google Voice (if you happened to follow the original guide below) and allows me to use my existing Obi device. So far, it is working perfectly for me with most of the features I enjoyed with Google Voice for a very nominal cost. If you haven't used the guide below, you can likely port your number directly to Vestalink in a much more straightforward fashion. However, if porting from Google Voice, check out this post for information on getting a free port (normally $10).

Here’s how it works in a nutshell. The Obi110 is essentially a mini computer. It has a port for connecting a standard cordless or corded telephone, and also hooks into you router to get Internet connectivity. When configured with your Google Voice account information, it makes voice over IP (VOIP) calls to any number you dial, the same way you would if you were using Google Chat through Gmail from your computer.  The key advantage here is that no one on either end has to sit at a computer to make a call. When you want to call someone, you simply pickup your phone and dial. Inbound callers don’t even know you are using Google Voice or the Obi. They simply dial your number like any other.  

Google Voice is a free service, and they’ll issue you a number for free as well, but my issue was that I really didn't want to lose the phone number we’d had over the years. Luckily, I found a great tutorial that showed me how to go through the process of porting my phone number to Google Voice. That tutorial is specific to porting a Vonage number, but I am pretty sure it would work for any landline phone number. The process isn't for the faint of heart, but I assure you, it is worth it if you want to save some money and enjoy the great benefits of Google Voice such as call blocking (reason enough for me), voice to text email transcription of voicemails, ridiculously cheap international calling, and of course free domestic calls in the United States.   

So how does the porting process work?

Here is a brief summary of the steps you’ll need to take to make this happen. Don’t just read those though; go through the tutorial in detail as well. Apologies to my international readers, this will only work for U.S. numbers.

Step 1
As you can only port a mobile number to Google Voice, you’ll first need to port your number to a mobile carrier. I used T-Mobile as it was the example given in the tutorial so I was confident it would work. To do this, you’ll need a T-Mobile phone (or an unlocked GSM phone) and a prepaid SIM card. I was lucky enough to have access to an old T-Mobile cell phone, so I simply bought a $1 prepaid SIM card from

Step 2
Once the SIM card arrives, you’ll need to call T-Mobile and tell them that you want to activate the card by porting your number. During this process, you will be asked to provide a PIN. Remember this as you’ll need it for step 7.

Step 3
Wait. The porting process can take days, especially with a Vonage number.

Step 4
Once ported, you’ll need to put some credit on the card to make the number active and allow Google Voice to verify the number is really yours (see step 6). Unfortunately, T-Mobile required that I initially put a minimum of $30 on the card to activate it. This was annoying as I knew I was going to be porting the number immediately. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the money back, but I am comforted by knowing that I don’t have to pay $18 a month any longer.

Step 5
Confirm that your number is ready to port to Google Voice by entering it here. If not, you might be stuck with your T-Mobile prepaid service while you try to sort things out. This was a risk I was aware of from reading the tutorial, and I accepted it before starting. Worst case scenario, you should be able to port your number back to the landline provider of your choice as a new customer and get a deal on the service plan.

Step 6
Sign up for Google Voice and request to port your T-Mobile number. This will result in a one-time $20 charge. At some point in the process, Google will call your phone and instruct you to enter in a code. For this reason, it is essential that you have your SIM card in a working phone.

Step 7
Wait for the number to fully port. This can take a day or so, and is designed to fail at first. I say this as your T-Mobile PIN is required for the port to complete, but Google doesn't ask for it when you first request the port. Instead, it WILL fail and you’ll get an email asking you to go in and enter the PIN. Once you do that, it should complete just fine.

Step 8
After the port has completed, and you've confirmed that Google Voice is working (see the Google Voice how to guide here), order an Obi110 from Amazon. I’m not just looking for an Amazon referral credit here. Amazon is actually Obihai’s primary distribution method. There are other Obi models, but the Obi110 is the minimum needed for Google Voice, and the Obi202 seemed like overkill. Also, if you don’t already have a cordless phone, get one. Any phone will work with the Obi, but as it needs to be plugged into your router, the position of the Obi in the house may not be convenient if using a corded phone. I use this cordless phone set, but any phone that you have will work.

Step 9
Plug the Obi into your router, and then configure it as described in this tutorial video.

Step 10
If all goes according to plan, make and receive calls to your heart’s content.

Easy right? Well not really, but I am glad I did it. All in all, I spent $100 to do this, but will be saving $216 a year. I had an ear to ear smile the other day when I blocked a solicitor through the Google Voice interface. Now whenever they call me they’ll hear a message indicating that the number has been disconnected. I can even setup do not disturb periods if I want to eat dinner in peace, or vary my voicemail message according to who is calling.

What are the downsides?

There are always caveats right? Well the good news is that they have nothing to do with the call quality. So far, call quality has been indistinguishable from what I've experienced with landlines. Okay, so here are the downsides you should consider before attempting this:

No 911 calls: Google Voice is not capable of making 911 calls at all. I accept this as I've got a mobile phone that can do this. Update 3-1-13: Thanks to Lifehacker, it has recently come to my attention that E911 service is available through Obihai's partnership with Anveo for just $12 a year. 
Free for now: Google may charge for calls in 2014 or beyond (but knowing Google, it should still be very cheap).
International credit needed: Google Voice isn't completely free. If you want to dial international numbers, you’ll need some prepaid credit. The good news, is that rates for most countries are dirt cheap.
Complex porting process: There is a risk that this may fail and people won’t be able to call your number until you sort things out. Also, as this isn't exactly a supported process, you may be on your own searching the web to solve a problem. If you don’t need to port a number, then you are good to go as Google will give you a number for free and you’ll be up and running with the Obi in minutes.
Names do not appear on caller ID: Only the incoming numbers will show up. As far as I know, this is a limitation of Google Voice and not the Obi. If your phone supports it, you can work around this by storing names and their corresponding numbers in your address book. The name will then display when that person calls.
Google support: I've had issues occasionally in the past with a Google Voice call not getting connected. Google is also notoriously bad at offering support for their free services. If you have a mission critical need for your phone line, don't use this. 
Quality of Service: Keep in mind that calls will now be travelling over the Internet and not over dedicated phone lines. This is nothing new for Vonage transplants, but it will be a new consideration for first-time VOIP users with heavily saturated Internet connections. Most routers these days have a Quality of Service (QOS) setting that can be enabled to give priority to VOIP calls (over things like standard web browsing traffic). If you purchase the Obi202, it can sit between your router and your modem to handle this, but I've never been a fan of this approach as it can introduce other complications that I won’t get into here. Personally, I haven’t had to monkey with QOS settings and I haven’t had a problem yet.

So, ready to give it a try and “cut the cord”? Have you already tried it and had good/bad experiences? Let me know!