Thursday, April 5, 2012

A home phone line powered by Skype and ready for prime time!

Making the transition from a traditional landline (supplied by Time Warner Cable) to a Skype supplied "landline".  Some might be surprised at how easy and effective it is.
Here in rural North Carolina, my family is a customer of Time Warner Cable.  We might have chosen to purchase some of our services from the local phone company but we found TW to offer somewhat better quality and service.  Through TW, we have plain cable service at about $30 per month, plain internet service (3m down/500k up) for another $30 per month, and two phone lines at $30 each per month with unlimited calling in US/Canada.  Our household is an extended family, and we had decided that we needed a third line.  So I called TW, and they informed me that their "modem" would only support two lines.  The alternatives that I considered were:
  • The phone company... way too annoying and expensive.  
  • Vonage.  It would have worked, but I was looking for something simple and significantly cheaper than Time Warner. Vonage isn't.  
  • Magic Jack.  Absurdly cheap; just $20 per year.   I rejected this option for the simple reason that the phone service would cease to exist when I turn off the computer.  It also appears now that the company, Magic Jack will not be able to sustain its low prices
  • "Line2" from Toktumi.  It operates more or less as the Skype "home line" does in my description below.  I did a trial of Line2 a few months ago and found it to be quite excellent.   It's cheap compared to other alternatives, and its feature set is in some ways more complete than Skype... comparison chart. However, in the end I turned it down because I didn't need its extra features, and its pricing is about 2x Skype.
  • Wait for future developments.  There are new devices, technologies and services coming along all the time.  I am aware of some of them, and they sound intriguing, but they are not here yet.
  • Skype.  It is not immediately apparent that Skype can be set up for regular "phone" service. However, my wife and I each have iPhones, and I had come to appreciate the very high quality calling experience that Skype gave me with "iSkype"; actually better and more reliable than Skype on Macintosh (but that is another story).  I had also noticed that over the past year, SkypeIN numbers had become available in my local area whereas they had formerly been available only in the nearest city (Charlotte)  [note that "online numbers" are not available at all in Canada]. Finally, I observed that the combined cost of a SkypeIN number and a US/Canada calling plan was just $60 per year, versus $360 from Time Warner.  For all these reasons, I decided to give Skype a try as my wife's and my regular home landline, and not just for beta-testing purposes.  This had to work flawlessly.
Setup with Skype
Step one: sign up for a new Skype account.  That took about 30 seconds.   Then I gave that ID a US/Canada calling plan  ($30 per year) and a local SkypeIN number (now called an "online number" by Skype).   It would have cost $60 per year but there is a 50% discount when combined with a calling plan, so it was an additional $30.  Total: $60 per year.   These purchases took about 5 minutes, made pleasant by the knowledge that I would be saving more than $300 per year.
Skype Configuration  
For incoming calls to our new home number, my goal was to forward them automatically and immediately to our cell phones, thereby allowing them to function as "extensions".  When someone wants to contact me or my wife individually, they call our cell numbers, but when they want to call our home, they call our "home number".  It rings on our iPhones and the first person to answer is the one connected.  That's no problem because we can always use iPhone's 3-way calling if needed.  Note that I do NOT use Skype for voicemail here, but rather let the cell phone handle that.
Some people may be disappointed that Skype's "online numbers" are not listed in the directory or "phone book"; an anachronism and invitation to spammers.  We are happy to not have the feature.  Now, when we post contact information to mutual family and friends, it's the "home number" we give them.
Skype does not have the feature of simultaneous ringing on multiple lines, and I was a little concerned that incoming calls would not be re-routed quickly enough, but that proved to be a needless worry. It may take 10-15 seconds for Skype to forward a call.  That's about 4 to 7 rings, which is usually enough time for a spammer to give up, but plenty of time for a friend to wait patiently.   
Note the forwarding numbers in the screenshot are my cell phone and my wife's cell phone.  Skype allows forwarding to up to three endpoints, or "extensions".  It would be nice if Skype would allow more than three in order to accommodate a larger family.  If I wanted to, I could forward to my regular SkypeID in order to answer calls in Skype.  However I decided not to because when I'm sitting at my desk, I don't want multiple devices ringing at the same time; more chaos than I can tolerate.
Outbound Calling
Considering our use of the "home" SkypeID for outbound calling, let it first be said that the primary use of the Skype "home line" is receiving inbound calls, not making them.  However, because of the 50% discount on the SkypeIN number, the US/Canada calling plan is essentially free, and there is no reason to not buy it. 
This is how to configure callerID for outbound calling.  The following screenshot is from Skype4Mac 5.x whose user interface is infamously and unbearably horrible.  You actually go into the "messaging" preference panel and enter the phone number (of your cell phone) for SMS. Ironically, the design flaw is inherited from the Windows version; it made it into the "gold" release on both platforms.    Oh well, at least it works.
When deciding whether to make calls with your regular cell line or the Skype "home" line, consider these factors:
  1. Cost.  Depending on the time of day and whom we are calling,  your cell carrier (AT&T Wireless in my situation) may or may not charge extra.  Skype will never charge extra (US/Canada calling plan).
  2. Quality.  When at home or in range of a good WIFI connection, a Skype call is ALWAYS going to be of higher quality than a cellular call.  I have a slight hearing loss, so this is sometimes a crucial decision, especially if the person I am calling can be reached on Skype.
  3. Emergency Calling.  Until Skype has emergency 9-1-1 calling, it should not be your regular phone for outbound calling. However, the default mode on my cell phone is not Skype, and even when I am using Skype I have local emergency numbers in my Skype address book (eg. "911 - Police").  It's hard for me to imagine that the FCC is not going to force Skype into implementing real 9-1-1 services soon.
  4. Convenience.  To be frank, it's easier to call out with the cellular line than to boot up Skype, even if my iPhone is connected to a power source.  This convenience factor restricts my outbound calling with Skype to only those calls that will otherwise be charged as "anytime" cellular minutes.
Having completed the setup of the Skype "home line" (with far less hassle than it would have taken with Time Warner), I logged out of the new SkypeID... because call forwarding doesn't work if you are logged in; and I haven't logged back in since. It has worked flawlessly now for months. So there you have it.  A home phone line with a local number and unlimited outbound calling that rings on multiple "extensions"  both in your house and when you are on the road, all for a cost of $60 per year.  Can't beat it.


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