Cheap home phone service with VoIP – Obihai versus Ooma
For the last few years many budget-conscious folks have been using an Obihai VoIP adapter with Google Voice for completely free VoIP telephone service. It worked great, although it did not support emergency service (i.e. calls to 9-1-1). Unfortunately, earlier this year Google dropped support for this. So what are the current low-cost options?
There are a variety VoIP solutions for home users. You may have seen commercials for solutions from Magic Jack or Vonage, but there are others. The two solutions I’ve personally used are VoIP adapters from Obihai and Ooma. These work with standard telephones so if you still have a land line you can probably keep using some or all of your phones. If you do still have a land line you ought to immediately consider switching. VoIP service can be upwards of 90% cheaper than a traditional land line, so even factoring in the cost of new equipment the savings will be dramatic.
I’ve been using an OBi110 adapter for for about three years, with a basic Panasonic cordless phone system. A newer consumer-oriented model, the OBi200, has since been released with additional features like fax support and Wi-Fi (via the OBiWiFi Adapter). I originally used my Obihai solely with Google Voice for completely free phone service (again, with no emergency service) until XMPP support was officially dropped by Google, at which point I switched to a standard VoIP service provider – Callcentric. I signed up for a free phone number (my Google Voice number is forwarded to it to avoid the hassle of a new phone number) and a pay per call plan, and with light use the cost is about $3-4 per month. Personally I think the slight expense is worth it to have emergency service. Recently, however, Obihai announced that Google Voice is supported again! This is really great news. What I can do now is use a VoIP service provider for emergency calls (very cheap), and Google Voice for everything else (free), to save a couple bucks a month.
While using the Obihai I’ve been highly satisfied. It’s easy to set up and use, it has been very reliable, and the voice quality is consistently good. One nice feature, hinted to above, is that Obihai adapters support (at least) two VoIP services. With this you could have redundancy in the event that one provider was down, but more importantly you could actually use it to save money. VoIP service providers charge different prices for different types of calls, so for example you could have one provider for cheap incoming calls and another one for cheap outgoing calls. This adds a lot of flexibility with only a little complexity.
This brings me to the only complaint I can think of about Obihai adapters. Obihai does not sell VoIP service, so you will necessarily deal with multiple companies: one for the adapter and one (or more) for the actual service. I don’t have any issue with this since configuring the device is so straightforward, but some people might have trouble. Obihai has worked to reduce the impact of this issue by adding “approved service providers” which are even easier to configure with an Obihai adapter.
The Ooma Telo is a competitor to Obihai adapters. I’ve set it up for non-technical family members who still used expensive land lines. Compared to the OBi110 and 200 adapters, the Telo looks much more sleek, and the adapter itself functions as an answering machine, allowing access to voice mail. With the Obihai adapters you must use one of the connected phones to dial in to your voice mail. Besides that, Ooma itself is a VoIP service provider, so with a Telo you only ever deal with one company. The trade off for these slight advantages is a significantly higher cost; the Telo adapter is double if not triple the cost of a comparable Obihai adapter.
Besides the above advantages, the function of the Telo is essentially the same as Obihai. There is an easy to use web interface where you log on and configure the various settings. You can setup auto-pay for Ooma service just like you would with any VoIP provider for an Obihai. Ooma has different service plans available, but the cheapest is about $4 per month, roughly the same as what I’m paying to Callcentric. Features like caller ID and voice mail are no extra charge. This might be a surprise if you have a traditional land line, but the explanation is simple: there is intense competition among VoIP providers so they cannot gouge customers like a regular phone company does.
Note on number porting
If you have an existing phone number that you want to use with a new, cheap VoIP provider, it is likely possible but the cost varies considerably. Ooma charges $40 (source), Google Voice is $20 (source), Callcentric is $10 (source), and other VoIP service providers will vary. One note on the porting to Ooma. Their site says it takes a ridiculous “3-4 weeks”, but in my experience it has been very fast, under 24 hours. I don’t know why they say weeks but I guess it could take that long in a worst case scenario.
Now if you are going to use a VoIP service provider with an Obihai, instead of porting your number to your new provider you might want to consider porting it to Google Voice instead. With Google Voice you can easily forward it to the number provided by the VoIP provider. This makes it trivial to switch VoIP providers and keep your number. Many VoIP providers, including Callcentric, allow you to set your caller ID to a Google Voice number, which gives you the option of making Google Voice completely transparent to you and anyone calling you. However personally I like to use Google Voice features such as call screening and voice mail.
OBi and Ooma are definitely not the only options, they are just the ones I have personally used. Two others that might be worth checking out are the Nettalk DUO and magicJack. If you’ve used these or anything else please share your experience in the comments. Besides switching from an expensive land-line to free or cheap VoIP, you can save on your cell phone by switching to a prepaid service (if you haven’t already). Check out my article on this: Saving on your cell phone bill by going prepaid