Google Voice: A cheapskate's guide to cheap VoIP

Summary:Here's how you can make and receive Google Voice phone calls from any old wired phone you may have lying around your house. The only problem is that this might not be your best solution. That's coming in a later article.

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This project: The Ultimate Google Voice How-to Guide (2014 Edition)

Welcome to the 2014 edition of the Ultimate Google Voice How-To Guide, presented by ZDNet's DIY-IT blog. In this article, and the baker's dozen that accompany it, you'll learn just about everything you need to know to get the most out of the Google Voice service. This guide contains a complete end-to-end update of our 2011 Google Voice guide, chock full of new ideas, completely new articles, and amazing tips.

You'll learn how to port your landline to Google Voice, how to set up phone handsets, how to integrate Google Voice into your iPhone and Android experience, how to set up a multi-line office, how to get the most out of using Google Voice and SMS, and even how to use Google Voice effectively and safely in your car, and lots more.

So brew up a cup of coffee or your favorite tea, grab a few snacks, and prepare to discover how plain 'ol phone calls are about to be transformed into something virtually indistinguishable from magic.

This article is a continuation of our Google Voice series. In this article, we'll look at how you can set up a complex home office with two phone lines, have multiple handsets, and enable either person to easily answer either phone line from any handset, all while using Google Voice.

This article assumes you've already got a working Google Voice account and it's linked to your phone. If you don't, please read the earlier articles in this series. We are also aware of the  rumors that Google may end-of-life Google Voice or migrate its functionality more fully into Hangouts  and, if that happens, we'll update this series with all your best options.

Bits of history. Words of advice*

This article is a continuation of our Google Voice series. In this article, we look at how you can make and receive Google Voice phone calls from any old wired phone you may have lying around your house, including cordless phones.

This article assumes you've already got a working Google Voice account and it's linked to your phone. If you don't, please read the earlier articles in this series.

Understanding the challenge

Let's get this out there right now. Back in 2011, when I first put this "Mark I" solution together, I did not like my iPhone. I had an even-then ancient iPhone 3G, which I was waiting on upgrading until either the iPhone 5 came out or I lost patience writing about Apple and decided to go get an Android phone, so I can spend all day and all night tweaking my launch screen. As it turns out, I did both: I bought an iPhone 4S and then an Android Samsung Galaxy S4.

I didn't like making or getting calls on my iPhone 3G. I was resistant to change, and I liked making and getting calls on my old-school landline phone that I had used for years. It was comfortable, had a great headset that sat properly on my head, with a mic that people could actually hear. It just worked and I liked it.

The challenge, of course, is once I ditched my landlines, my landline phone became a paper weight (and I don't even use much paper anymore).

But what if I could connect my landline phone, complete with its RJ11 jack, straight into Google Voice? What if, when you called my office number, my old landline phone rang, I could pick it up, and talk to you? And what, if I wanted to make a call, I could just pick up that phone, dial a number on it, and reach you? And what, if when I made that call, you see my Google Voice number right there, plain as day, on your Caller ID?

What if? What if, indeed.

Oh, and what if we could do this fer cheap?

A more expensive alternative

This whole "what if" theme revolves around setting up a Voice-over-IP implementation. Basically, using the Internet to transmit phone calls, and then have those calls originate from or arrive at an actual telephone number.

Google Voice will get you part of the way, but you'll need a gadget to come in for a landing. That gadget is called the OBi, and it's about fifty bucks from Amazon. It should be noted that while the Obi is a workable solution for Google Voice now, because Google is discontinuing support of the XMPP protocol in May 2014, the Obi will no longer work with Google Voice after that date. Even so, I'll keep telling the story here so you have a complete picture of the options and our experience making these systems work.

Before I talk about one vowel-based product brand, let's look at another, the Ooma. After hearing a lot of good things about the Ooma, I seriously considered getting it. The company touts that you can make free calls "for life". Unfortunately, those free calls come after you buy a $250 box, and if you want to use it with Google Voice, you need to add their $10/mo premium service.

(Ooma was eventually kind enough to provide me with a review unit, and I discuss that in the next article in this series, Taking Google Voice to the extreme with Ooma)

So, being cheap, I looked for an alternative solution. Don't get me wrong, the Ooma looked like a great device. But since most of what it does is provided by Google Voice (in many ways, with a better implementation), I decided initially to skip the Ooma. If you don't use Google Voice and want a good VoIP solution, the Ooma might be right for yooma.

But why spend $250 plus $10/month, when you can spend less than $50, just once? Well, there are reasons, but it took a while to figure them out.

Help me, OBi110, phone me

Sigh. I couldn't help myself. I'll just apologize in advance for that headline and let's just move on.

The OBi, from a company called Obihai, is a tiny box a little smaller than a 4-port Ethernet switch. It came in two variants when I used it back in 2011, the OBi100 (for $39.99) and the OBi110 (for $49.99). They've since added the Obi200 and the Obi202 (moving up to $59.99 and $69.99, respectively). The company was nice enough to send me an Obi202 to look at, but I used the Obi110 for my phone solution for about a year.

The OBi is a general purpose VoIP box that sits between your network and your RJ11-based landline phone. You run a network cable from your router or network switch to the network port in the OBi and a phone cable from your old phone to the phone port in the OBi, and you're essentially set.

For the record, the higher-priced OBi110 has a second phone port. This is actually pretty cool. What it does is link the OBi to a local landline phone system and is designed for international calling. Let's say you're in Europe, but you live in New Jersey. Sitting in your Paris hotel room, you connect to your OBi using an OBi cloud account, and then the OBi sitting in your basement in New Jersey connects to the local phone line, and calls out from there.

Another application of this hack is tech support. Let's say you get a call returned from a tech support person that you know has to be in India, but the Caller ID says she's calling from Indiana. She could be using the OBi. She connects over the Internet to an OBi located in Indiana, and that OBi calls you over the landline.

It's a heck of a feature, if specialized, for a mere extra ten bucks.

Next up: using the Obi with Google Voice...

I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at

Topics: Networking, Google, Mobility, Telcos, Developer


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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