Taking a Google Voice office to the extreme with Ooma

Summary:If you're looking for a good VoIP solution and don't need Google Voice, consider Ooma. It's pretty impressive. However, if you're firmly a Google Voice user, you might want to look elsewhere.

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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.

One of the reasons we're updating this article series is to give you the benefit of our long-term experience using Google Voice. In Google Voice: a cheapskate's guide to cheap VoIP, I described to our our Mark I setup for using Google Voice in a home office environment, which we started doing back in 2011 and used for about a year.

In this article, I'll take you through our Mark II setup, which we used for about 18 months. While the Ooma is certainly still a viable product, it's losing its integration with Google Voice. Even so, this article is worth reading to get a perspective about how these systems are changing and how our thought processes also changed over the years.

In the article that follows this, Google Voice and Skype: Rethinking GV and the landline handset solution, I'll take you through the Mark III setup, which is what we're using now.

Moving on to the next phase

My wife and I had been using Google Voice as our primary phone system for about a year. I've got to tell you, it was pretty touch-and-go there for a while. There were times when our patience was sorely taxed, and times when my wife and I thought we'd go back to landline, despite the benefits of Google Voice.

Even though I tried The cheapskate's guide to cheap VoIP, as it turned out, that solution sucked. The Obi device was a nice idea, but outgoing calls were always so static-filled that we got constant complaints. I knew we weren't alone, because the Obi forums were filled with similar complaints. Obi was kind enough to send me a second-generation box to look at, but by that time, we'd moved to the Ooma solution and didn't really want to experiment with Obi any further (although I have to say the people at the company were very earnest and very, very nice).

I also knew the crappy call problem wasn't our network's fault, because Jason Perlow and I did a pile of testing over Skype and the sound quality was excellent. I thought about building out a VoIP system through Skype, but there are almost no reasonable Skype gateway devices to POTS (plain ol' telephone system) phones and those that are available are sold through some very dicey looking companies (with loads of reliability and shipment complaints). That's a shame, because Skype would have rocked, especially since I use it so heavily for the studio.

So Skype was out -- at least back then. As you'll see later, by rethinking the problem in a different way, Skype has become integral in our solution going forward. But it took time for that to become practical.

In 2012, Jason was using the Ooma, and he said he was generally happy with it. Of course, Jason wasn't trying to run multiple Google Voice lines through a single system, but I figured that Ooma was finally worth a look.

It's not the cheapskate's solution, but -- after a ton of tweaking and the involvement of Ooma's senior techies -- I had a pretty rockin' Google Voice solution. At least for a while.

Ooma basics

The Ooma Telo is a VoIP box, like the Obi. It's a box that sits between your network and a traditional phone handset or phone system. Unlike the Obi, which is fifty bucks (and no monthly fee), the Ooma Telo is $149 (it was $199 a year ago and $250 two years ago) with a variety of add-on fees for different features.

In fact, one of the problems of the Ooma is although the company claims that calls are free, there are a variety of little fees. None of them are particularly high, and you'll definitely save money over a traditional landline phone service, but it's a bit of a challenge to understand the fees on the Ooma web site.

There's a monthly fee that deals with tariffs, taxes, and 911, another for their Premier service, and others for additional phone numbers. Even adding all these up, the fees are substantially less than a base landline fee, but c'mon Ooma, couldn't you just put all the fees in one place on your Web site?

Anyway, don't get too carried away by the fees, because the Ooma is still a very cost-effective, solid answer to a powerful Google Voice environment.

Since I installed the Ooma Telo, Ooma introduced a more robust office product, the Ooma Office. At $249, it costs the same as the lower-end Telo did when it was first introduced.

The Ooma Office supports (theoretically) up to nine lines, but when Jason tried it out, it only supported four lines . Ooma tells me, "You are charged $19.98 for the first extension and phone number. Thereafter the pricing is $9.99/mo./phone number and $9.99/mo./extension (user)."

The final disadvantage of the Ooma Office as far as we're concerned for this project is that, unlike the Ooma Telo, it doesn't support Google Voice. That's a deal-breaker for us, but if you were looking for a non-Google Voice VoIP solution, the Ooma Office is pretty compelling.

The Ooma Telo

More great project ideas

DIY-IT Project Guide

Oh, before I go further, I want to tell you about two of my very favorite Ooma features: anonymous call reject and community call spam filtering. Basically, if you get a call from an anonymous number, one where there's no caller ID, or where the Ooma users have collectively decided was spam, the Ooma won't disturb you by ringing your phones.

You can choose to give the caller an opportunity to leave a message, and then the Ooma will email that message to you. In Florida, in an election season, the Ooma's anonymous call reject and spam blocking features (especially on top of Google Voice's own set of spam-blocking features) probably kept us sane.

Ooma is designed to be a standalone VoIP system, so their support of Google Voice is something of an afterthought. Ooma provides their own VoIP to landline calling, their own incoming set of phone numbers, and so forth.

When I started talking to the Ooma people about my project, I suggested they design a package specifically for Google Voice, since I really do think the Ooma may be the best Google Voice hardware solution out there. Two years later, and they're still only barely supporting Google Voice. More on that later.

Next up: Making two lines work...

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 Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Topics: SMBs, Google, Mobility, 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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