My wife and I have been using Google Voice as our primary phone system for nearly 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 land line, despite the benefits of Google Voice.
Even though I tried The cheapskate's guide to cheap VoIP, as it turns 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.
I also knew it wasn't our network line, 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. But 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 now have a pretty rockin' Google Voice solution.
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 $199 (it was $250 a year 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 land line 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 land line 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.
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 land line 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.
Ooma and voice quality
I want to thank the Ooma folks for providing an Ooma Telo and handset for testing. The were willing to go all the way down the Google Voice rabbit hole with me to figure out make the thing work. What we learned is on the next few pages of this article.
I didn't want to run just one Google Voice account on the device. I wanted to run two of them. I wanted to be able to have my wife's Google Voice account go through the Telo as well as mine.
Once the Ooma guys and I figured it out, it works astonishingly well. But it was not easy.
First, my wife and I had no end of audio problems. Whenever we'd talk to other people, we'd lose the first few words said, and there were always complaints of static. I'm still not sure what the problem was, but after another conference call to the Ooma team, they fiddled with something in my device's provisioning and their network, and the problem went away completely.
So, one moral of this story is that you may need to rattle the cage of Ooma support to get exactly what you want.
Making two lines work
So, here's what I wanted. I wanted calls that came in on either my wife's or my Google Voice number to ring into the Ooma. I wanted to be able to tell if the call was for me or my wife. I also wanted us to be able to call out from our wireless phone system. Finally, I wanted to make sure that if she made an outgoing call, that outgoing call showed her caller ID and if I made an outgoing call, that outgoing call showed my caller ID.
I also wanted us both to be able to be on the phone at the same time, but that proved to be more of a limitation of our wireless phone system than the Ooma. Sort of. More on that later.
Anyway, I had a large set of demands for the folks at Ooma. The Premier plan provides a bunch of additional services, including an instant second line, conference calling, and so forth, but the big item here is Google Voice extensions. You need the $9.99/mo Premier service to make Google Voice work with the Ooma.
Once you get this plan, you'll be able to have Google Voice calls to your GV number ring in on the Ooma, and, more to the point, have outgoing calls show your GV caller ID when you make outgoing calls.
To get the second Google Voice line to work, you need to buy a second, permanent Ooma phone number. This is a $4.99/mo add-on fee to your overall Ooma plan.
You will, essentially, have two main Ooma accounts. One for the main Google Voice number and one for the secondary number. We made my wife's GV number the main number, and my number (which also is what I use for work) the secondary number.
Configuring the main Google Voice number
Now, the first thing you're going to need to do is turn off call-screening, and set the time it takes for the Ooma to answer the phone to the maximum, 59 seconds. This way, Google Voice will pick up instead. I've recommended Ooma add a "don't answer" option for their voice mail, but it hasn't happened, yet.
Next, we enabled the Ooma community blacklist, which blocks more spam calls. We've sent those to email, so if anything is something we need to see, we will. So far, nothing in the community blacklist has been anything but garbage, so it's working very nicely.
Now, it turns out that once you turn on Google Voice extensions, you get a second Ooma number (in addition to your main Ooma number) that ties to your incoming and outgoing Google Voice line. This is weird, but it works.
For example, imagine that our incoming Ooma number is 555-1111 (not really) and the number Ooma assigned to our Google Voice number is 555-2222 (also, not really). When someone calls my wife's Google Voice number, we've set that number to forward to 555-1111. We also set up an ident-a-ring on it, so when calls come into that number, we get three long rings.
So, when someone calls my wife's number, the phone rings with three long rings, and comes in on Ooma number 555-1111. When she dials out, she's actually dialing out on Ooma number 555-2222, but the caller ID shows her Google Voice caller ID.
So, that's the Ooma's main number, which we've allocated to my wife's phone.
Configuring the secondary Google Voice number
Configuring the secondary Google Voice number requires a little counter-intuitive finagling. First, you need an add-on Ooma handset and Bluetooth adapter. Combined, these will set you back another hundred bucks or so (and the handset seems to be out of stock at Ooma, so this may not be a universal solution).
Why, might you ask, do you need the handset? Well, there's a hack somewhere in the Ooma that lets you create another virtual phone number that's tied to individual handsets. It's designed for giving a family member his or her own phone, and having that seem like a dedicated line (for example, if your teenager needs a phone and you don't want your main phone to ring all the time).
But the point is, you can link your secondary Google Voice number to that handset, create a virtual phone number (let's call that 555-3333), and thereby have a second Google Voice number working through the single Ooma.
If you were to dial out using that handset, it would dial out, and give the caller ID of the secondary Google Voice number. I also set it up, so when someone calls in, Google Voice forwards to 555-3333 and the phone rings with three short rings (as compared to three long rings when calls come in for my wife).
Are you following all this? Don't worry, there won't be a test. But it is bizarrely obtuse.
I also didn't want to be limited to the Ooma handset to make outgoing calls. I wanted to be able to use my wireless phone system, with the six extension phones scattered throughout the house.
Fortunately, there's an answer to that, as well. You can assign a dialing prefix to the number, in my case **2. So, now, when I want to make an outgoing call, I can pick up any handset and dial **2, wait a second for a dial tone, and dial out. My caller ID shown to the person I'm calling is now my secondary Google Voice number.
And it works. Nicely.
Issues to consider about the second Google Voice number
There are a few issues to consider. First, the add-on handsets are "out of stock". I don't know if that means they're no longer being made, or on a slow boat from some factory in Asia, but you can't buy them (as of the day I'm writing this) from Ooma. You can, according to the Web, still buy them from Staples.
Second, the handsets are missing something we consider essential, otherwise we would have just used them, instead of our wireless POTS phone system. The handsets don't have a jack for plugging in a headset. Now, I don't know about you, but I can't spend hours on the phone in front of my computer, holding a phone to my ear. Really? You can't plug in your high-quality telephone headset?
One benefit, though, of the Ooma handset, is that I can use it while my wife uses a regular phone on the wireless phone system and we can both be talking to separate people at the same time. Hacky? Yes. Workable? Yeah, pretty much.
Third, if the handsets are no longer available, can you still set up a virtual number? That's something you might have to work out with Ooma.
Overall, this is not a cheap solution. Roughly, you're talking about $300 for the Ooma Telo, the handset, and the proprietary Bluetooth adapter.
On top of that, add about $20/mo for the various fees, Premier service, and second phone number for the second Google Voice number.
If you use the Ooma for a year, with these costs, you're talking about $45/mo across the year, which was still less than we paid for two land lines with a long-distance service.
If you amortize the cost of the Telo and handset over two years, along with the monthly fees, you're talking more like $32.50/mo, which is still a lot more than, say, something like Magic Jack, but is also still considerably cheaper than the cost of the land lines.
Of course, this isn't just about cost-savings. This is about getting the most out of the Google Voice service. And I have to tell you, that after a year with Google Voice, even with the complexities and hassles of getting the system I want to work the way I want it to work, I don't want to give it up. There are just too many tangible benefits.
So, do I recommend Ooma?
Notwithstanding the question of handset availability, which I didn't know about until today when I sat down to write this article, I'd absolutely recommend the Ooma solution -- with a few caveats:
- Ooma doesn't make setting this up easy, so you're going to have to work (and probably call them a lot) to get it working.
- We did have some severe call quality issues early on. You're also probably going to have to talk to them to fix whatever call quality problems that exist.
- I know nothing about the financial or funding stability of Ooma. We're entirely reliant on their VoIP infrastructure and their ongoing ability to stay in business.
- Are you willing to spend the money this solution costs?
With those caveats aside, I have to say that I was very favorably impressed by the Ooma team. They genuinely were willing to help.
While Google Voice doesn't seem to be a focus of the company (much, I think, to their strategic disadvantage), the tech team was very willing to work with me to solve the various Google Voice issues and demands I had -- and we did solve it.
Finally, and probably most important of all: after a year with Google Voice and about three months with the Ooma solution working smoothly, I've finally stopped hearing complaints about our phones.
They just work. And when something just works, I feel good in recommending it.
So, yeah, I recommend the Ooma. I think it's the answer to how to run Google Voice reliably in a complex VoIP environment, using POTS phones.