This article is a continuation of our Google Voice series. In this article, we'll look at how you can make and receive Google Voice phone calls from any old wired phone (including cordless phones) you may have lying around your house.
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 first article in this series.
Understanding the challenge
Let's get this out there right now. I do not like my iPhone. I have an ancient iPhone 3G, which I'm waiting on upgrading until either the iPhone 5 comes out or I lose patience writing about Apple and decide to go get an Android phone, so I can spend all day and all night tweaking my launch screen.
I don't like making or getting calls on my iPhone. I like making and getting calls on my old-school land line phone that I've used for years. It's comfortable, has a great headset that sits properly on my head, with a mic that people can actually hear. It just works and I like it.
The challenge, of course, is now that I've ditched my land lines, my land line phone is a paper weight.
But what if I could connect my land line phone, complete with its RJ11 jack, straight into Google Voice? What if, when you call my office number, my old land line phone rings, I can pick it up, and talk to you? And what, if I want to make a call, I could just pick up that phone, dial a number on it, and reach you? And what, if when I make 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.
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.
So, being cheap, I looked for an alternative solution. Don't get me wrong, the Ooma looks 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 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?
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 comes in two variants, the OBi100 (for $43.99) and the OBi110 (for $49.99). Yeah, I know. Why would you make two physically different SKUs for a mere six dollar difference? I'm guessing this is a company run by engineers.
Anyway, the OBi is a general purpose VoIP box that sits between your network and your RJ11-based land line 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 land line 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 land line.
It's a heck of a feature, if specialized, for a mere extra six bucks.
Using the OBi with Google Voice
But let's get back to Google Voice. You can use either OBi model with Google Voice. I sprung for the extra six dollars, even though I have almost no possible use for the extra port. It's a feature, and I just can't resist me them tasty features!
There are a couple of simple steps to setting this thing up. First, you'll need to hook it up, as I described above.
Next, you'll need to pop on over to obitalk.com and get yourself an OBiTALK account. It's this OBiTALK account that will bridge your Google Voice account with your OBi.
Before I go on, I gotta tell you about something pretty slick. Once I signed up for the OBiTALK account, my OBi simply connected out to the Internet and told the OBiTALK service my OBi was online. There was zero configuration. It just worked. How frickin' often does that happen? Did I mention this thing was just fifty bucks?
The following image shows the OBiTALK configuration screen. Most of what's on this screen is automatically generated:
What you're going to want to do, in order to configure Google Voice, is click on the Service Provider 1 service at the bottom of the form. You'll see this form:
I want you to pay special attention to those fields with the red arrows. Those fields are your Google Voice login and your Google Voice password. This is why, all the way back in the first article of this series, I told you to create a new account used solely for your Google Voice number.
Obihai seems like a fine company, but I don't want them having full access to my Gmail account or password.
Now that you've filled in these fields, you're almost ready.
First, switch back over to Google Voice and make sure Google Chat is enabled:
OBi uses the Google Chat interface in some magical way to pass calls along to you.
At this point, you should be able to receive Google Voice calls on your old-school phone. You will not, however, be able to make any calls.
As it turns out, there's a big pile of fine print on the OBiTALK configuration screen under the Gmail username and Gmail password settings. The most important notation in that text is their admonishment not to use the OBi device for emergencies. 9-1-1 won't work.
The second useful piece of information is that you're going to have to make at least one outgoing phone call directly from your Gmail account. You do this by clicking the"Call phone" button on the lower left side of your Gmail interface. Google may insist you install a plug-in, but I've found it's not at all intrusive.
Once you've made your first call via Gmail (and you don't even have to talk, so don't worry about a microphone), you don't ever have to do it again. From that point on, pick up your telephone handset, dial a number, and you're making a call. The fact that the OBi's sending that call over the Internet, through Google Voice, and back out through a phone line somewhere else is hidden from view. It just works.
Some final notes
We've found that there's sometimes a minor glitch that seems to clip off the first syllable of conversation. We don't know if that's the fault of the OBi, Google Voice, or the Link-to-Cell, the device I'll be talking about in our next installment. So far, that clipping hasn't been too bad.
Generally, voice quality is quite good. I haven't had many complaints, except when I call someone on a mobile phone. I'm pretty used to mobile callers having crappy reception, so I don't think it's the fault of the OBi.
There is some risk, because this entire solution requires the OBiTALK service to remain running. I don't know anything about the Obihai company, but right now, I'm hoping they're very successful and stay in business forever.
The OBi device supports many more services beyond Google Voice, including Skype. The OBi device, itself, can act as a VOIP gateway for two different services. So, if you want, you could connect a different service to the second service slot. When making a call on the second service, you'd simply have to prefix the number you're dialing with a short code.
So there you go. Cheap VoIP for fifty bucks, no monthly fee. It's enough to make any cheapskate grin with joy.