Google Voice: Configuring a complex home office

Here's how you can set up a complex home office with two phone line and Google Voice. This is the Mark I attempt at a solution. It works, but we found better options, especially since Google is deprecating the XMPP protocol.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
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*

You are reading the 2014 Edition of our Google Voice guide. The original guide was written back in 2011. Since the original guide was written, my wife and I have taken our home office phone system through a number of iterations, each of which is documented in this and the following three articles.

No one solution serves everyone, and you may find that one of the solutions we used and discarded is perfect for you, or you may choose to learn from our experience and go straight to the solution we're using — or even come up with something new and innovative that fits your needs better.

The point is, in this updated and revised edition, I'm going to both discuss the solutions and what we liked and didn't liked, and as you read through the next few articles you'll be able to benefit from our three years of living with these alternatives.

Our old, landline solution

Throughout this series, I've shown you the various steps I took in setting up my Google Voice system. The reasons I took those specific steps had to do with the phone "environment" my wife and I wanted in our new home, which is also where our office is.

Back in 2011, we moved from a rented house into one we purchased and intend to live in for quite some time. So there was a necessary transition point at that time. Google Voice was to be part of the solution in particular because we were making a transition to what was to become both our new living and working space.

We had a very specific set of requirements, borne out of years of working and living together, and knowing our specific productivity needs. If you're curious about that transition, you might want to read a piece I wrote based on some of the lessons I learned in making the move: Ten techie homeowner tips for Jason's new house.

Now that you have a bit of background, it'll be instructive for you to understand our phone environment prior to our 2011 move, back when we had two landlines in the old house.

Back then, we had two landlines. One was mostly for work and the other was mostly for friends and family. We also each had an iPhone (3G vintage). I almost never used my iPhone for voice calls, using it as a test engine for software development, an email client, and a network diagnosis tool. Denise used her iPhone when she was out, but not for much more.

When a call came into either of our two landline numbers, it was handled by a two-line Panasonic KX-TG6502 phone system. Both lines went into the base unit, and we had four wireless phones and chargers scattered throughout the house: one in her office space, one in mine, one in the bedroom (with ringer turned off), and one in the media room.

From anywhere in the house, either of us could answer an incoming call on any line, we could conference between the lines, we could put a caller on hold, we could intercom between us, and the other person could pick up that caller and talk to him or her.

It was, essentially, a baby PBX.

Requirements for the new solution

One of the reasons we didn't just go with our iPhones and leave it at that is we wanted a phone system where either person could pick up either line. This was not as important from a personal perspective, but was absolutely essential for office work.

As it turns out, this requirement changed considerably over the last two years. When we moved from a two-story home to a home where everything revolves around an open-floorplan great room, we found that it was less essential for any given handset to handle both lines. More on where this eventually took us in Google Voice and Skype: rethinking the landline handset solution.

We also wanted to be able to answer calls from anywhere in the house. We didn't want to get a call and have to run all over the house to find the one iPhone that could answer the call. You can't get from one end of the house to the other in three rings without running, and we didn't want to sound out-of-breath when answering a business call, especially for many of the media calls I get.

This also changed. The new house is much smaller and there's no longer a mad dash up or down the stairs to get to a ringing phone. We do have a few small rooms in the West Wing (yes, we do have a small wing on the western side of the house), but if we're to spend any time there, we just bring a phone in with us.

When making a call, we also wanted to be sure the person we were calling saw the proper Caller ID. We didn't want callers to get a random mobile phone number, but rather to see the usual business line or personal line they were used to and comfortable with.

Because we were spending so much time between locations, on assignment, and on the road, we wanted a new feature. We wanted our incoming calls to follow us, no matter where we were. If Denise left the house, we wanted calls to the personal line to immediately go to her mobile phone, without requiring any special fuss or changing of settings.

For the business line, we wanted it to always ring at the house in case one of us was there, but if we were both out, we wanted it to also ring on my mobile phone.

This "follow-us" feature, which we get with Google Voice, has proven to be one of the most valuable and heavily used features of the entire system over the years. It's saved our bacon far more than once (and bacon is always a good thing).

Finally, we also wanted to make sure we could both make outgoing and receive incoming calls at the same time. We're often both talking on the phone to different friends, clients, contractors, and customers and we didn't want to have to wait until one person was done before the next person could make a call.

Our one remaining landline

There was one other requirement, but it's a completely separate component, outside of our solution. I still needed a landline phone to call into the CBS Interactive webcast system. I do a lot of webcasts and radio interviews, and the mobile/VOIP solution I was putting together would still not have the audio fidelity needed for broadcast.

That said, I also didn't want to incur all sorts of costs and expenses. The landlines we got rid of cost us as much or more than our mobile phones, and it didn't make sense to keep all that expense.

In the new house, we put in one landline, and it lives in my sound-proof studio. We don't have a long-distance plan or any features on it, because I dial into 800 numbers or the radio stations I'm on prefer to dial me, anyway.

That one, barely provisioned landline costs about $25/month.

More great project ideas

I hooked the old Panasonic KX-TG6502 base unit to this, turned the ringers off, and set the outgoing message on the base unit to indicate that the phone is never answered.

This is an important factor. You might ask, since we're paying for a single landline, why not use it as part of the phone system? The answer is that I don't want Call Waiting, Call Forwarding, or any other service, and I don't want the chance that someone will pick up a phone extension. I need this line dedicated completely to broadcast use.

There's one tangible benefit to this spare landline, in addition to its use for work. It does have 9-1-1 service on it, so if there's an emergency, we have immediate 9-1-1 access.

As it turned out, I stopped using the landline for calls into CBS Interactive. Its quality declined considerably. Instead, I installed a professional mic in the studio and I call into CBSi webcasts (and the other interviews I do, like my regular BBC shots) using Skype. Skype over broadband has provided us with just about the best voice quality we've found (with the occasional bad day, of course).

Next up: the components of our home office solution (Mark I)...

By the way, 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.

*Bonus points to anyone who knows what game-changing bit of computing history this phrase refers to. If you think you know, post your comments in the TalkBack below.

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: The Ultimate Google Voice How-to Guide (2014 Edition)

Components of our home office solution

Now that you know the scope of what I was putting together, here's a list of the various elements that made up my "Mark I" home office solution:

  • Two iPhones: Denise had her beloved iPhone 4 and I had my much-maligned and barely tolerated iPhone 3G. These served us (and annoyed me) when we're away from the house. Both were on AT&T.
  • AT&T MicroCell: When we first bought the new house and realized AT&T's signal was non-existent, we bought the MicroCell so we were able to have some level of service. We paid $20/mo so Denise could have unlimited outgoing calls. I had more than 5,000 minutes banked, so I was just registered as a guest on the MicroCell. 
  • Two Google Voice numbers: These are the numbers we ported from the old house.
  • Broadband Internet: A key component to making this all work is a broadband Internet connection, a cable modem, a router, and a pile of switches. I put GigE into every wall of the house. I have a massive central patch panel in the studio, and network connectivity is distributed house-wide.
  • Email accounts: Although we could log into Google Voice to check messages, we both get voicemail and SMS messages via Outlook and the Exchange server we have in the cloud.
  • The OBi VoIP box: This was the device that allowed us to connect a RJ11-based phone system to Google Voice and gives inexpensive VOIP services. Sort of.
  • The Link-to-Cell phone system: This was the product that pulls it all together and helped us meet our mini-PBX requirements. It's the subject of the rest of this article.

I grew to hate the Link-to-Cell. Hate. It was a royal pain to hook up, my wife was always complaining about it because people we talked to always complained, it was weirdly unreliable system, and its odd way of trying to handle Bluetooth was unwieldy. We used it for a while and I'll explain how, but the day I yanked it out was a happy day, indeed.

More great project ideas

It's important to stress here that we were really tied to the idea of old-school phone handsets and a lot of the hurdles I jumped through was attempting to reproduce the landline experience using VoIP and existing RJ-11 phone sets.

If you want to do that, these next three articles are for you. I eventually jumped off that road and went with augmented smartphones and tablets. But that's for a later article.

Configuring the Link-to-Cell

As you might imagine, makers of landline-based phone systems have been taking a bath, as late. With more and more people moving off land lines to cell phones or VoIP solutions, producers of traditional consumer telephony products have had to find new markets and new opportunities.

One such opportunity has been to create phone systems that work both with landlines and with mobile phones. More and more phone systems are adding a Bluetooth integration capability, allowing their handsets to effectively become full-featured Bluetooth headsets for mobile phones.

This is where the Panasonic Link-to-Cell Cellular Convergence Solution, model KX-TG6582 comes into the picture. This gadget, purchased for about $75 from my local Staples, consists of a base unit and two handsets (once we got it working, I ordered another two handsets).

The base unit has one RJ11 land line phone port on it, but can also accept up to two Bluetooth mobile phone connections (although only one can be active at once). This is where things start to get interesting.

If Denise and I both wanted to use this device to talk on the phone at once, and we wanted to do it through our mobile phones, we weren't able to, because only one Bluetooth connection could be in use at once. But, if one of us used Bluetooth and one of us used the landline port, we could both be on handset extensions at the same time.

Ah, now you're beginning to see where the OBi and VoIP come in, aren't you?

When you run a phone cable between the OBi and the Link-to-Cell, the Link-to-Cell is convinced it's connected to a jack in the wall. It has no idea that it's connecting via the OBi to Google Voice, and then, through that, to the outside world.

So that was our Mark I configuration: we had the OBi wired to the Link-to-Cell. We had both iPhones registered with the Link-to-Cell as Bluetooth devices. And we had both iPhones registered with the AT&T MicroCell so we could get something resembling cellular phone service.

Next up: putting it all together, making and receiving calls...

By the way, 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.

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: The Ultimate Google Voice How-to Guide (2014 Edition)

Putting it all together: making calls

Both Denise and I had a Link-to-Cell handset at our desks. If I wanted to make an outgoing work call, I picked up my Link-to-Cell handset, keyed in the number I was calling, and pressed the Talk/Phone button. This initiated a call via the RJ11 jack, out through the OBi, and out through my Google Voice account to the person I was calling. The Caller ID shown was that of my old landline work number

If Denise wanted to make a personal or family call at the same time, she keyed in the number she wanted to call, and instead of hitting the Talk/Phone button, she hit the CELL button. The Link-to-Cell then gave her a choice of dialing out through her mobile phone or mine. Once she chose her phone, the Link-to-Cell initiated a mobile call, which went out through the AT&T MicroCell, and then through our Internet connection.

The only drawback is that calls made through the Link-to-Cell CELL option don't show the Google Voice Caller ID, but instead the Caller ID of the mobile phone. For her, this was fine, since she's generally calling people who were already aware of her mobile number. After awhile, though, it grew very annoying and confusing for her friends, and we eventually resolved it via solutions you'll read about in the following articles.

We also had the option of setting up a second Google Voice account on the OBi. If she wanted to make an outgoing call that displayed the family Caller ID, she could type in a short access code using the Talk/Phone button, and it dialed out via Google Voice rather than via her iPhone.

It shouldn't have to be this way. As with many things, Apple's restrictions got in the way. If we were able to choose which app was used by default by Bluetooth devices to dial outgoing calls, we'd have been able to tell it to use Google Voice to make the call, instead of the iPhone's Phone app. Hopefully, this will change in the future (nah) since I don't think I'll ever be able to pry the iPhone out of her hands in favor of an Android device (I did, she loves her Samsung Galaxy S4 — in fact, moving to Android was her idea).

Putting it all together: receiving calls

The other side of the equation, of course, is receiving calls. In the end, this was the most important part of our entire landline rescue operation. Once again, let's give a quiet nod of thanks to the FCC for making number portability part of our telecommunications strategy. Otherwise, none of this would be possible.

When someone calls the work number, they're routed through Google Voice. This is still how I do it, to this day. But with the Mark I solution, Google Voice then forwarded the number to both my mobile phone and to the OBi box, which then sent the call to the Link-to-Cell, and the Link-to-Cell handset rang — as did my iPhone, unless I've turned my ringer off.

When I wasn't at home, I just picked up the call on my iPhone. When I was at home, either of us could answer using our own Link-to-Cell handset.

This worked quite well, but when we first set the whole system up, there was a complete cacophony whenever a call came in. The Link-to-Cell defaulted to speaking (well, more like yelling) the Caller ID number out loud. It also defaulted to the base unit and each handset ringing at pretty much the same time it yelled out the caller's number.

When a call came in, the iPhone would vibrate and then ring, then the Link-to-Cell base unit and each handset would ring, and at the same time, the base unit and each handset would yell out the number of the incoming call.

It was like a menagerie of twisted tech, screaming for attention. Sheesh!

Fortunately, you can turn those features off, and once I did, the system rang more like something on the good side of sane.

For the family line, a similar process happened. A call to the family line was routed to Google Voice, which forwarded it to Denise' iPhone. If she was home, the call was routed through the MicroCell and then the Link-to-Cell "saw" the incoming call and rang. Either of us could answer by picking up our own Link-to-Cell handset and talking.

If Denise was not home, incoming family calls didn't ring at the house. You can't imagine what a blessing this is for me when I'm on a writing deadline! Instead, the calls just rang Denise on her iPhone, and she could answer and talk from wherever she happened to be.

Final thoughts

This was a very complex solution, and it's not something everyone needs to set up. We've had a well-oiled office and home environment for years and didn't want the new phone operation to spoil that.

What we liked about this new solution is that it gave us a lot of added flexibility, allowing us to get calls no matter where we were, but also using all of the Google Voice features to manage those calls. What we found we didn't like about the solution was that it was just such a pain in the butt over time.

From a cost perspective, our monthly expenses went down. Sure, we both had to maintain insanely pricey AT&T iPhone plans, but had to do that, anyway. Our monthly expenses, though for phone service dropped to about a quarter of what they were before we moved.

In fact, the savings in our phone service costs are pretty much paid for both iPhone plans.

There were still glitches. Phone quality was adequate, but not nearly as good as a pure landline solution. This drives me a bit nuts, but most people out there are so used to "can you hear me now" that the loss in quality doesn't seem to matter much.

We also still have too many phones ringing in the house when a call comes in, because one or both of us tend to forget to turn off our mobile phone ringers.

Because AT&T's cellular service in this part of town can best be described as "drek", we were also almost entirely reliant on our Internet connection for phone service, so if the cable goes out, we were out of luck, telephonically speaking.

Verizon's service here is actually quite good, so once we switched, we gained considerably better communications options. Of course, back in 2011, Verizon didn't have 4G in this neighborhood, so some of this evolution I'm describing is all about the net present solution that was available at the time.

All those items aside, this was a pretty powerful telephony solution, it cost just over $200 to set up (end-to-end) and while it was annoying, it worked.

Next in our series: Google Voice: a cheapskate's guide to cheap VOIP

By the way, 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.

Editorial standards