Google Voice: Just because you can port your number, should you?

Google Voice is an amazing service, but there are some limitations and gotchas. In this article, we explore the pros and cons of the service to help you decide if it's for you.
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.

The big do-you-port question

Google Voice is an amazingly powerful tool, but there are some reasons you either might not want to use it, or avoid porting your existing phone number. We discuss those reasons in this article, and you should consider them fully before embarking on a number transfer.

If you're not forced to move your landlines, then you need to determine if it's worth the risk. Here's are some things you should consider:

Reasons to port your number Reasons to avoid porting your number
You can easily route calls to any phone you want The process is fraught with risks and there's a chance things could go bad
You can filter incoming calls If you have DSL on your landline, you may not be able to stop voice service and keep your DSL service
You can keep your existing number if you move, even across the country If you just want to move your number but don't need the rest of Google Voice services, you can port without going through Google Voice
You can be reached wherever you are, not just at home or at work

Google Voice isn't as reliable as a landline

You can give out one number where anyone can reach you at any time

You never know how long Google will support this service

My wife and I have been using Google Voice for almost three years. It took us about a year to get used to using Google Voice for both our personal phone and business phone numbers. It took a while to get all the kinks ironed out, and we've gone through a number of iterations in how we set things up, but we're finally happy with it.

Since I published the first edition of this guide back in 2011, I have gotten feedback from readers who were successful moving to Google Voice, but I have also received letters from readers concerned about the process, concerned about moving their long-time and well-known landline phone numbers to Google Voice, and concerned about whether there would be a glitch along the way.

While most of my correspondents were excited by the features offered by Google Voice (most notably, the ability to instantly re-route phone calls and filter spam), some weren't sure the benefits outweighed the risks.

Ultimately, they wanted to know if, just because you can port your number to Google Voice, should you? In other words, is it a wise thing to do?

The answer is: it depends

For us, it was a wise thing to do, because we were moving anyway. Our landlines were going to have to be moved anyway, and, after a few unsatisfyingly vague conversations with customer service, we were none too confident in the ability of our local phone company to get it right.

So we saw risk either way. My wife didn't want to lose our family line and I didn't want to lose the business line, but although it was certainly risky porting to Google Voice via the scheme I'd worked out, it would also have been risky just moving the landlines.

Second, for us, we very much needed the phone-following features of Google Voice, where calls would ring on multiple phones. Back then, we were shuttling between two houses, our office was partially in a moving truck, we were living out of one house for a few days, living out of another for a few days, and this all went on for six months.

More great project ideas

It just wasn't possible for me to constantly tell my clients, "Oh, I'll be at this number on Monday, this one on Tuesday, and that one on Wednesday." Plus, half the time I didn't even know. I'd think I'd be working at the old house, but then I'd get an emergency call from a contractor working at the new house. By using Google Voice, no matter where I was, I could get calls from my clients.

Interestingly, we've found our need for calls to follow us change by the circumstances. Once we moved, for a while, it seemed like we no longer needed to have callers able to get us everywhere we were. Then, a favorite relative got sick and Denise needed to use her RN expertise to help the family at all times of the day or night. In my case, if a news event broke or a cybersecurity crisis hit, I needed to be reachable. If a partner, advisee or media outlet needed to reach me suddenly, they could find me no matter where I happened to be at the time.

Next up: issues to consider...

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)

As more and more of us use smartphones and ditch our landlines, we're not quite as aware of the newness of being reached anywhere.

If you have multiple landing zones (like home or work), it's nice to be able to be reached by callers whenever necessary. So, again, because we had an immediate, tangible need (and we're still seeing the benefits), the risk of the port was worth it to us.

But if you're not migrating between a bunch of locations all the time, or you just think it might be a nice feature, you might not want to risk your phone number to a complex move and you might, instead, just want to add a new Google Voice number assigned by Google.

What if you just want to move your number?

Another aspect that's caused confusion among readers is where Google Voice fits into the number portability formula. Some people who have read my articles were confused and thought you needed Google Voice just to port a landline to a mobile phone, or move a phone number from one carrier to another.

You do not need Google Voice for number portability. Number portability is a law in the United States and you are permitted to move your telephone number across carriers and from landlines to mobile phones.

If you merely want to move your number, but don't need all of Google Voice's features or fiddly bits, just contact the carrier you want to move to. They'll help you make the move with a minimum of fuss.

If you rely on MMS

I've been using Google Voice's texting service successfully for a few years now, but it's important to note that multimedia messaging just doesn't exist on Google Voice. Worse, if someone sends you a picture via SMS, you don't get any notification at all -- it just vanishes.

Many people who use Google Voice use their phone's native messaging service for images and Google Voice for texting, but that's a bit of a hassle. If MMS is very important to you, Google Voice might not be the complete solution. Just keep that in mind as you think this through.

If you have DSL service

If you get your broadband over DSL, it may be difficult to move your number away from your landline. DSL piggybacks over the phone cabling system and many DSL carriers do not offer DSL without phone service.

You'll need to check. Some service providers do offer DSL alone, allowing you to terminate your landline phone service, but others do not. Because DSL carriers run on top of the last-mile lines of phone companies, a DSL carrier that will permit you to buy DSL-only service at one location may be prevented from offering that service at another.

Do your research ahead of time, or you might find yourself in for a nasty, broadband-free surprise.

Is it too hacky for you?

There is another factor at work. For us, at least, we saved a few bucks, but you might not. I'm an engineer, so I'm pretty comfortable (if no longer patient with) hacking together hardware and software solutions. But if you have to hire help, or you can't fix glitches yourself, this kind of hacky solution might not be for you.

We spent a bunch of months after we'd migrated our numbers wishing we were back on the land lines. The original system didn't work well.

But the point is, no matter what gear you use, if you're moving multiple lines to a complex home office environment, this stuff gets messy quickly. It might not be for you.

So what's the bottom line?

Should you port your land line to Google Voice? Obviously, that depends on your circumstances. I'll tell you honestly I did not enjoy the experience. It was nerve-wracking, frustrating, and I didn't like the complaints I got from people we talked to over the phone.

More great project ideas

It also took three full system iterations until it was something we liked reasonably well, and yet there are still some annoyances that need to be resolved. That said, it's better than anything we've had before and there are features that I can't imagine giving up.

However, now that it's working, and working solidly, I love it. A feature I truly value now is one I didn't think was nearly as important back then: the spam filter.

I rarely get junk calls anymore. When those calls came in, they'd interrupt sleep, interrupt my concentration while writing, or interrupt important or pleasant conversations. There were two or three a day on a good day. Now, we get one or two a month, mark them as spam, and never hear from them again. I'd much more relaxing.

The bottom line is your mileage may vary. But if you're willing to take the risk, if the risk is necessary (like if you're moving anyway), if you need ring-everywhere features, and if you'd like spam filtering, then go ahead and port your land line number.

On the other hand, if you're not moving, are only considering this as a possible cost savings, and would experience severe hardship if you lost your phone number into the mists of some phone provider's customer service jungle, then don't port your phone.

Be smart, think it through, and weigh the risks.

Next in our series: Google Voice: a step-by-step primer on ditching your land line while keeping your number

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