Taking a Google Voice office to the extreme with Ooma

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.
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.

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

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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.

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

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 worked reasonably 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 mostly went away.

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 sent those to email, so if anything was something we need to see, we would. Nothing in the community blacklist has been anything but garbage, so it worked nicely.

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.

Next up: Configuring the second Google Voice number (plus costs)...

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)

Configuring the second GV 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).

Then it got even more confusing. Ooma upgraded from their Ooma handset to their HD2 Handset. Better call quality, but if you want to use the HD2 handset, you need to run a firmware upgrade which -- wait for it -- breaks all the old handsets so you can no longer use them. Sigh.

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 was an answer to that, as well. You can assign a dialing prefix to the number, in my case **2. When I wanted to make an outgoing call, I could 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 called was my secondary Google Voice number.

And it worked. For a while.

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. I think this was because they were moving to the HD2 handset, although even now, the old handsets show up in the Ooma store.

Second, the original handsets were 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?

This was fixed in the HD2 version of the headset and we grew to quite like them as substitutes for some of our old POTS handsets.

One benefit, though, of the Ooma handset, is that I could use it while my wife used a regular phone on the wireless phone system and we were both able to be talking to separate people at the same time. Hacky? Yes. Workable? Yeah, pretty much.

Finally, while all this worked (for a while), and the Ooma folks were more than willing to help figure it all out, it was clear this wasn't their main business approach. Everything was very, very cobbled together and weirdly configured. It worked for quite a while, but it was not something that you might consider mission-critical (or wife-approved) solid.

Cost factors

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 landlines 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 almost three years 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.

Next up: Where it all went off the rails and what I recommend...

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)

Where it went off the rails

We used this Mark II solution for about 18 months. For the first few months, it was complex, but tolerable. We found we had a lot of complaints about voice quality. I attribute this less to the Ooma and more to the connection between the digital VoIP environment and the analog handsets we were had attached to it. This was somewhat confirmed when we used the HD2 handset for calls; call quality had less complaints.

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Then, about five or six months ago, my Google Voice line stopped working in the Ooma. I just couldn't get calls. I tried all the usual fixes, including going into the Google Voice dashboard and turning on and off Google Chat. I set and reset everything and it just wouldn't work. I was cut off from incoming calls.

Weirdly enough, my wife's line worked. But remember that hers was the primary Ooma line and mine was a very hacked second line.

I reached out to Ooma for help, both by phone (leaving my wife's number for call return) and email. Dead air. The previously responsive PR agent was unreachable. Nothing.

My phone line wasn't working and the company wasn't responsive for more than a month. I had to find another solution, which is the Mark III solution I'll describe in the next article.

Finally, well after I'd moved to my replacement solution, the company got back to me. They had switched PR agencies and apparently nobody thought it a good idea to return my calls until the new agency was onboard. Not a best practice.

As a result, the Ooma solution is in a bin in my garage. I could probably jump through a bunch of hoops to get it working now that the company is responding to contact again, but since we were having call quality issues and complaints anyway, I've decided to move on.

So, do I recommend Ooma?

Almost two years ago, when I originally wrote this article, I said " I'd absolutely recommend the Ooma solution -- with a few caveats." Those caveats were:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 -- until they went offline for a few months.

Google Voice is clearly not a focus of the company and given that Google will no longer support XMPP after May 2014, it's possible that Ooma's Google Voice extensions won't work after that point. For me, they broke early.

Now, after my experience with Ooma and Google Voice, I'd say this. 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. And that's what my next article is all about...

Next in our series: Google Voice and Skype: rethinking GV and the landline handset solution

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.

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