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Google Voice: A cheapskate's guide to cheap VoIP

Here's how you can make and receive Google Voice phone calls from any old wired phone you may have lying around your house. The only problem is that this might not be your best solution. That's coming in a later article.
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*

This article is a continuation of our Google Voice series. In this article, we look at how you can make and receive Google Voice phone calls from any old wired phone you may have lying around your house, including cordless phones.

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.

Understanding the challenge

Let's get this out there right now. Back in 2011, when I first put this "Mark I" solution together, I did not like my iPhone. I had an even-then ancient iPhone 3G, which I was waiting on upgrading until either the iPhone 5 came out or I lost patience writing about Apple and decided to go get an Android phone, so I can spend all day and all night tweaking my launch screen. As it turns out, I did both: I bought an iPhone 4S and then an Android Samsung Galaxy S4.

I didn't like making or getting calls on my iPhone 3G. I was resistant to change, and I liked making and getting calls on my old-school landline phone that I had used for years. It was comfortable, had a great headset that sat properly on my head, with a mic that people could actually hear. It just worked and I liked it.

The challenge, of course, is once I ditched my landlines, my landline phone became a paper weight (and I don't even use much paper anymore).

But what if I could connect my landline phone, complete with its RJ11 jack, straight into Google Voice? What if, when you called my office number, my old landline phone rang, I could pick it up, and talk to you? And what, if I wanted to make a call, I could just pick up that phone, dial a number on it, and reach you? And what, if when I made 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. It should be noted that while the Obi is a workable solution for Google Voice now, because Google is discontinuing support of the XMPP protocol in May 2014, the Obi will no longer work with Google Voice after that date. Even so, I'll keep telling the story here so you have a complete picture of the options and our experience making these systems work.

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.

(Ooma was eventually kind enough to provide me with a review unit, and I discuss that in the next article in this series, Taking Google Voice to the extreme with Ooma)

So, being cheap, I looked for an alternative solution. Don't get me wrong, the Ooma looked 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 initially 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? Well, there are reasons, but it took a while to figure them out.

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 came in two variants when I used it back in 2011, the OBi100 (for $39.99) and the OBi110 (for $49.99). They've since added the Obi200 and the Obi202 (moving up to $59.99 and $69.99, respectively). The company was nice enough to send me an Obi202 to look at, but I used the Obi110 for my phone solution for about a year.

The OBi is a general purpose VoIP box that sits between your network and your RJ11-based landline 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 landline 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 landline.

It's a heck of a feature, if specialized, for a mere extra ten bucks.

Next up: using the Obi with Google Voice...

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)

Using the OBi with Google Voice

But let's get back to Google Voice. Back in 2011, you could use either OBi model with Google Voice. I sprang for the extra ten dollars, even though I had almost no possible use for the extra port. It's a feature, and I just can't resist me them tasty features!

Before I go on, I should repeat what I said on the previous page. Google is discontinuing support of the XMPP protocol in May 2014. The Obi will no longer work with Google Voice after that date. 

That said, there were 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 (at least until Google stops talking to OBi over XMPP).

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 was 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 an early 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 didn't want them having full access to my Gmail account or password. Now that you've filled in these fields, you're almost ready.

Next, switch back over to Google Voice and make sure Google Chat is enabled:

OBi uses the Google Chat interface to pass calls along to you. That's where the XMPP interface comes in. This is also where I started having problems with both the Obi and Ooma solution, because the enabled setting on the Chat checkbox in Google Voice would occasionally turn off for both my wife's Google Voice account and mine.

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' sends 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. 

The sound quality and reliability of the Obi110 eventually got to us, and we moved away to the Ooma solution I describe in the next article. Obihai did send me an updated box (the Obi202), but by that time, I'd moved onto other phone solutions and didn't want to upset what was sort of working on a new test.

More great project ideas

Generally, voice quality was reasonably, but unreliable. Initially I didn't have too many complaints, but over time my wife expressed her measurable dissatisfaction with the solution.

Back in 2011, I wrote, "There is some risk, because this entire solution requires the OBiTALK service to remain running." As we're seeing now, that was prescient, because the critical XMPP interface portion of the Obihai solution is going away in May 2014.

The OBi device supports many more services beyond Google Voice. 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. And even though I moved off of it, I still recommend it to anyone who wants a cheap VoIP solution and is willing to put up with a few glitches.

Next in our series: Taking Google Voice to the extreme with Ooma

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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