You can enjoy the convenience of a whole-house phone line without shelling out your hard earned money to your local telecommunications provider. Read on as we show you how to ditch the phone bill, keep the land line, and enjoy free local and long distance calling in the process.
How VoIP Differs from a Traditional Land Line
There are three ways you can pipe phone service into your home: a traditional land line setup through your local phone provider, a cell-phone bridge that extends your cellular plan to your home phone system, and a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) system that uses your Internet connection to bridge your home phone system to a VoIP provider that routes your phone calls back out to the regular telephone grid. But most versions of these plans are expensive:
- Traditional Land Lines: Traditional land line setups are generally expensive for what you get. Basic packages run around $15 a month and don’t include regional or national long distance calling, or amenities like caller ID. Adding in a modest long distance package and those amenities can easily push the price of a standard land line above $40-50 a month. Traditional phone service includes a host of taxes, regulatory fees, and other charges that can easily add $15 to your bill. All told, a single land line with basic long distance features can easily run you $60+ a month.
- Cellphones: Bridging your cellphone plan to your home phone system—whether via a special device provided by your cell company or with a home phone that supports Bluetooth linking—is also expensive, as you generally need to purchase a second line on your cell plan and/or potentially add extra minutes with an upgraded plan to cover the home phone usage. For most people, this would add on anywhere from $10-40 on their already pricey cellphone plan. Like traditional land lines, cellphone lines also incur taxes and regulatory fees. In addition the viability of this method is based on cellular reception. Get bad service in your home? Bridging your cellphone to your home phone isn’t going to fix that.
- Voice-over-IP Systems: VoIP is the newest method of linking your home phone system to the outside world and varies wildly in terms of service quality and price. Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) now bundle VoIP calling with their internet package—in fact, AT&T and Verizon are aggressively pushing customers towards VoIP systems—but the price of the add-on phone service is routinely as expensive as a traditional land line ($30-40). Depending on the provider, VoIP services may or may not collect taxes and regulatory fees—generally, if your VoIP service is bundled with your internet and/or cable service provided by a traditional telecommunications company, you will be paying the additional fees just like you would with a land line or cellphone.
If you stick with a traditional land line, a cellphone bridge, or a VoIP system provided by your phone company or ISP, phone service will cost you anywhere between $200-600 annually—money we would all certainly be happy to spend on other things. None of that sounds particularly appealing if you’re looking to add some breathing room to your budget. Fortunately, with a small investment up front you can reduce your monthly home phone bill all the way to $0 per month (and mere $1 a month if you want to add in 911 service). All you need is a VoIP adapter and a free Google Voice account. Sound good? You bet it does; let’s get started.
Small Business Owner or Power User? Try a Cloud VoIP Service
The rest of this tutorial explains how to use Google Voice and plug in a traditional home phone, but if you’re running a small business out of your house, or you’re just a user that wants a more powerful solution that’s also easier to setup, you might want to look at one of the many cloud-based VoIP services like RingCentral Office.
RingCentral has all of the features you’d expect that make VoIP so great—there are apps for iPhone and Android, physical phones for your desk, call waiting, auto attendants, extensions, audio recording, conference calling, voicemail to email, and integrations with Microsoft, Google, Box, Dropbox, and more. You can even get an 800 number if you want to.
And their plans start at $20 per month with a free trial period, but can scale up into large businesses if you ever needed to. RingCentral is the phone system that we’ve been using here at How-To Geek for the last few years, and it’s really worth a look.
What You’ll Need
To follow along with our VoIP tutorial, you will the following things:
- Broadband Internet Access. (Unfortunately, VoIP is prohibitively bandwidth-hungry for dial-up.)
- One OBi200 ($48), OBi202 ($64), or OBi110 ($70) VoIP Adapter (see our notes below to see which model is best suited for you).
- A free Google Voice account.
- A $12/year Anveo account (Optional: required for E911 service).
- One Ethernet cable.
- One RJ11 telephone cable.
- One corded or cordless telephone.
Not sure what any of this means? Here’s an explanation.
What’s the Difference Between the Obi VoIP Adapters?
For the most part, the two newest OBi models—the 200 and the 202—are functionally identical. Both have updated hardware, both support up to 4 VOiP services, and both support the T.38 fax protocol (for IP-to-IP address faxing). The OBi202, however, includes two additional features that may be of use to you. First, the OBi202 supports 2 separate phone lines. If your home is wired for multiple phone lines and you wish to preserve that experience when you switch over to a VoIP system, the OBi202 allows you to hook up 2 lines to ring two separate phone systems in your home.
Additionally, the OBi202 includes VoIP-specific router functionality. If you plug the OBi202 box in between your modem and router, the OBi202 will automatically prioritize all VoIP traffic before any other internet traffic to ensure optimum call quality. This feature is of more limited utility than the dual-phone-line feature, however, as nearly every router supports custom Quality of Service rules to achieve this same end and, honestly, in our personal experience with years of VoIP use, we’ve never had issues with heavy internet use lowering call quality.
Finally, both models have a USB port that accepts OBi accessories like the OBiWiFi5 ($25, a Wi-Fi adapter for your OBi unit), the OBiBT ($23, a Bluetooth adapter so you can answer your cellphone using your home phone system), and the OBiLINE ($40, allows your OBi200 or OBi202 to connect to a land line).
What’s the benefit of connecting your OBi VoIP unit to a traditional land line? One of the few drawbacks of using a many VoIP services, including Google Voice, is that they do not include traditional emergency number (e.g. 911) support. If retaining traditional access to your local 911 service is critical (or you want to keep a barebones line for use with a security system) then opting for a the OBi200 or OBi202 (with the USB adapter) or the older OBi110 (which includes an extra built in RJ45 jack for this purpose) is necessary.
If you’re comfortable using E911 service (which is simply an adaptation of the traditional 911 service for cellular phone and VoIP technology), we will show you how to set that up later in the tutorial, and you don’t need your basic land line. If you haven’t tried to sign up for a basic phone line in awhile, you will likely be shocked by the price—our local phone provider insisted that $35 a month was as low as they could possibly go for a local only, 911-enabled phone line with no extra amenities.
Do I Have to Use a Google Voice Account?
You do not have to use Google Voice as your VoIP provider. OBi VoIP adapters are not locked to any given service and can be used with multiple services including Anveo, Callcentric, CallWithUs, InPhonex, RingCentral, Sipgate, Vitelity, VoIP.ms, and VoIPo. In addition you can manually configure many other VoIP providers to work with your OBi device.
We are using Google Voice because it’s absolutely free for North American to North American calls and features dirt-cheap $0.01 per minute international calling. Should that change in the future, you can easily change your OBi device to use a more economical VoIP provider.
Why Do I Need an Anveo Account?
Google Voice does not currently support E911 calls. If you are not retaining a barebones land line for use with emergency calling services, and wish to keep access to 911, you will need to add in secondary VoIP provider with E911 support. All three of the OBi devices listed above support multiple VoIP providers and Anveo offers a $1-per-month plan which is a perfect match for our basic E911 needs. Once we have finished setting up your OBi device with Google Voice, we will show you how to add in E911 support.
Where Should I Put the OBi Device?
All of the Obi devices need a connection to your router and a connection to the phone network in your home (if you’re using the device with a single phone, you can simply plug the phone into the device directly). Whether you plug the device in right next to your router, into a network jack elsewhere in the house, or on the other side of a network switch on your network, is largely irrelevant. Place the Obi device in the most convenient location that permits you to patch it into your home data network and home telephone network. In our case, the most convenient location was in the basement within easy access of our network router, a phone jack, and a power outlet.
Note: You do not have to plug the Obi device into the point-of-entry for the phone line; you can plug it into any phone jack in your home to connect it to your home phone network.
Step One: Create a Google Voice Account
Before we plug our VoIP data into our OBi device, we need a VoIP provider. Fortunately, signing up for Google Voice is dead simple. First head over to voice.google.com to start the process. If you already have a Google Voice number, you can jump right to step two below.
If you wish to keep your Google Voice account separate from your primary Google account (e.g. you’re going to be using the Google Voice + OBi setup for an apartment with multiple roommates and you want the number and account access walled off from your main Google account) we suggest creating a brand new Google account for this project. Otherwise, feel free to log in using your primary account.
When you head to voice.google.com for the first time and log in with a Google account, you will be prompted to accept the terms of service and informed that you will need to verify yourself using a US-based phone number:
Next you will be prompted to pick your Google Voice number—this will, for all intents and purposes, be your “home phone number” that rings the phones in your house. You can either pick a new Google Voice-supplied phone number, which is free, or port an existing number into Google incurs a one-time fee of $20. If you’re porting your number from your old landline, you’ll probably have to contact your phone provider to make it happen (and it may take a few days).
Once you’ve selected your Google Voice number, you will be prompted to enter a forwarding phone number. You only need to use this number for verifying your US residency, so your mobile phone is fine—after that, you’ll be able to delete it and simply use your Google assigned number by going to Settings > Phone in Google Voice. You will receive a phone call from Google Voice at that number; enter the two digit confirmation code when prompted.
Once you’ve confirmed your US-based phone number in the previous step, you can then select your new Google Voice number. You can either enter an area, city name, or zip code to search for a local number or enter a word, phrase, or number string (if you want a number with your name in it like 1-555-212-JOHN or the like).
After acquiring your Google Voice number (or successfully porting an older number into the system), you will need to make at least one Google Voice call from within the Google Voice web interface to fully activate the service. Any phone number will do, but if you’re looking for a number you can call without bothering anyone, there’s always the old trusty National Institute of Standards and Technology Time-of-Day service line: (303) 499-7111.
Step Two: Configure Your OBi
Now it’s time to set up your OBi device. First, plug your OBi device into your data network and phone network. Once connected to both, plug in the power transformer to boot up the device. Leave the device to boot up and update its firmware; it’s time to go register it with OBi.
Back at your computer, visit the OBi web portal and register for an account. Wait for an email from OBi and confirm your account registration. Log in at the web portal after you have confirmed your account and click on Add Device in the sidebar.
Confirm that you have your OBi unit plugged in, as outlined in the image in the next step, then make sure “I want to configure Google Voice on this device.” is checked. Click Next.
OBi will prompt you to pick up a telephone handset and dial the registration code they have supplied (e.g. **1 2345). Dial the number. Hang up after the automated response. If you are unable to dial the number you may need to power cycle your OBi device (do not power cycle the device while the LED indicator is blinking orange, as the OBi device is in the middle of updating the firmware).
After successfully entering the registration code, you will be prompted to configure your OBi device from the web portal. The OBi number, MAC address, and serial number of the device are pre-populated for you. You will need to name the device (we simply named ours Home to distinguish it from any future OBi devices we might activate at other locations), supply an admin password (for connecting to the OBi device directly over your network), and add a 4 digit PIN for the OBi Auto Attendant (necessary for accessing the more advanced features of the OBi device from outside the local network). Click Save Changes before continuing.
The next step is to link your OBi device with Google Voice. Click on the Google Voice Set-Up icon beneath the items you just configured. OBi will warn you that there is no 911 support for Google Voice (we will be setting up E911 support in a moment, so just click Accept).
In the Google Voice configuration page, you will want to name your account, ensure that “Make This the Primary Line to Call Out from” is checked as well as “Google Voicemail Notification”. Add in your local area code to make local number dialing more convenient. Finally, plug in your Google Voice username and password.
NOTE: If you are using two-factor authentication on your Google account (and we highly recommend you do), you will need to set an application-specific password for your OBi service. To do so visit your Google Accounts dashboard, navigate to Security > Connected Applications and Sites > Manage Access and then scroll to down to the Application-specific Passwords section to create a unique password for OBi.
Once you have entered all the information in the Google Voice configuration page within the OBi web portal, click Submit. You will be kicked back to the configuration page for your OBi device. It will take around five minutes for the configuration process between Google Voice and OBi to complete. During this time the status indicator for your Google Voice account will say “Backing Off”, then “Authenticating”, and finally “Connected”. If your status indicator gets stuck at “Backing Off”, double check your password.
When you have received the “Connected” status confirmation, it’s time to test out the connection. Pick up the telephone handset connected to the OBi device and dial an outgoing number. You could try out the Time-of-Day number again, (303) 499-7111, or dial a friend and gush about how much money you will be saving by never paying a landline phone bill again.
Step Three (Optional): Configure OBi for E911 Service with Anveo
Although this step is optional insofar as you don’t need to complete it to get free phone calls all year long, we highly recommend going through this process. While most of us, thankfully, will never need to use 911, adding on E911 service to your VoIP setup is cheap peace of mind.
OBi supports multiple VoIP services with integrated E911 calling, but they have made it especially easy to configure Anveo for E911 service. Since Anveo’s ultra-cheap E911-only VoIP add-on plan costs a buck a month, the cheapest we were able to find, we see no reason to go with anyone else.
To set up your auxiliary Anveo line, return to the Device Configuration page within the OBi web portal. In the Configure Voice Service Providers (SP) section click on the blue Anveo E911 Sign-Up box. On the next page select SP2 Service in the drop-down menu and click Next. Select “I want a new Anveo E911 for my OBi”. Enter the CAPTCHA and then fill out the address form (this is not the billing address, but the physical location of the phone). After confirming the address of the phone you will plug in your billing address and set up a password.
Next select either basic E911 service for $12 a year or E911 with alerts (SMS, phone calls, email, etc.) for $15. Once you have completed the registration and payment process (including clicking the activation link delivered via email) then the Anveo E911 service will be active and automatically configured on your OBi account.
Finally, you can test your E911 service by dialing 933 on any phone connected to your OBi device. The automated process will confirm that you have E911 access, tell you the address registered in the E911 system for the incoming phone number, and confirm that your phone system can supply outgoing audio to a 911 operator.
At this point, your home phone network has been fully converted to a free VoIP system complete with long distance, caller ID, voicemail, and all the other amenities your local phone company would love to charge you for. Even better, the system is completely unlocked, and you can easily transition it to a new VoIP provider if in the future Google Voice no longer proves to be the most economical provider around.
If you’re still on the fence about the transition, we’ll offer one final nudge. We wrote the original version of this tutorial in 2013, and have continued to use the OBi/Google Voice system ever since, saving ~$3,000 (compared to getting phone server through a local provider) while enjoying stable and uninterrupted service in the process.