It has been possible for several years now for Americans to dump their landline phone companies and pay much less with services that route calls over the Internet instead of over the regular phone network. For instance, the leader in this business, Vonage, charges just $25 a month for unlimited local and long-distance calling in the U.S. and Canada, much less than most traditional plans.
But relatively few Americans have adopted these alternatives, which are called voice over Internet protocol services, or VOIP, for short. Some consumers avoid the move because VOIP services can’t connect to 911 emergency call centers in the traditional manner, and must use workarounds. Others worry that if their Internet service goes out, so does their phone service.
In addition, the stability of the VOIP providers isn’t certain. Vonage itself has been battered by legal problems and another VOIP service, SunRocket, shut down this week.
I’ve been testing a new type of VOIP option that will go on sale in September from a Silicon Valley start-up called Ooma, whose product goes by the same name. It differs radically from Vonage and other current VOIP providers, in two ways.
First, Ooma is a $399 piece of hardware that you pay for only once. There are no monthly bills. You just buy an Ooma Hub, a small device that looks like an answering machine. You plug it into your Internet connection and attach a phone, and you get free, unlimited domestic calls, local or long distance, as long as you keep your Ooma.
Second, with Ooma, you can easily keep your regular phone service as an integrated backup, for 911 calls, and in case the Internet service in your home goes out.
Ooma combines the VOIP and regular phone service. If you keep your standard phone service, Ooma uses your current phone number. And, if you dial 911, it always places that call over the traditional phone network. During an Internet outage, the device seamlessly switches to use the regular phone service, but you still pay no fees to Ooma.
If you do keep your standard service, you can reduce it to a very basic, low-cost plan, just for 911 and backup. International calls are routed through the Internet by Ooma and the company says they will cost roughly what Internet phone services like Skype charge for nonmember calls, which is well below traditional landline rates.
Ooma also delivers some added benefits. It gives you a virtual second line. If a call comes in when you are already on the line, the second call can be answered from another extension. It also has a built-in answering machine, and allows you to check your messages and call logs online.
I’ve been testing Ooma in my home for about a week and, except for a problem on one phone jack, I found it worked as promised. I tested it with both corded and cordless phones, and I also tested a companion $39 device, called an Ooma Scout, which must be plugged into the phone jacks in your house you want to use, beyond the jack to which the Hub is connected. Each scenario worked well.
When I plugged my cordless-phone base station into an Ooma box, all of the remote handsets continued to work normally. The only difference was the dial tone; Ooma gives you a unique musical dial tone to tell you it’s on duty.
Ooma works using the peer-to-peer Internet system popularized by file-sharing sites. Each Ooma box is part of Ooma’s network. The box in your home, for instance, might carry someone else’s phone call, though you can’t hear that call, and this doesn’t interfere with your own ability to make and receive calls whenever you want. In my tests, the Ooma didn’t seem to affect the speed of the Internet connection used by our computers.
To build its network, Ooma will be seeding the country with 1,500 boxes over the summer. These will be provided free of charge. But the only way to get one, if you aren’t on the initial list, is to know somebody who has one. Each recipient gets three tokens — redeemable for a free Ooma — to give to others.
Set-up is relatively straightforward and the manual is clear, assuming you have standard cable modem or DSL Internet service.
I did run into one problem. When I plugged my cordless-phone base station into an Ooma Scout, outgoing calls worked OK, but incoming calls wouldn’t work properly. This problem cleared up when I moved the base station to a different phone jack, but it suggests that, at least on some jacks, Ooma may fail.
The Ooma devices can be constantly updated over the network to fix problems and add capabilities, and the company is planning to add more features and options, some of which may cost money.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Ooma can handle a large number of customers as well as it did my test unit. But Ooma may be a good option for people who want to cut their phone bills, and either aren’t worried about 911 and Internet outages, or are willing to keep a basic, low-price standard phone service to cover those contingencies.