House-wide VoIP? Easy and Cheap? Yup.

I ditched the home phone line about 7 years ago now in lieu of Voice Over IP and haven’t looked back.  In talking with people on the pros vs. cons over the years who were debating the switch, I’ve heard just about all of the common hurdles that are preventing more people from doing so.  I wanted to throw up an article discussing the questions I’ve fielded along with how I have been successful, safe, and thrifty doing this.

Who would I use?

That’s a big question.  You really have two classes of carriers to choose from – the “big-box” Vonage type that supply you a device, and the more customizable “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) providers like Callcentric.  Who you go with is up to you – quick and easy, “big-box”.  A tad more technical and cheaper, “BYOD”.

I don’t want to have to be on my computer to make a call.

You don’t have to be!  If you choose a service like MagicJack you do because that’s how they offer unlimited calls for so cheap – it’s ad supported.  You can really go any of three main ways:

  1. “On the computer” – Skype for Windows/Mac or MagicJack
  2. “Near the computer” – most VoIP services such as Vonage
  3. “Anywhere in the house” – a modified version of #2.
This blog is going to focus on #3.  Regardless of provider, the implementation at your house / office is going to be the same.  I personally go with Callcentric because they have a great web interface and allow me to pay as I go rather than lumping out $30/mo for Vonage.  (I had Vonage in the past, didn’t like their ever-increasing monthly rate)
I’ll lose my phone every time my power goes out.
This can be the case if you don’t plan for it.  True 100% copper / fiber fed home phone lines are actually powered by the phone company (unless you have a wireless set that needs a separate plugin).  So even if your power goes out, you’ll still be able to plug a corded telephone in and get dial tone from the phone company.
Yes and no with VoIP.  If you plan your infrastructure to account for this, you can mitigate the risk.  You can go the whole-hawg route by putting your cable/dsl modem, router, and ATA on a UPS or other battery backup, or you can make the decision to rely on a cell phone for power-out emergencies.  There are steps between that, but typically people will go for one way or another.
Being the nerd I am, I have both.  =)
Ok, so how do I get all the phones in my house to be on VoIP?
What you get from Vonage is a Linksys/Cisco “ATA”, which stands for “Analog Terminal (or Telephone) Adapter”.  Basically it’s a device that connects to your Internet connection and provides an interface between your traditional home (analog) telephone and a VoIP service provider.  There are honestly thousands upon thousands of VoIP service providers out there – go with someone like Vonage if you want to just “set it and forget it”, but if you’re a little more technically savvy and want to save some moolah, go with someone like Callcentric.  (If you sign up as a result of reading my blog, be kind and put my Agent ID in at checkout…11085 – thanks!)
Now comes the slightly higher technical portion of our program – lighting your house up with dialtone over the existing wiring without backfeeding your signal to the telephone company.
DISCLAIMER!  This blog is only meant to give you insights on how **I** did this to my home.  Your phone company may have rules on access to the TNI or policies on touching their equipment.  I do not take any responsibility for you violating any agreement with your phone company, nor any responsibility for any harm or “it won’t work!” stuff.
(**NOTE!  Most ATAs are only rated to power 4-5 telephones in your home.  You can try more than that, but you run the risk of running your ATA down (read:  break it) faster than what would normally be expected.)
On most houses with modern connection to the phone company, there will be one of two things in your house.
1.  Telephone Network Interface (“TNI”).  This should be a box on the outside of your home where the telephone company makes the connection with your “inside wiring”.  In the simplest situation, you open the box and disconnect the telephone’s company wires with the wires that go into your house.  In more complicated situations
2.  In older homes that do not have a TNI, if you look in your house (typically on the ceiling in the basement) near where the wire comes into your house you’ll see a big mess of wires wrapped around two screw posts.  Same concept here – disconnect JUST the wires from the phone company.  Leave everything else intact.
This (physically) breaks your connection to the phone company.  To finish the job, take a standard phone cord, plug one end into your ATA and the other into any phone jack in your house.  This action will back-feed the signal along your existing wiring, lighting up your house!
I’ll get hacked!
Not really…there are ways that a really dedicated hacker could break in, but it’s not realistically more than if that same hacker wanted to break into your computer through the Internet.  Risk mitigation…I have a firewall in place as general good practice, but it’s not a risk that stops me from doing this.
The quality isn’t as good as a traditional land line.
That’s debatable.  95% of the time, neither you or the person you’re calling could tell the difference.  Most VoIP providers use a voice “codec” (the thing that transmits your voice as data) that is of quality equal to traditional land lines.  If you are noticing some choppy or robotic sounding voice when calling, odds are that you have another Internet-enabled device in your home that is doing something bandwidth-intensive.  Netflix, gaming, downloading files, etc – because VoIP is truly data, in a regular home network it’s all the same to your router and Internet provider.  You can HELP (not cure, but help greatly) the situation by implementing “Quality of Service (QoS)” on your router, or ask your ISP if they support it on their modem.
What QoS does is prioritize certain traffic from certain devices over others.  In my network, my router detects all traffic coming from my ATA and prioritizes it over any other device on my entire network.  If you’re using a Linksys/Cisco E-series router (typical for home use), there is a tab for it in the configuration and is a breeze to setup.
I don’t know, I still like my land line, but want VoIP for long distance
You can do that too!  Typically a Vonage or other larger provider doesn’t give you this option, but if you go with a BYOD carrier, you can purchase a device like the Grandstream HT-486.  The HT-486 has the ability to connect to BOTH a VoIP carrier AND a standard phone company.  You can set it up to use the standard phone company for all regular calls, but then use the cheaper VoIP provider for long distance and international calling.  Best of both worlds!
VoIP is here – like it or not.  If you have phone service through your cable company, they are delivering it via VoIP and doing exactly what this article is talking about anyways.  Why not save a few dollars and do it yourself?  =)