If you have home internet, you can have inexpensive, high-quality home phone service too. Residential VoIP is available from your cable company and some ISPs, but there are independent providers that can offer better features and lower prices. Here’s what you need to know to pick the right one.
When people mention voice over IP (VoIP) most are thinking about a business phone service rather than home phone. After all, businesses run data networks and that’s what VoIP needs to operate. But now that the majority of homes have an Internet connection, that means they’re also running a data network, just usually a smaller and simpler one than you’d find at the office. If you’re careful about what you buy, you can take advantage of VoIP’s key benefits, which include far more features and a much lower price tag than an old fashioned landline.
What Is Residential VoIP?
You’ve probably been offered a home VoIP solution several times already if you’ve got cable TV service or if you’re getting your Internet access from one of the larger Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Outfits like those love offering voice as the third leg of a “triple play” sales pitch: Internet, TV, and phone. When you see those offerings, what you’ll be buying is a VoIP-based phone service, though generally one with slightly fewer features than you’ll get from a dedicated VoIP provider because the provider generally isn’t focused on their VoIP product, but one of the other two.
Fortunately, there are several dedicated residential VoIP providers who offer nationwide service, usually with worldwide calling plans. With one of these you should be offered at least four core features. Those include caller ID, voicemail hosted by the provider (meaning you don’t need an answering machine), call waiting (essentially a one-line hold), 911 support (sometimes called “E911”), and three-way calling allowing you to reach out to a third participant in any phone conversation. There will likely be a slew of other features available, but they’ll differ across quality providers while these four should always be available. Most of these will work in a two-step process:
- Sign up for the VoIP service on the provider’s website, and then
- Receive some kind of bridge device in the mail that plugs into your wireless router on one side and your old phones on the other. How easy these devices are to setup can vary from vendor to vendor, but all provide some level of support to help you get started.
Other basic features to consider include the phone itself should your provider offer its own handsets. Many residential providers don’t since their bridge devices allow them to work with old-style landline phones, but some, especially the larger and more business-oriented players, do offer special VoIP phones. These look and work the same as a regular phone aside from the initial setup process, which will require making sure the phone is connected to your Internet router in some way and then configured to access the VoIP provider’s service from there.
Cable companies and Internet providers will also provide a bridge device where your phones stay the same and the VoIPing simply happens on the back-end. Just remember that these devices dictate what kinds of features the provider can offer you, so be sure you know what these devices are capable of since there’ll likely be more than one model to choose from.
Whether it’s a dedicated bridge device or a special VoIP phone, you’ll need something on the hardware side compatible with VoIP in order to access the technology’s chief benefit: its software layer. It’s at this layer where VoIP’s advanced communication and collaboration features are enabled and how well the provider has leveraged those advantages will be directly reflected in how its proprietary hardware and back-end services are programmed. Whether it’s a phone or a bridge, if you’re worried about getting lost in technobabble when trying to setup your new phone service, remember that the best providers should be able to ship you pre-configured devices that shouldn’t require much, if any, intervention on your part. With these, you simply plug them into your router or connect them to your Wi-Fi network and they’ll go out and find the provider’s network on their own. Just power them up, connect to your network, and wait for the light to turn green.
That covers VoIP basics, but what about the more advanced options, and why is VoIP able to offer more advanced features where a regular phone can/t? Again, the secret is software. A VoIP system, whether home or business, can access a much richer software layer than a standard line from the plain old telephone service (POTS). On the business side, this flexibility has extended to integrating VoIP with other forms of communication to such a degree they all become a single platform, generally called Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS). You won’t anything that sophisticated when you’re shopping for residential service, however.
Some of that software is running on the provider’s servers, but parts of it will be running on your devices, whether that’s a PC a mobile phone or a VoIP phone. It’s this software layer that provides the rich feature fabric, which along with its lower price, is what’s drawing residential customers to the technology. Some of the more popular advanced features you’ll find available in a residential service, include:
- An Always Reject List allows you to place specific numbers into what’s essentially a blacklist of numbers that your VoIP account will always reject.
- Smart call forwarding allows you to forward your number to not one but several phone numbers in a specific order of preference. An example might be routing calls to your home phone first, then perhaps your mobile phone, and then your spouse’s mobile phone.
- Virtual phone numbers are an increasingly popular option. These are second numbers that are simply attached to your primary VoIP account but then managed separately. You can even purchase these through different providers.
- Voicemail routing can take multiple forms, but they’re basically rules you can apply to incoming calls that will automatically route them to voicemail without even causing a ring. For example, if calls come in with Caller ID blocked, those can be routed directly to voicemail. Or if you’re simply not into talking to anyone, you can hang out a digital Do Not Disturb sign and route all calls to voicemail, perhaps until you’re feeling more social or every day between the hours of 9 PM and 7 AM.
One important advanced feature that’s ubiquitous in the world of business VoIP services, and quickly growing in the residential market, is the softphone app. Imagine a piece of software that simply uses the network connection, speakers, and microphone of your computing device to turn that device into a phone. If that softphone is attached to your VoIP account, that software will ring whenever your home phone does and when you place calls on it, those calls will register as coming from your home phone number. Just by installing the software you” be able to immediately place and receive voice calls over your home phone account on your PC, your Apple iPad, or even your smartphone. That last one is a gotcha, however.
There are two basic kinds of softphone: a “fat” phone that’s coded to run only on a full-fledged PC be that a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine. This software needs a real desktop or laptop CPU and all the other accouterments associated with a full-on PC in order to perform its functions. The other kind of softphone is one designed for a mobile device. Mobile VoIP clients are “slimmer” than a desktop softphone, which really just means they’re designed to look a little different and probably have a few less features since mobile devices aren’t as powerful as desktop machines. But if you’re looking to run your home phone off your mobile phone wherever you are, then a mobile softphone is definitely the ticket; so be sure to investigate whether you residential VoIP provider offers a dedicated mobile client, whether that client will run on your mobile device, and how much it’ll add to your monthly service charge.
If you’re wondering what you get with a softphone that you won’t with a standard phone handset, then that depends on the service. Business-class softphones offer all kinds of features related to online meeting collaboration, call routing, multi-line conference calling, and more. From a residential VoIP perspective, you’ll most often find video conferencing (though more and more this is becoming a separate product from most providers), a voicemail-to-text converter, detailed call records, and user controls for users other than yourself. Some services also offer faxing, text chat, and call metering so you can see how much you’re spending.
The Pricing Question
Typically, price is one of the most important reasons people opt for residential VoIP. One of the most attractive is the “triple play” sales pitch we mentioned above made by almost every regional residential cable company and internet provider: Get your Internet, TV, and phone service all rolled into one monthly charge. Not only is that usually an attractive number, it also means a technician will hook everything up for you including your phone, and you’ll probably be able to use the same phone you’re using now instead of having to migrate to a VoIP phone.
The caveat there is the proverbial fine print, usually located just below the really attractive dollar figure. This small print generally details exactly how many months that nice number will remain in effect before the bloom comes off the rose and you start getting billed a much higher number that represents the service’s actual cost. Many providers don’t even print this higher number on their websites, so be sure to ask the sales guy on the phone before you sign up. The nice number that pulled you in can often double or more once the introductory period wears off. Some providers even attach a minimum length of time that you’ll need to suffer these higher costs before you can change or modify the service without getting hit with an additional early-termination penalty fee.
Should You Jump?
While it doesn’t offer as many features as its business-class version, residential VoIP is still overwhelmingly attractive when compared to standard phone service; firstly because of its much lower overall price tag and second because it simply offers more features than an old fashioned long line. You can keep your current number, suffer zero restrictions when it comes to 911 or long-distance calling, drop your monthly price to a low fixed number, and take advantage of VoIP-only features like smart call routing, virtual numbers, and more.
The only area where a landline offers something VoIP phones can’t is that they’re more disaster resistant. Lost power to your house and your landline phone will keep on working. But if the power drops to your home’s internet router, our VoIP phone goes dark, too. However, this limitation is less crippling these days as most people have a smartphone of some kind backing up their home phone. That phone will keep working in the event of a power outage, which means you can still make emergency calls. And if you’ve opted for a mobile client on your home VoIP account, you can even make those calls using your home phone number rather than your mobile number if you prefer.
Overall, VoIP is simply the better option for the vast majority of customers. Dropping your landline means no more hidden fees or metered long distance calling charges. Everything is charged at one low rate by most providers and your ability to customize your phone service to exactly what you need is far greater. Unless you’ve got some highly unique circumstances that somehow mandate a landline, VoIP is simply the better choice.