A Better and More Secure Internet Phone

One of the best bargains available in VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephones also offers some degree of privacy. Calls made from one Ooma telephone to any other Ooma telephone are encrypted. That is, the calls are either very difficult or perhaps impossible to wiretap. That is a big advantage for anyone who wishes to keep telephone conversations private.

Ooma uses the same encryption technology governments use to protect classified data (which makes Ooma more secure than your old landline). In these days of security concerns about snooping, it is reassuring to know that Ooma telephone calls are securely encrypted. In fact, Ooma is much more secure than standard telephones, which are easily wiretapped. However, the Ooma encryption only exists as long as the phone call remains within the Ooma network. For instance, a call from one Ooma telephone to another Ooma telephone will be encrypted and fully secure for the full distance of that call. However, a call made from an Ooma Telo to a normal telephone will only be securely encrypted within the Internet. At some point, that call has to be routed from the Internet to the old-fashioned telephone network, which never supports encryption. The call will then become plain text for the remainder of the distance to the telephone you’re calling. As such, the connection within that telephone’s network can easily be wiretapped in the same manner as any other standard telephone call.

The only way to do protect the voice conversation end-to-end is to stay on-net (Ooma-to-Ooma). You can read more in a discussion on the Ooma Support Forum at http://ooma.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=1131&p=5680#p8177.

Ooma is one of the leading VoIP services for many more reasons than just encryption alone. I have been using Ooma for more than a year as my only home telephone and have been impressed by both its low cost and by the crystal clear audio on most telephone calls. Ooma also offers so-called “free” telephone calls.

While Ooma does not directly charge a monthly fee for the telephone service, there are mandatory fees for other reasons. Federal and local taxes must be paid monthly in the U.S. There is another fee for the 911 service. Ooma collects the money and then passes the funds on to the appropriate agencies. In my case, I pay a total of $3.81 a month for all these taxes and services with Ooma. That’s a lot less than what the local telephone company charges for monthly service plus up to 5,000 minutes of long distance calls!

The exact monthly price will vary from one area to another, depending upon local taxes. You can determine the exact monthly price you need to pay for Ooma in your area at http://www.ooma.com/products/taxes-fees.

Ooma also charges for international calls although the prices are generally a fraction of what the local telephone company charges for the same calls. I did have to pay a one-time fee to purchase the Ooma hardware and I also had to plug a normal telephone into the Ooma device. Any standard telephone will work, such as the ones you purchase at a local department store. I use a cordless phone although a normal wired phone will also work.

Ooma’s so-called free service includes “unlimited” phone calls, voicemail, caller-ID, and call-waiting. Actually, the so-called “unlimited” phone calls aren’t really unlimited; you can use a maximum of 5,000 minutes per month, which strikes me as far more minutes than I will ever use. (If you need more than 5,000 minutes/month, you shouldn’t be looking for an in-home VoIP telephone service. Instead, you need to find a commercial account from a VoIP provider.)

Unlike some other VoIP servcies, Ooma will even port most existing telephone numbers to the new service. That is, you can switch to Ooma without changing phone numbers. One warning: porting a number on any telephone service typically requires two or three weeks to complete. You probably will want to keep your old telephone service in operation simultaneously with Ooma until the change has been made.

The Ooma Telo is a small adapter box that you connect to your broadband Internet cable. You can then connect any standard telephone to the Telo to initiate and receive calls. All calls are placed over the Internet and are always encrypted from your Ooma phone to the location where the call is connected to the old-fashioned telephone system. Ooma-to-Ooma calls are encrypted for the entire path from the originating Ooma phone to the other Ooma phone. You can use your existing telephone handset(s), or you might prefer to purchase new phones; Ooma doesn’t care as long as the phones have standard RJ-11 connectors as used on 99% of all telephones in North America.

Ooma supplies a standard telephone number, and a second number is even available as an extra-cost option. Yes, Ooma offers an optional second line, allowing two simultaneous conversations. If you have teenagers in the house, you will love this option.

The Ooma owner can call any standard telephone, including home phones, business phones, cell phones, and FAX machines. Calls to U.S. phone numbers are always free of charge while calls to Canada and overseas are available at very low prices. (Unlimited calls to Canada are available as an extra-cost option.) Ooma also can receive calls from telephones worldwide. There is no need to leave any computer powered on and operating all the time. The only things that need to be powered on are the broadband Internet modem/router, the Ooma Telo, and the telephone. (Not all telephones require external power, but many do.)

Unlike Google Voice, Ooma also offers 911 emergency calls through a service called E911. Just like an old-fashioned telephone provided by your local telephone company, you can pick up any phone connected to an Ooma Telo and dial 9-1-1. Within a second or two, the local emergency 911 operator nearest your home will answer, and he or she will see your complete address on his or her caller ID screen.

Ooma has long had an excellent reputation for high-quality audio connections. The Ooma equipment had been an expensive device with a retail price of about $300. However, Ooma released a new, smaller box last year called “Telo” that has even more functionality than the original offering. Best of all, the retail price of the new Telo dropped to $149.95, and many online retailers sell it for even less. I purchased my Ooma Telo from Amazon (at http://goo.gl/xkdx47) for $140. The Telo arrived two days after I ordered it.

Installation of the Ooma Telo was simple. There are several connectors on the back of the box, but only three are necessary to get standard telephone service up and running: plug a standard telephone into one connector, connect a broadband Internet cable to a second connector, and plug the included small power supply into a third connector. All connectors are different from each other; it is impossible to plug anything into the wrong connector.

The included instructions warned to open a web browsers, connect to the Internet, and register the unit online on the Ooma web site before powering on the Ooma Telo. I did so and answered a number of questions: my name, my address (needed for the 911 service), the registration code shown on the bottom of the adapter, and more. I also had to provide a credit card number to pay the monthly charges.

Once I entered that information, I was free to turn off the computer. It won’t be needed again when using the Ooma telephone service. However, the Internet connection and my in-home router must remain powered on at all times for the telephone to work.

I plugged the Ooma Telo’s power supply into the wall power outlet. The lights on the box started dancing, as predicted in the instructions. Apparently, the Ooma Telo checked the company’s web site, downloaded the latest software, if needed, and retrieved my account information from Ooma’s servers. In a minute or two the lights stopped blinking, and the new phone was ready for use.

The Ooma web site claims that most customers are up and making free calls in less than 15 minutes after opening the box. I guess I am slow; I required 22 minutes from start to finish. Admittedly, I did read the brief instructions several times during the set-up.

Using the Ooma Telo is simple: pick up the attached phone, listen for the dial tone, and then dial one, the area code, and the telephone number being called. Answering the phone is equally simple: when the phone rings, pick it up and say “Hello.” Dialing the local 911 operator is also the same as most other phones: listen for the dial tone and then dial 9-1-1. To make an overseas call, pick up the attached phone, listen for the dial tone, then dial 0-1-1, the country code, the city code, and the desired telephone number.

In other words, the Ooma service acts like any other standard North American telephone. There is no extra training needed. Visitors to your house can use it easily. In fact, visitors won’t even know they are using an “Internet phone.” The only difference I noticed is the Ooma dial tone sounds just a bit different from the dial tomes supplied by local telephone companies.

Ooma’s basic service includes voicemail, caller-id, call-waiting, and 911 emergency service. In addition, the company offers many other options although at extra-cost. Probably the most cost-effective option is called Ooma Premier and includes a second line without the need to purchase any additional hardware, as well as free calling to Canada, call forwarding, three-way conferencing, a personal blacklist that stops unwanted callers by blocking numbers or sending them directly to voicemail, voicemail-to-email forwarding, voicemail alerts sent to any email address or SMS-capable mobile phone, and more. Ooma Premier also includes a free port of your old telephone number to the new Ooma service, a service that normally costs a one-time fee of $39.99. Ooma Premier costs $9.99 a month.

Ooma has several other options, including a special wireless phone designed especially for use with the Ooma Telo, a wireless adapter that plugs into a USB port on the Telo box if you want to place your Ooma Telo and phone some distance from the Internet cable into your house, and even a Bluetooth adapter that allows you to answer your cell phone by using the Ooma-connected telephone. I didn’t purchase any of these options at first, however. I only purchased the basic Ooma Telo and am using it with a standard cordless phone purchased at a local department store. However, I did download the free Ooma app from the iPhone App Store and am now making free calls from the iPhone when using either a wi-fi connection or the cell phone company’s 3G or 4G data connection. A similar app is available for Android phones at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.ooma.android.oomamobile&hl=en.

I love the ability to stop unwanted callers by blocking numbers. I may receive a telemarketing call once but I can easily block future calls from the same telephone number by adding it too my personal blocked calls list on the Ooma web site. I once purchased an automobile from a local car dealer who uses monthly automated “robo calls” to suggest you schedule service appointments or to stop by to talk with a salesman about trading the vehicle in for a new one. The calls even continued long after I sold the vehicle. Once I added the dealer’s phone number to Oomas’ block calls list, my phone never rang again when the “robo caller” tried to reach me.

Ooma not only works with standard telephones, but it also works with almost all devices deigned to work on telephone lines, including FAX machines, digital subscription TV services, home security systems, and anything else that connects to a telephone line with a standard RJ-11 connector.

I have now been using Ooma for more than a year and have been pleased with the service. The calls have all been crystal clear, as good as or possibly even better than calls placed on an old-fashioned telephone service. The company claims that calls made from one Ooma Telo to another Ooma Telo are nearly hi-fi. I haven’t have the equipment to test that claim but can report that the Ooma-toOoma conversations I have had certainly have been crystal-clear. Cll to normal telephones usually are very good as well. I have had two or three iccurannces of dropped calls or noise when connecting to normal telephone calls. I don’t know of that was caused by Ooma or by something in the telephone company’s old-fashioned network. In each case, I hung up and then dialed again. The second connection was always perfect.

All the other services I have used (call waiting, caller-id, call-waiting, voicemail-to-email forwarding, voicemail alerts, and more) seem to operate on Ooma exactly as I expected. There haven’t been any surprises.

Ooma is only available to U.S. and Canadian residents. (Canadian residents receive free calls to Canadian phones but not to U.S. or overseas phones.) However, U.S. and Canadian residents can reduce the expense of overseas calls to friends or family. All calls made from one Ooma Telo to another are free of charge, regardless of locations. If you want to call friends or family in “the old country,” and if the person in “the old country” has a broadband Internet connection available, simply order two Ooma Telo adapters. Install one in your own home, and send the second adapter to your overseas friend or relative. He or she can connect the Ooma Telo in the normal manner and will even receive a U.S. or Canadian telephone number. He or she then can call you via your Ooma Telo and talk for hours every day at no charge because all calls between two Ooma Telo adapters are always free of charge. He or she also can call other telephones in the U.S. (or Canada) at very low cost and calls to other countries are charged the standard Ooma rates

Nothing is ever perfect. Ooma (and almost all other VoIP telephone services) have some drawbacks:

1. If your Internet service goes down, you also have no telephone service. (Ooma does have an option to forward incoming calls to your cell phone if your Ooma Telo is offline.)

2. Ooma requires power in your home to operate. If you have a power outage, some old-fashioned telephones will continue to operate. However, all VoIP phones, including Ooma, require power to the Telo box and to the Internet modem/router.

3. Ooma could change or go bankrupt in the future. By contrast, old-fashioned telephone companies typically cannot make significant changes without regulatory approval from state utilities commissions, a process that takes time and is open to customer objections.

4. In theory, if your Internet connection gets overloaded, the telephone audio may provide “jitter,” or broken sound. I haven’t experienced this yet even though I have made phone calls while watching Netflix movies on a large-screen HD television and simultaneously downloading files on the desktop computer. However, the possibility exists, especially on slower Internet connections.

Of course, Ooma is not the only other VoIP service provider. I investigated several others but felt that Ooma provided the best overall service and pricing. Some of Ooma’s more popular competitors include the following:

1. Vonage – an excellent service that offers low introductory costs for the first few months but then increases the monthly fees to much higher amounts than Ooma’s monthly charges. Over a period of a year or more, Vonage will be much more expensive than Ooma. Vonage does not appear to use encryption on call data.

2. magicJack and magicJack Pro – magicJack is a very low-cost VoIP provider that is sold in many department, computer, and even drug stores. It works, but my experience with magicJack was that call quality was poor. I often encountered audio “jitter,” and calls were frequently dropped for no apparent reason. MagicJack is available in two versions: the standard version plugs into a Windows or Macintosh computer and requires that computer to be powered on and running twenty-four hours a day in order to make and receive telephone calls. I didn’t want to leave my computer running all the time. In addition, the basic magicJack adapter displays advertising on your computer screen. I never found any method of disabling the ads until I unplugged the adapter and uninstalled the magicJack software. A more expensive device, called magicJack Pro, does not require a running computer. It is “free standing” and works all the time by itself without displaying ads. However, the magicJack Pro seemed to suffer the same “jitters” and audio problems as the lower-cost adapter. MagicJack also does not provide 911 service.

MagicJack does not appear to use encryption on call data.

3. Skype – All Skype-to-Skype voice, video, file transfers and instant messages are encrypted. This protects you from potential eavesdropping by malicious users. If you make a call from Skype to mobile and landline phones, the part of your call that takes place over the PSTN (the ordinary phone network) is not encrypted. Details may be found at http://www.skype.com/en/security/#encryption.

Skype, however, does not offer 911 service and does not operate in the same manner as normal telephone calls. Visitors to your home who are not familiar with Skype probably will be unable to use your Skype phone.

4. Dozens of other VoIP telephone service providers. I haven’t tested all of them. However, I used CallCentric with great success. CallCentric and the other VoIP service providers can be complex to set up as you wrestle with things like STUN server addresses (Session Traversal Utilities for NAT), network address translator (NAT), SIP registration ports, and other terminology not familiar to the typical home computer user. However, once configured, the audio quality on calls made with CallCentric was excellent. Some of the various VoIP service providers also offer 911 service, but not all of them do so. You can find a list of VoIP telephone service providers at http://www.voip-info.org/wiki/view/VOIP+Service+Providers+Residential.

All in all, I am pleased with the selection of Ooma, and I plan to continue using it as my primary telephone service, supplemented by a cell phone. I did eventually purchase an Ooma HD2 cordless phone that works much like any other cordless phone but offers high-fidelity audio and built-in handling of the two phone lines available in the single Ooma Telo. The built-in color screen on the cordless phone will also display caller ID with profile pictures and contact info from my Facebook, Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Outlook and/or Macintosh Address Books. It also can be used as a remote baby monitor although I don’t have much use for that feature.

I also signed up for Ooma Premier for an additional $9.99 a month. That fee plus the $3.81 a month mentioned earlier for taxes and 911 service means that I will now pay a total of $13.80 U.S. per month for two phone lines in my house that I can use for up to 5,000 minutes for calls to any telephones in the U.S. and Canada. That’s not cheap, but it certainly is much less than what my local telephone company charges for two lines and 5,000 minutes of long-distance calls!

Overseas calls are also cheap; see http://www.ooma.com/products/international for exact prices.

If you are thinking of using Ooma or any other VoIP telephone service, I would suggest you keep your old service for a few weeks after installing the new service. You can then compare the two, side by side, and make sure you are happy with the new service. In fact, some people I know have never disconnected the old service. Instead, they use the new VoIP service only as a second telephone line in the house. That strikes me as an expensive solution but one that probably feels comfortable to anyone who has had a standard telephone installed for years. It’s your choice.

For more information, go to http://www.ooma.com. You can order the Ooma Telo adapter and other devices from that same web site, but be aware that Ooma’s web site sells at full retail prices. You can find the same devices available at discount prices from a number of retailers. I purchased mine from Amazon (at http://goo.gl/xkdx47) for $140. If you shop around, you may find even lower prices.

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