The Cost and Effort of a Free Phone Call

This post is more about the set up of our phone service than it is about the free calls. But one of my main goals is to make our phone usage as economical as possible, whilst still allowing us to keep in touch with family and friends, wherever they may be, and to reduce the stress I usually feel whenever I know that Sharon or I are on the phone and it’s costing us $1+ per minute.

(Let’s be honest though, I’m scrooge enough that I get anxious over 10.5c per minute calls to Australian Mobiles knowing that it all adds up to a lot when you have multiple calls a month for 45-60 minutes at a time… I sometimes think it would be cheaper for me to pay to get landlines installed for family members who have chosen to go without, and just use their mobiles. You know who you are… 😉 )

Where was I…

So the goals of our phone set up here in the US are:

  1. For us to make affordable outgoing calls, firstly to Australia, the US, then the rest of the world.
  2. For people in Australia to contact us cheaply (this means an Australian number that they can call and reach us).
  3. For us to have a local US home phone number.
  4. For it to be as simple to use as picking up the phone. ie: It has to pass ‘The Wife Test’, which means Sharon has to be able to use it without first calling me each time to ask how to work it.
  5. Everything to be as cheap as possible for a usable service.

Other pluses would be:

  1. Only having one phone: not the ‘Australia’ phone and the ‘US’ phone and having to figure out which one is ringing when.
  2. Free calls would be nice.

Firstly a side note about Skype:
We love Skype and have used it for years, and continue to use it, to keep in touch with people. However, we still usually have to set up Skype appointments. It’s not as ‘invisible’ or convenient as the plain old telephone – at least not yet.

Phoning Home

About a year ago I started dabbling in Voice Over IP (VOIP) as a means of cutting our phone bill. I purchased a Linksys/Cisco SPA-3102 VOIP phone adapter for the job. As we had a phone line to the house, there was no need for a VOIP number, just a desire for cheaper outgoing calls.

When this overseas job came up, I signed up with an Australian VOIP provider for a $5 a month service that included an inbound DID (Direct Inward Dialing) number, 8c calls to Australian landlines, the US and some other countries, and 10.5c per min calls to Australian mobiles. This gave us a Melbourne number for people to call us on and a phone service to call not just Australia, but also the US for the cost of a local call, from anywhere we could get a decent Internet connection.

This satisfied Goals 1 and 2 enough for me.

So, I have the VOIP Adapter connected to the Internet, with a cordless phone on the back of it, which for all intents and purposes is a Melbourne, Australia landline; with one exception: We always need to dial the area code, even when making calls to Victoria/Tasmania.

This satisfies Goal 4: “The Wife Test” so far, certainly for calls to Australia. Now to not break it working on the other goals…

A Home Phone

Once we’d moved into our apartment, I began researching Internet and phone options (I’m sure Sharon thinks the ink on the contract wasn’t dry yet!). Where we live is wired up with a provider that offers bundles of Cable TV, Cable Internet and Phone services. The Cable TV comes as part of the rent. The Internet connection is provided over the same wire as the Cable TV (so no phone line required as per ADSL, which is what we had in Australia). And the phone service offered is a VOIP service anyway. And at $30 a month for unlimited calls to the US and Canada, we’d need to make over 300 calls a month to make it more worthwhile than using the Australian VOIP provider for the same calls.

Given that I already had a VOIP service with 8c calls to the US, the only thing I was missing was a US phone number for our home. So I went looking…

The easiest option would have been to sign up with a US VOIP provider and gotten the equivalent of what I had with the Australian provider: monthly cost for the number and pay as you go for calls. But I wanted a cheaper option, and cutting down the number of bills is always a good thing.

I came across a few services that offered free phone numbers that could be routed through to a VOIP service. Most of these however had run out of numbers and weren’t offering any more. But I did come across IPKall, which offers Washington state phone numbers for free, that can be connected to an existing VOIP service. I also found a very helpful post on where someone was already using IPKall with my VOIP provider in Australia. Thank you.

Given that IPKall sends calls to an existing VOIP service, I was able to have the calls come to the phone that I’d already set up. This was a huge bonus as it meant that I didn’t have to either get another phone, nor did I have to pay for a second VOIP service. But I still wanted a Birmingham number…

I came across a Google product called Google Voice. It allows you to sign up for a phone number from pretty well much anywhere across the US and then have calls to that number forwarded through to any other US phone service. I signed up and got myself a Birmingham, AL number and have set it to call through to the Washington number. Goal 3 satisfied – a local US number. And no impact on Goal 4 – keeping it simple.

Given that the phone behaves like it is in Australia for outgoing calls, I needed to make it easier to call US numbers than having to dial the full international number, ie: 0011 1 … Thankfully it was easy enough to use the dial plans of the SPA-3102 so that a ’01’ out the front of the US number is replaced with ‘0011 1’ behind the scenes and takes care of the hard work of adding the extra ‘011’ needed to make the call. Technology does make life easier.

Free Calls?

Google Voice also allows you to make free calls to the US and Canada. However, pretty much every way of making use of this free service breaks Goal 4: The Wife Test. The most common way is to log onto the Google Voice website and initiate a call from there. Google calls your phone, and then when answered, calls the destination phone for you and makes the connection. Sharon was very firm about not using a website every time she wanted to make a call.

A way of using Google Voice so as to be able to just pick up the phone, is to set up an Asterisk PBX server. Whilst I would love to do this at some point for the experience of it, I don’t have any spare computers lying around – I left them all in Australia – which means I’d have to go and buy one (verging on breaking Goal 5 – keeping it cheap). I also have a friend in Australia, a long time VOIP user, who was very happy to simplify his set up by removing his Asterisk server and using a high end VOIP phone. So I think I’ll not over complicate things for the time being and leave Asterisk out of it. So no truly free calls at the moment.

Spies Like Us?

Once I had this all set up, I took a step back and considered the whole thing. And the technical wonders of our age astounded me…

When someone calls our Birmingham number, the call goes to a Google data centre somewhere. From there it heads to Seattle, Washington. IPKall then sends it to my VOIP provider in Sydney, Australia, to which my VOIP adapter, sitting in Birmingham, AL, is connected via the Internet. And the phone attached to the adapter rings.

I felt like I was in a spy movie – bouncing calls around the globe to avoid detection. And there’s only a very slight and manageable delay.

Counting the Cost

As a final note, our calls to mobile phones in Australia have been enough that it made sense to step up to the next plan our provider has. For an extra $14 a month on top of the $5 plan, we now get 500 minutes of calls to Australian mobile phones (or 150 calls, whichever comes first, about $60 worth) and free calls to Australian landlines, the US and 4 other countries.

So the cost of our “free” phone calls is roughly $19 a month for the phone service. And it took me about a week to research it and set it up. And the adapter cost $80. And the handsets cost $30. And the Internet connection costs $35 a month…

But the calls are now free.

3 Responses to The Cost and Effort of a Free Phone Call

  1. Evan says:

    Hi Scott,

    Good write-up. I guess going to the $19/month plan also obviates the need to play with Asterisk for routing US calls through Google Voice. Also, I’m not sure I’d count the $35/month for the Internet connection as part of the TCO for phone calls ’cause, after all, who are we kidding? You were gonna have the Internet connected regardless, eh?

    Some friends of mine got so sick of telemarketer calls, they set up an Asterisk server with a byzantine voice response system that goes around in circles. So when they get a telemarketer they’ll say, “I’ll just transfer you to the right department” and stick them in the system to see how long they last.


  2. Kamya says:

    Scott you are VERY clever – you lost me by about para 4 but I love how you write and was intrigued enough to continue to the end! Clever clever man – and what a savings !

  3. Scott says:

    Thanks Evan. You’re right about the Internet connection cost. I should have also added the electricity and water costs to round out the list of essential utilities.

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