Obihai Offers New Low-Cost Home Phone Options As Technology Change At Google Ends Free Service

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My free lunch is about to end. I’m one of a few hundred thousand customers enjoying free monthly home phone service.* We use a low-cost analog telephone adapter (ATA) called an OBi, connected to Google Voice for free domestic home phone service. But on May 15th, Google is dropping support for the XMPP protocol that makes this work. While Google Voice and Hangouts will still offer free calling, my free lunch will end.

Later today, Obihai Technology, maker of the OBi products, will announce two approved service provider options to replace Google Voice. Anveo and Phone Power will offer new service plans for less than $40 a year, including E911 service and all taxes and fees. More providers are expected to join the program before Google’s May cutoff. The lowest priced plans have a limit on monthly out-going call minutes, but there is a higher priced unlimited plan. While some existing users may complain they now have to pay up, these plans dramatically beat the cost of traditional carriers and are, in most cases, better than existing VoIP (Voice over IP) alternatives.

Obihai CEO Jan Fandrianto is responsible for more than 10 million VoIP devices sold since 1999. He founded two VoIP telephone hardware companies, Komodo Technology and Sipura Technology. Both were sold to Cisco, where he also worked to make devices for their Linksys brand. At one time, these companies made a majority of Vonage’s devices.

With Obihai, founded in 2010, Fandrianto wanted to try something new. He told me he “wanted to bring these devices to the next generation, because we know there is a lot of power that can be offered through the cloud.” His new devices take advantage of the OBiTALK network to allow free calling between Obi devices and the OBiON app. They can even be used to create free international calls, by calling a trusted Obi device in another country and then re-directing the call to make a free local call from the connected device.

Unlike the previous products, Fandrianto says “we want to allow people to have the power to have control over the device. This is the first time you can purchase the device, the device is yours, and you can use any services that you want.” The devices work with any SIP standard based internet phone service provider.

Many people are dropping their home landlines, but Obihai believes it’s a growing market for them. Sherman Scholten, VP at Obihai says “people still like to use their home phone, they don’t necessarily use it as much as they did, or they don’t want to pay what AT&T and Comcast want to charge them to use it. So there are literally hundreds of millions of people around the world that still want to use their cordless (home) phone.”

Getting Started With Obi

I first learned about OBi in a post by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. He said it took just 20 minutes to set up and it worked as well as Comcast did. He called OBiTALK a “beautiful add-on service for Google Voice” and was very happy “with the zero dollars I’m now paying for home phone service.”

That article convinced me to give Obihai a try and I’ve been very happy with it ever since. Mike’s experience was a bit different. Several months after his first article, he wrote “that whole OBiTALK with Google Voice thing was a big bust.” He says “it worked except it didn’t ring” so he kept missing calls and switched to Vonage. (I asked the folks at Obihai about this and while they didn’t know what happened in Mike’s case, they did say there had been an issue like this with Sprint and Google Voice, which could have affected his Obi device.) I haven’t experienced the no ring issue, but it does bring up the important issue of support, which I’ll discuss more shortly.

My initial setup took several days, not 20 minutes. I first needed to port my AT&T home number over to Google Voice. But, I couldn’t do this directly because Google doesn’t allow you to port home phone numbers. Obihai provided instructions to first port your home phone to a temporary mobile phone and then port it over to Google Voice.

The system requires an Obi device, which cost from $38 to $75 on Amazon. This ATA device hooks up to your home internet via Ethernet cable or a ObiWiFi wireless adapter. It also hooks up to your home phone setup, which in my case was a multiple handset cordless system. It can be configured with a computer or phone on your home network, but the computer is not required to be on for using the phone.

Using Google Voice for my home phone had many immediate advantages, besides of course no monthly phone bill. Telemarketing calls virtually stopped thanks to Google’s global spam filtering option, which blocks calls from numbers identified as spam. And you get all the Google Voice features such as call screening, call forwarding, voicemail transcripts, and low cost international calling from your home phone.

Google Drops Support in May

Up until the middle of May , OBi devices can be configured using the OBiTALK portal to select Google Voice as their service provider. Since 2006, Google Talk has worked with the open source communications protocol, XMPP, to allow OBi devices and other third party products to communicate with Google’s servers.

Last last year, Google Product Manager Nikhyl Singhal posted “an update on Google Voice” that explained how Google Voice will support MMS and become part of Google Hangouts. But it also meant the end of XMPP support, which has some scalability issues on the network side. While Singhal didn’t mention XMPP by name, he wrote:

“Finally, we want to make Google Voice as secure as possible. There are a few third-party applications that provide calling and SMS services by making unauthorized use of Google Voice. These apps violate our Terms of Service and pose a threat to your security, so we’re notifying these app developers that they must stop making unauthorized use of Google Voice to run their services and transition users by May 15, 2014.”

These changes affect Obi devices and apps like GrooVe IP, made by snrb Labs. GrooVe IP, a paid Android app that allows users to make free unlimited calls, says it will be switching to a new service provider.

Obihai says it never got any letter from Google and claims it wasn’t violating the terms of service. They told TechCrunch, the OBi devices connect “to the Google Voice service using their Google Voice account credential and the open, well-documented XMPP protocol in the same way an Outlook mail client on Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer browsers can connect their user to the Gmail service.”

There is a report today suggesting Google may kill Google Voice completely and roll all those features into Google Hangouts. Google could also open Hangouts to allow third party VoIP connections. If that happens, OBi devices could get a firmware update to work with Google again, via Hangouts.

After the Shutoff

Despite all this, OBi device users have several new service provider options, discussed above, after the shutoff date, including a way to keep using Google Voice.

The OBi devices were never tied only to Google Voice. They can work with any internet phone service provider using the SIP open protocol. None had offered as good a deal as Google Voice’s free service.

With today’s announcement, Anveo and Phone Power are offering special rates exclusive to OBi device owners. To get the special rates, customers must use the OBiTALK.com portal.

I tested the service during the beta period using a new number and was up and running within 10 minutes. While you get a new phone number from these services, you can keep your Google Voice home number and just forward calls to this new number within the Google Voice settings. When making outgoing calls, you can set up Caller ID with your Google Voice number, so your callers wouldn’t even see the new service provider’s number.

Quality of Service and Support

One of the potential problems with VoIP phone systems is the quality of service and support they offer. AT&T’s dial tone service was designed to work 99.999 percent of the time. This Five 9s level of service means it is supposed to work all year with just 5 minutes of downtime. With AT&T or Comcast, if you have a problem with your home phone service, there is a number you can at least call with a working cell phone to get support. Hold times, of course, may vary.

Google has said it strives for Four 9s for its major services. That allows for just 52 minutes of downtime a year. Just yesterday, Google Hangouts, Chat and Voice went down for long enough to break the Four 9s goal for 2014. The service disruption also caused Google Voice and Obi device users to lose their phone service. Unlike AT&T or Comcast, when Google Voice goes down, there is no one to call. You pretty much have to wait until it gets fixed, and follow TechCrunch or Google’s status page for updates.

For Obihai’s new service providers, Phone Power includes free 24/7 support. Anveo customers get 60 days of support from Obihai when the new service is activated. Then they can choose to pay-per-incident or buy a yearly support plan. Obihai says the technology inside their devices makes it easier for providers to troubleshoot problems.

Competitors

There are several Obihai competitors in the low-cost VoIP market. Many are more well known than Obi. But for each of the competitors below, their box is locked to their network. With the OBi, you BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and can switch service providers if you are unhappy with your service.

Vonage offers a $27 a month plan plus taxes and fees. While that’s lower than traditional home phone providers like AT&T, it’s still pricey. You don’t need to buy the “Vonage Box” that bridges the internet to your home phone system as that’s included in the service.

Ooma offers a basic free calling plan, but monthly taxes and fees run about $3 to $5 a month depending on where you live. The Ooma Telo box costs $150 and only works with Ooma.

MagicJack offers a 6 month free trial with the purchase of a $50 MagicJack Plus device. Then it charges $30 for one year of unlimited services. But there are also additional fees including a $10 annual service fee if you port your number to MagicJack. I asked their support agent if that extra $10 a year fee was listed anywhere on their website. They replied “That information is not on our website, however you will encounter that once you are porting your number.”

For customers who still want to keep their home phone services and not pay large monthly fees to traditional carriers, the Google subsidized free days will be over soon. But there are many other low-cost alternatives available.

*Technically it’s not totally free each month. I decided to pay $1 a month to Anveo, for its E911 service. Google Voice doesn’t offer this service, which lets 911 operators know your location automatically. This is not required, but it’s worth the tiny cost for peace of mind. Of course, my set-up required a one-time $38 equipment purchase for an OBi100, but there is no monthly charge for using Google Voice for making and receiving calls within the U.S. through May 15th.