Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sideproject: Phone Service

Shanna and I both have iPhones. They're great little computers, but lousey phones. Unfortunately you have to use them on AT&T's network, which is terrible. We have very little signal at home. If I have to make a call and actually want it to remained connected, I usually have to go outside.

That said, we really don't make that many phone calls at home. Most of our social engagements are arranged via email. We talk to our parents weekly via Skype video calls. Most of our phone calls at other times are when we're out an about. Still, it would be nice to be able to use the phone at home. Too the clugemobile!

In an attempt to fix their crappy network AT&T is developing a product called a microcell. The idea is to essentially make a mobile phone reception cell for your home and route the calls through your internet connection. I have 2 problems with this, one practical and one philosophical. For the former, it isn't available in LA. For the latter, they charge you ~$200 for this thing, why should I pay and use my bandwidth to help AT&T's craptastic network. Isn't that what my monthly phone service bill is for.

So what's the solution? Skype is already running all the time on our home computer. So a good solution for incoming calls is to route the phone calls through there. Skype offers a SkypeIn service for a couple dollars a month that gives us a phone number that normal people can call and it will ring your skype client. For outgoing calls you can subscribe to their SkypeOut service (also a couple dollars a month) and dial an unlimited amount of normal phone numbers from the computer. We've been using Google Voice since the Grandcentral* days so I don't even need to give out the new number. Plug it into the Google Voice number that everyone already calls and no one is wiser, at least theoretically. A call via Skype and Google Voice has to traverse two VOIP networks, I'm not certain this is going to be delay free.

Previously, I looked into using Gizmo5. It's cheaper and has closer integration with Google Voice (I actually set up my account a week before Google bought them). It didn't work very well for me. The calls didn't always go through and the mac client kept crashing. I'm going to keep an eye on it though. Maybe once it goes through the Google grinder it will be worth using.

All this will let us make and answer calls on the computer, it would be nice to be able to make them from our phones. Our home isn't large, and we have good wifi coverage (amazingly, it reaches into the laundry room, and garage, which are 2 floors down). Skype has an iPhone app that allows you to send and receive calls via wifi (no computer necessary). I can see it working fine for making calls but you would have to keep it running all the time to answer calls. There is a competing app Fring that sounds intriguing. Like the native Skype app, Fring allows you to make and receive Skype calls when it is running, but it also claims to use push notifications to allow you to answer calls when it isn't running. I'll try it out but I'm not sure how that will work when Google Voice also rings our iPhones. Fring has some other fun features like iPhone video calls, and also allows you to integrate Google Talk (which we also occasionally use).

Right now I have SkypeIn and SkypeOut set up. I'll report back when I get a chance to test everything out.

* Back when I had to worry about long distance charges, I set up a LA phone number for my parents in GrandCentral that forwarded to all their phones out of state.

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