Monday, February 9, 2009

OOMA: Voice over IP Telephone Service

I recently installed an ooma system in my home to act as a second line for work. So far I am very impressed.

For those who are unfamiliar with ooma, it is a box that provides Voice over IP (or VOIP): telephone service via the Internet. This is similar to Vonage or Comcast Digital Voice. Rather than using the regular telephone connection in to your home, the connection is digitized and sent over the Internet. All VOIP systems are integrated with the Public Switched Telephone Service (PSTN) so you can place calls to anyone with a telephone even if you are using VOIP.

What sets ooma apart from its competitors? There's no monthly fee. None. And you can call any number in the US free of charge. You must purchase one of their boxes, and it costs a hefty $250. But once that initial purchase is made, all your phone calls to anywhere in the US are free. There are limits, of course. If ooma catches you using thousands of hours a month they reserve the right to slap your hand and say "naughty boy, no biscuit" and either start charging you money or cut you off from their network. So if you had visions of opening up a telemarketing company using ooma, forget it.

So what else do you get for no monthly fee? Standard ooma service comes with one telephone number (which you get to choose from a list of available numbers), caller ID, call waiting, voice mail, and voice mail notifications via e-mail. If you want to keep your number there is an additional one-time fee ($39.99) to transfer the number to ooma. They also have a premier service, which does have a monthly fee and which gets you some extra services. Premier includes things like an instant second line (on the same phone number), three-way conferencing, ring-through to another number, enhanced voice mail, and lots of other interesting features. Ooma is hoping that enough people will want those extra features to pay for them. Ooma also tries to get you hooked on the extra features by giving away 60 days of Premier service for free to first-time users.

The box is a nice shiny silver, with some buttons on the front. These buttons allow you direct access to voicemail (without picking up the phone) and other features. The lights in the buttons show you when voicemail is waiting and what lines are in use. The standard package also comes with a smaller box, the ooma "scout". This is a companion to the main ooma box and can be used to provide VOIP service directly to another phone. The two boxes communicate with each over over the existing phone wiring without interfering with anything else that might be on the line. I haven't tried out my scout yet as I only need my line in one room.

The ooma box was pretty easy to set up. I spent about 10 minutes on their website to activate the box. This required giving them my name and address, and choosing a phone number. I didn't give them a credit card number since their service is free. Once on-line setup was complete I was ready to plug in the box. One plug connects to an Ethernet and another connects to a regular telephone. Once powered on the box takes about a minute to get connected with the ooma servers. Once that happens the light on the back turns solid blue and the phone has a dial tone. It's that simple.

In case you are concerned about safety, ooma provides E911 services. The web signup asks for name and address, then registers the information with emergency 911 services.. If you need to call 911 from the ooma phone, the emergency operator will automatically know your address.

So how is the sound quality? So far it is superb, just as good as a land line. Initially I had some problems with a bad echo on my end of the connection, but I switched phones and that problem seems to have gone away. Of course a poor or busy Internet connection will cause call quality to suffer. And VOIP service is not recommended if your Internet connection isn't at least 3 Megabits per second "down" (traffic coming in to your house) and 512 Kilobits per second "up" (traffic leaving your house). Most cable Internet subscribers will have no problem meeting those minimums. DSL subscribers (like me) have to make sure that they have signed up for a fast connection.

The other concern with any VOIP system is contention with other Internet traffic. If you are downloading the latest Everquest or playing World of Warcraft, most of your available network "bandwidth" is going to be soaked up, and VOIP quality will suffer. The ooma box is able to give its own data priority over others, but only if it is connected correctly. The instructions that come with the box are pretty clear, so I won't repeat them here. More complicated network installations (like mine) pose more of a challenge. Maybe once I figure out the best way to "fine tune" my network for ooma I will write another blog entry that goes in to some detail.

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