Emergency VOIP Service with no monthly charge
March 31, 2015 9:02 AM   Subscribe

I have been asked to set up an emergency VOIP "phone" at my house. What's the best hardware/service combo for this?

So, first of all, let me make it clear I understand that it would be a better emergency option to go with a landline, but I don't think the cost/benefit makes sense for me in this case.

Basically the issue is that we have cellphones and no landline, and my MIL comes over on a weekly basis to take care of our kids (once a week). She has a tendancy to leave her phone at home accidentally, though. We would like her to have the ability to make basic calls without her phone.

Here are the criteria:
-It should work using my desktop computer.
-I don't want to pay a monthly fee for this; just pay for some minutes that are on hand if needed
-It should be relatively easy to use.
-Ideally it should be capable of dialling for local 911 service (we are in the US).
-Hopefully it should work with cheap hardware, like a webcam or something similar.

What do you think is the best solution given the above? Thanks for your help.
posted by selfnoise to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would encourage you to look into the ObiHai/Google Voice combination. The Obi box is relatively cheap ($30-$50 depending on if it's on sale and which one you get) and Google Voice is free (to US and Canada, at least currently). You can then plug a regular phone into the Obihai box and have an experience basically identical to a landline.

The caveat is that Google Voice does not have 911 service. I currently pay Callcentric $2 a month for this service (I know you said no monthly charges, but maybe $2/month is OK?). This works because the Obihai boxes can handle more than one provider at a time. So, if anyone ever calls 911 on my phone, that's routed through Callcentric. All other calls are routed through Google Voice.

On preview: this is a more specific example of the general solution that odinsdream is advocating above.
posted by Betelgeuse at 9:17 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your best option might be to have a cheap cell phone that lives at home, just plugged into the charger 24/7. If you and your spouse have a family plan for your cells, then you can "Share minutes" across family plans, which means, since the emergency phone uses no minutes, that you're not paying extra each month, if I understand correctly. This will also be better for 911 than VOIP.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:30 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've been happy with the MagicJackGo. Right now, it's $50 for the device (tiny box you plug you phone and internet into) plus 1 year of service. From then on it's $35 a year. Includes 911 address service.

Regardless of the solution chosen, you might want to a UPS for the internet modem and phones so that if power goes out you likely we still be connected.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:33 AM on March 31, 2015

Ideally it should be capable of dialling for local 911 service

911 is paid for (at least in part) by monthly fees on phones, including VOIP. Pony up the $2 a month to help ensure that your family and those around you stay safe. Most VOIP companies like Callcentric will let you deposit a bunch of money into your account and then automatically deduct the 911 fees so while you might be paying monthly you don't have to deal with making a monthly payment.

If power outages are an issue where you live, you might just get one of the really cheap pay as you go dumb cell phones and have that available to her.

FreedomPop has a free cell phone plan (they use a freemium model) that might be worth checking out.
posted by Candleman at 9:34 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think any old dumb phone, as long as it is charged, should work. They are supposed to dial 911 regardless of whether they are on contract according to this.
posted by chaiminda at 9:44 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow thanks! I had no idea the Obihai type device existed so that's looking like a good option. And yes I'm fine with paying a nominal monthly fee for 911 services, should have mentioned that.

For the 911 call routing, how do you set that up? Is it something that's set up in the firmware of the adaptor?
posted by selfnoise at 10:33 AM on March 31, 2015

There's a whole bit on the 911 stuff here. In short, you have to register the physical location of the device on their website.
posted by jquinby at 11:09 AM on March 31, 2015

I would recommend Ooma for something like this. You'll have to pay taxes on your free line (that's the gov't, not Ooma), but it's free otherwise and you can plug in a regular phone and you're good -- no fiddling around with software or config files or nothin'.
posted by zippy at 11:24 AM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: Callcentric, as already been mentioned above, will charge you $2/mo for 911, which I think is just passing on the statutory fee. They also have some free phone numbers, if you don’t mind a NY area number, and pay-as-you-go inward and outward plans. Which means that if you don’t use the line the only charge is the $2 (and if you do it’s only about 2 cents a minute) so the cost is minimal for an emergency phone.

You can either use an ATA box and a standard phone, or a soft phone from a PC, tablet, etc. (and you can get cute and set up extensions and have your soft phone call another extension for free, and do all sorts of filtering and redirects etc. if you want to play).

Setting up the 911 service is as simple as telling them the address on a web page.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:51 AM on March 31, 2015

Best answer: The details of adding an E911 provider (like Callcentric) are given in this blog post on Obihai's site. It is apparently an easier setup if you use Anveo, which Obihai has some sort of agreement with, but I was not impressed by Anveo's other services when I used them for a while and the setup with other providers isn't that difficult.

If this is technically beyond you, zippy's recommendation of Ooma is a good one. You pay them more (both for the hardware and monthly), but you don't have hardly any tinkering to do. That said, Obihai's setup is not bad (and it's actually better than it used to be).
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:54 AM on March 31, 2015

Ooma costs $110 but then you basically have a "free" home phone forever. ("Free" because you still have to pay monthly tarifs, taxes, whatever that amount to a couple of bucks a month.)

Other than purchasing the unit & hooking it up to the network cable etc it works just like a regular home phone.
posted by flug at 12:45 PM on March 31, 2015

Be careful with the ToS on whatever you choose, MagicJack's Terms of Service agreement is famously bad, for instance, allowing them to scrape and analyze all kinds of data from your calls.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:20 PM on March 31, 2015

Just just Skype and get a Skype phone number.
That way you will have a phone number they can dial from any land or cellphone.
Load a $5 of Skype credit and set it to auto load when it drops below $1 so you never have to go back online to recharge the account when needed. Making Skype to Skype calls is free. And calling a regular phone number from Skype is very cheap.

Load Skype on your computer(s) and Smart phone and you are in business.
posted by Mac-Expert at 6:25 PM on March 31, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks! My Obihai box arrived today and it was very easy to set up. Set up an E911 provider as well as Google Voice. The whole thing is magic and now I don't have to explain VOIP calling or softphones or anything: just pick up the phone and dial.
posted by selfnoise at 11:05 AM on April 10, 2015

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