July 23, 2007

Taking our phone service with us (or not)

Several months before our move, we started thinking about how we’d make and receive phone calls with people back in North America. Our presumption was that we’d have both a landline and cell phones, but that using either one to make calls to North America on a regular basis would be prohibitively expensive. (It turns out that we were partially mistaken; I’ll say more about that later.) Similarly, we didn’t want to force the people who’d call us frequently from the United States and Canada to pay outrageous phone charges. So we decided early on that we’d use some sort of VoIP (voice-over-IP) service, with U.S. phone numbers and whatever hardware seemed to make phoning as convenient as possible.

We’d been happy Vonage customers for some time, and at first I thought we’d simply take our Vonage routers, and our San Francisco phone numbers, with us to France. Technologically, that would have worked perfectly well, but we decided against it for several practical reasons. First, we wanted to travel with as little hardware as possible. We couldn’t see packing two Vonage routers, their associated power supplies, the (cordless) phones we had connected to them, and the phones’ power supplies—all of which would have also required electrical adapters in France, too—since we were already counting every single pound and cubic inch of stuff to fit into the airline’s luggage guidelines. Vonage offers a Wi-Fi handset (the UTStarcom F1000BRB/WRB) that would have been plenty compact, but at the time its price was higher than we were prepared to pay, and the reviews we read suggested that we might be less than satisfied with its call quality and features.

Speaking of price, although Vonage is relatively inexpensive compared to conventional phone companies, we were trying to cut costs wherever possible. I had a personal account (at $24.99 per month) and a small business account (at $49.99 per month), and knowing how much cheaper Skype was, for example, we found that $75 per month hard to swallow.

The thing that finally drove us to drop Vonage, though, had nothing to do with Vonage itself. In San Francisco, especially in the months leading up to our move, we got a ton of phone calls—at least one or two per day on each of our lines—that were wrong numbers. I suspect it’s because our personal and business numbers both had sequences of four sevens in them, making it particularly easy to dial by mistake when you’d intended one fewer seven. But in any case, those extra calls were quite annoying, and they were compounded by endless telemarketing calls, despite having our numbers on the FCC’s Do Not Call list, plus the legal-but-aggravating surveys and political calls. Once we decided we wanted to get rid of those phone numbers, the decision to drop Vonage was much easier: it was as easy to start over from scratch with a different company as it would have been to switch both numbers and equipment with Vonage.

So which other company? After looking at all the VoIP providers, we determined that Skype was the only good option. Some providers expressly disallowed taking accounts to other countries; some were too expensive; some were too limited in the options they offered. And, best of all, we could use Skype for an annual cost of about what Vonage charged us per month. However, we still had to figure out what telephone hardware to take with us, and it was a tricky decision, especially since we’re Mac users. I described our experiences in detail in Choosing Mac-Compatible Skype Hardware (TidBITS 889, 23-Jul-2007).

We decided to get phone numbers in the 503 area code (Beaverton, Oregon), solely because that was the address to which our mail was being sent (the topic of a future post). We figured there’d be a certain logic if the two matched, though we could as easily have chosen new numbers in the 415 (San Francisco) area code or anywhere else.

So far, using Skype for incoming and outgoing calls with North American telephones has worked out pretty well. There have been a couple of instances of less-than-ideal sound quality, but I suspect that experimenting with our hardware, software, and network configurations here will clear that up. We did, however, encounter a couple of surprises.

The first surprise was that our new apartment already had VoIP phone service. There’s a French company called Freebox that provides telephone, broadband Internet, and video services over DSL for about €40 per month, and that’s what our landlord had installed. The best part: the particular package he set up includes unlimited free phone calls to North America. (And the sound quality and convenience are both better than Skype!) So using SkypeOut for phone calls to the U.S. and Canada is not a necessity. (Incoming calls, however, are still expensive when dialing our French number from North America, so Skype remains great for that.)

There was, however, an unpleasant surprise too: for reasons I haven’t been able to pin down (and which Skype’s technical support department is unable or unwilling to supply), you can’t dial our Freebox phone number using Skype. So if someone wanted to call us on our “regular” phone, but use SkypeOut to save money on long distance, they’d be out of luck—it just pops up an unhelpful error message. Ack.

Besides fixed phone service, Morgen and I also got French cell phone numbers. That was another interesting research adventure, and one I’ll describe in a future post.

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