Monday, 30 May 2016

Review of Freephoneline VoIP Service (Fongo Home Phone, except free!)

In my first blog post, I reviewed the Fongo Mobile app. On its own, it's a great way to start saving money on your cell plan -- you could even consider using it as a landline replacement, too.

It could be a generational thing, but I like to make most calls on a "real" phone (cordless, corded, etc). I've noticed that traditional landlines are quite expensive these days -- even voice over IP (VoIP) lines through the major services providers are way overpriced, and bandwidth is dirt cheap! Once again, Fongo has us covered with a great alternative.

Fongo Home Phone -- For those who just want plug and play cheap phone service

While I don't *technically* use Fongo home phone service, I feel I can still comment on it based on my experience with Freephoneline (the adjacent service they offer. More on that in the next section.)

Here's a short and sweet blog post on Fongo's site that walks you through signing up for their home phone service.

Yes, that's $4.95 + tax Canadian per month for all of the features mentioned in the blog and GREAT call coverage in Canada. We're talking approximately 85% of Canada -- check this link to see if your city or town as well as cities/towns where you typically call friends/loved ones are covered.

If you see good coverage in the link above and you like the sounds of the low monthly price for a landline replacement (again, VoIP), consider this service.

If you are someone who just wants something like a phone to "work" and don't want to get into DIY/nuts and bolts, this service is a great option. With it, you not only get the great features/phone coverage, but also dedicated technical support through Fongo. When you sign up, you have to buy an analog telephone adapter (ATA) that connects to your home internet router. The adapter allows you to plug in a standard phone (old style wall jack phone or cordless phone) and use it with the service.

At the time of writing, they have reduced fees on the ATA ($29 + tax/S&H). Also, if you want to keep your current home number, you can port it over to Fongo for $20. Good pricing, if you ask me, and after the one time purchases (ATA + port), you are left with a reliable home phone service and a bill that's likely exponentially lower than your current provider.

Click here to sign up! If you're like me and are a little techy, like to dabble, and save even more money, read on...

Freephoneline -- For the light-medium DIYer and, as the name suggests, basically FREE

So, let's go a little further into the rabbit hole of savings, shall we? :)

For Freephoneline (FPL), take all of the above (call coverage + features) and put a $0 monthly fee on it. Yep, $0. There are caveats and potential headaches to getting this service up and running, but having come out on the other side, I can say that it's worth it. Read on and see if it might be worth it for you, too.

How I arrived at FPL for my home phone service

So, before FPL, I was on another VoIP service (MagicJack). Generally, MJ worked fine for our purposes: we plugged in a device (a proprietary ATA), registered for the service, made calls, saved -- initially the fee was similar to Fongo home phone's. However, with each yearly renewal, we noticed our bill got a little higher and our service a little less reliable. I tried a bunch of DIY config on the MJ ATA and could never quite get it to work smoothly -- without fail, many of our calls would drop at the 90 minute mark. Did I mention the bill kept getting a bit higher?

Slightly disillusioned, I decided to shop around for other services. By then, I was already using Fongo Mobile on my then Android phone. I noticed Fongo Home Phone and, having been content with their mobile app, was seriously considering that option. But a more enticing option presented itself in the form of FPL. 

Free is, of course, enticing. But, the offer was daunting: you had to do it yourself (DIY): provide your own ATA, configure it on your own, forego Fongo customer support/rely on community support. Good information to know up front, before signing up. Even with that in mind, I wanted to proceed; MJ didn't work out in the long run, but my "tinkering" to compensate for shaky service helped me learn basics about call/bandwidth routing, network configuration, quality of service (QoS), and so on. I felt I could reapply this knowledge to a (hopefully) better service.

The experiment: Keep MJ but test FPL at the same time

When I was ready to pull the switch and check out FPL, I didn't want to ditch MJ entirely until I was certain that the new service would work for us. At the time, we had about 4 months left of MJ service before renewal was needed. I felt that was a nice buffer zone to test out FPL and be certain it made sense and worked for us.

Here's what FPL cost us initially to get up and running:
  • $59.95 CAD* + tax for the SIP unlock settings (SIP is a protocol that is the "glue" between two devices talking. Click the link for more information. :))
  • $15 for an analog telephone adapter (ATA) off of Kijiji, into which I'd enter the SIP account information. I found the Grandstream HT-701, which is well supported on FPL and happens to be the "official" ATA that you purchase for Fongo Home Phone, too.
  • NOTE: We did not port our number at this point.
  • We used our existing cordless phones -- Uniden DECT something or others. :)
My thinking here was that these were one time costs; even if the service didn't work for us, we weren't out of pocket too much. My strategy was to set up FPL fully with the phone number they provided AND keep our original number on MJ. MJ provided call forwarding, so it was just a matter of forwarding all of our incoming calls to the FPL number. Our outgoing calls to family and friends showed the test FPL number; we just made it clear to everyone that they'd see an unusual number for us for a little while during this experiment.

NOTE: A step we skipped and something I didn't mention earlier is that FPL can be used as an app on your computer before any sort of sign up. The app is available for Windows and Mac. It is, arguably, a little out of date, but you may want to try this out as square one before you look at ATAs or the unlock key stuff. Simply register here to get your number and download the app.

*At the time of writing, the SIP unlock key is priced at $79.95 CAD + tax

Setting up the ATA

Thanks to the awesomeness of the community volunteers in the support forums, I had a great ATA configuration guide (PDF) to work with. That guide and all the other tried and tested ATAs/accompanying manuals are here. It was easy as pie!


Test Calls: Did they drop? 

From here, it was a matter of using our phone the way we always do: calling family/friends (many based in NL), receiving calls, using the phone for my work-from-home conference calls. 

The verdict? It worked very nicely. Call quality was great, crystal clear, and calls never dropped. I couldn't say the same for MJ. After a few months of this experiment, it was clear that the service was worth considering as our MJ replacement. The true test of its success: my wife didn't notice any differences in the day to day calls (aside from the lack of dropped calls). :)

Porting Our Number


Ready to make the full jump from MJ to FPL, I set up our number port request ($25 CAD + tax) to bring over our MJ number. The average wait time for the port request through Fongo was 7-14 days. I suspected headaches, more so from the MJ side (I've read horror stories). I took screenshots of all of our account information to have a digital paper trail record, just to be safe.

The outcome was that everything went smoothly. The port finished roughly 9 business days in, and MJ didn't kick up a stink. Hurray! It was time to make a configuration change that I was eager to do in the ATA: change the account username from our temporary FPL number to our ported/official/familiar home phone number. 

Best of all, at that point, all the initial costs for FPL were settled. We were ready to say goodbye to phone bills and have a truly free phone line!

How FPL's Treating Us Since the Experiment

It's been over a year now and we're still enjoying FPL as our home phone VoIP service. While the up front costs can feel like a lot, they're quickly deemphasized by the instant saving of a $0 monthly phone bill. In terms of the network reliability, it's very good to excellent. Only a handful of times have I noticed service downtime, and in some cases it had to do with configuration on my ATA.

Day-to-day, when we use the service, we just feel like we're making calls on a standard service provider. The call drops we experienced on MagicJack never plague FPL. It is nothing short of reliable and dependable.

As a moderate techie/tinkerer, I couldn't be happier, too. I follow threads on the support forums and jump in to help every now and then, myself. As mentioned above, I learned a lot about routers and home networking in the process. Best of all, I rarely if ever have to jump in for tech support because our phone goes down; it just keeps plugging away.

Caveats

A few things I wanted to call out that I've noticed since we signed up:
  • The SIP account information now costs $79.95 + tax. It's unfortunate to see the price rising, but everything's getting more expensive, unfortunately. I still think that, given the nature of the service and how good it is, this money is well spent. Again, you pay the fee once (along with potentially porting a number, and of course, buying your ATA), and then you're done.
  • Calls to 911 cost $35 a pop. Technically, too, they're E911 calls, so the recipient will transfer to the appropriate dispatcher, so there's an added layer to making an emergency call. This fee has caused a little bit of controversy in the forums amongst FPL users (I was slightly alarmed to see this, too). Still, other VoIP providers charge monthly fees that essentially add up to this amount or more over the year. I suspect this fee is a deterrent to people who make "test calls" to the E911 centers, thus abusing the system. Plus, you can always use your cell phone to make a proper 911 call (not an E911 call). For sure unexpected things can happen, but just think about how often you call 911.
The first bullet didn't hit us, but again, we'd still pay the fee for this service. The second bullet may be more of a deal breaker, but we've been able to live with it just fine and have a cell phone to make an emergency call if its needed.

Pros and Cons to Sum it all Up

Pros
  • After initial expenses, you have a  FREE phone
  • All the same features (voicemail, call display, call waiting, etc) and Canadian LD coverage as Fongo home phone
  • Great call quality on a very reliable network
  • Great technical support from a solid community in the forums
  • Lots of third party ATAs are well supported on the FPL network; no need for proprietary, locked down equipment
  • You can use your existing handset(s) that you used for your previous home phone service
  • Very low long distance rates for areas that aren't in the free call coverage zones. Credits remain on your account and don't expire, so you can use them whenever you're ready.
Cons
  • The road to free service is paved with initial fees and potential heartache with DIY configuration
  • When things potentially go wrong with the service, it's on you to check configuration. This relates to the next point...
  • No official support from Fongo the company
  • The unlock information seems to be going up in price
  • 911 calls cost $35 each, and it's E911 not "true" 911
  • While you can use your corded or cordless phones, the ATAs typically only allow one physical connection. (A workaround is to use a cordless handset with multiple bases; the secondary bases register to the main one, so only the main base needs to be plugged into the ATA)
  • You need to buy credits to cover areas that aren't in the free call coverage zones.

Fongo Home Phone or Freephoneline?

My direct experience is with FPL, as is clear by now. :) FPL is so good, cons/caveats aside, but I can't decide whether it's for you. I've done my best to outline our experience with it, the path we took, and how the service is working for us today. 

If you want to just get a no hassle home phone service with included official technical support, I'd recommend Fongo Home Phone. At $4.95/mth (not including ATA and number porting), it's a great deal.

If you have a little experience with technology and networking, are a "tinkerer"/DIY type of person, and want to save a bundle on home phone, you may want to give FPL a try.

Check out this great blog post. It's a little older but addresses some common questions about FPL.

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