It seems like a good time to think about how to dump Verizon, T, Qwest, and Co. With friends like these…
Verizon Communications, the nation’s second-largest telecom company, told congressional investigators that it has provided customers’ telephone records to federal authorities in emergency cases without court orders hundreds of times since 2005. [emphasis added]
… who needs enemies?
Verizon has been my telco for way too long (four years?). What finally got me looking around wasn’t even the Constitution-shredding. It was the third (fourth? fifth?) time they messed up my bill to the tune of dozens, even hundreds of dollars. Each time it took months and a letter to the California State Attorney General’s Office Dept. of Consumer Affairs before they finally heard me. The little gent in the ads must be off-shift most of the time.
After perusing the other telcos — who are all a depressing lot — I decided it was time to think outside the box. (For what it’s worth, the least outrageous at this point seemed to be T-Mobile for ordinary service and Virgin Mobile for pay-as-you-go.)
Sending voice over the phone companies’ wires and satellites is not the only option these days. Voice over the internet protocol (voip) is a way that piggybacks on all the other open source and taxpayer-supported goodness of the internets. And since it was born in extreme geekiness, there are some great tools out there to find what you need.
First of all, you need a broadband connection. It doesn’t have to be a super-fast one. Any broadband connection will do. But dial-up is not enough, and it’s also not good enough if there’s a mad gamer in the household who’s pushing buttons 24/7. Voip is a bandwidth hog and for the times when you’re on the phone other processes have to be able to take a back seat (unless you really do have a super-fast connection).
If you have bandwidth, and a willingness to connect plug A to socket B, you’re good to go.
One of the best resources for all things broadband is DSL Reports. The have a “Find Service” section that tells you all the types of broadband available (or more likely not available) in your area, ratings of service, reviews by geeks, forums, faqs (frequently asked questions), and links to the companies. The best link for rating voip providers that I found is Voip Review, which has the most straightforward “compare providers” section.
There are dozens of providers. It’s a real startup frenzy, and the trick is finding one who doesn’t just start up but also goes on. I’m not sure how you do that, so I’m just hoping for the best.
After my experience with Verizon, one of my big concerns was customer service, so I made sure that I looked at companies that were big enough to have more than one or two user ratings and which were overwhelmingly positive. That narrows the field down rather quickly. I also googled for reviews. The whole process took a few days. 🙁
When it was all over and done, I’d signed on with someone I’d never heard of before: Callcentric. You bring your own phone and equipment (more on that in a minute). You pay two cents a minute, and nothing to the company per month. (Uncle Sam makes everyone in the US pay $4.40 each month for 911 service.) In our household, we’re in the middle of some rather thorny issues with a relative in hospital and lots of unusual calling going on. Our bill last month was $15 (including Uncle Sam’s $4.40). A similar month with Verizon had been $135. It still doesn’t make it pleasant to have our nearest and dearest in hospital, but there is an undeniable glow that comes from sticking it to The Man.
So how does this voip stuff actually work? At its simplest, software in the computer can access another computer’s internet address (sort of like going to somebody’s web site) and send the voice coming in from an attached microphone or coming out from the speaker. So the two computers function just like two phones. You can also use any old phone if you buy an ATA (analog telephony adapter). Mine is low-end and cost $30. It has an ethernet jack to connect to your network, and a phone jack. When I was testing my system, before I was sure I wanted to commit to this weird new technology, I was using an old GE phone that I dug up from pre-computer strata in my garage. Now that I’m happily using the system, I raced out and bought a cordless phone.
The ATA does need some setup. It’s all explained in detail when you start service, but briefly: you access it via a browser screen, enter your phone number and user ID, and click OK twice. I ran into trouble at this point because I have a draconian router firewall that wasn’t letting my ATA talk to the world. Callcentric does not have phone help lines, but has a very efficient email-based help system instead. I’d send a question, and they’d be back to me with actual answers in a few hours at most. I find this hugely preferable to listening to bad music or script-reading twits, but your mileage may vary. My problem turned out to be very difficult indeed, but between us, we got it sorted out in a few days. Their customer service proved every bit as good as the reviews had said.
So, quite honestly, I’m happy as a clam with this new system, warm glow and all. It does leave unresolved the question of what to do in case of emergencies away from home. Part of me wants to go into the old codger routine. Back in the day we didn’t carry no stinkin phones and we survived just fine. The other part of me knows that if I do break down on the highway, I’m going to want a damn phone. Tracfone has something called a Lifeline Value Plan which charges $5 per month, but only if the phone is used, at which point they also want airtime. Obviously, on a per minute basis that’s insanely expensive. But, if you want a phone that you hope never to use, it’s the cheapest solution.
I can’t say I’m worrying about it much in my current state of feeling liberated. As a teenager I knew once said, I’m not planning on having an emergency.
Crossposted to Shakesville.