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Ooma – free phone service or just another telecom?

By Jim Bray
July 19, 2012

It isn't just a telephone provider, it's a little box that promises to cut you free from traditional phone suppliers, while saving you money at the same time.

It's called the Ooma Telo, and is available both in Canada and the Unites States. So does it actually do what it claims – and, if so, how well?

I've been using the Ooma system for a couple of months now and the system does seem to work as advertised, with one major caveat in my particular case. As is so often the case, however, "your mileage may vary."

Ooma first grabbed my attention at the Consumer Electronics Show a couple of years back. I'm often angry with my phone provider, whoever it might be, for a variety of reasons that can include lousy service, lousy sound quality, lousy support, or lousy whatever. I've also used about three VoIP services, with varying satisfaction.

I change providers, only to get mad at the new one eventually. It seems as if offering telephone service is looked upon by the telecoms as a license to print money, though on the other hand I know of a couple of former VoIP startups who,  since they're no longer around, might argue the point.

Ooma is different, if only in that instead of being a distant host where your calls are shunted, regardless of how the signals get into and out of your home base, it actually takes up residence in your physical location, via a cute little Ooma box you hook into your broadband Internet connection.

Ooma's claims are that the product is a revolutionary device that allows you to call anywhere in the U.S. or Canada (depending on where you are) for free. You only have to pay the applicable taxes and fees, the kilogram of flesh extracted so politicians can buy votes with it. Ooma says you can also make international calls for next to nothing.

Installation promises to be very easy: "Simply connect the device to your high-speed Internet and your existing phone, and that's it. You're ready to start calling and experience Ooma's great voice quality."

Well, it wasn't quite as easy as that for me, because I managed to screw up the installation. It was operator error, though, as much as I'd like to blame Ooma for it. Fortunately, my son saw through my folly and had the thing hooked up correctly in less than two shakes of a dead lamb's tale. I know that because I had the dead lamb. Now I have to figure out what to do with it – and therein lies a tail!

But I digress…

Since all you need to exploit Ooma besides the high-speed Internet connection (cable, DSL or fiber-optic) I a regular home phone, I plugged the thing into the base station of our cordless handsets. It worked fine with all of the satellite phones in the house, seamlessly and with good sound quality.

Well, most of the time. The Ooma hardware and service worked well under optimal conditions, but I heard many complaints from people at the other end of the line about the call cutting in and out repeatedly and annoyingly. Deal breaker stuff. The Ooma people set me up with some tech support and we went through the issues, the result basically being that I have bandwidth issues.

I have had bandwidth issues in the past that affected my ability to Skype and the problem did seem to raise its ugly head when there was lots of activity, whether background downloading, streaming or whatever. So perhaps they're right.  

The first thing you notice when using the Ooma system is the cute little musical tone it plays when you fire it up. No, it doesn't really add or subtract anything, but it's an interesting bit of showmanship. As for sound quality, I had no complaints at all.

In fact, other than the bandwidth woes, the only real complaint I had (and this is the height of nit pickiness) is that you have to dial your own number to check your messages. With my  usual system, you just pick up the phone and punch in a three digit code, which is much quicker in this era of now having to punch in the area code with each local call.

Ooma will let you port over your regular phone number, usually. It isn't free (there's a $40 one-time fee) but, having done this when switching providers before, it's worth it to keep the old number. Ooma says that if you sign-up for an annual subscription to Ooma Premier ($119.99/yr U.S.), they'll waive the porting fee.

Ooma has also recently upped its feature ante – beyond the usual call waiting, voice mail, call display etc. etc. etc. – to add the "911 Alerts" feature to its customer base in both Canada and the U.S. – at no additional cost to the user. The company says the 911 Alerts feature "provides added peace of mind because it can accelerate critical communications during a home emergency situation."    

 With this feature, subscribers can enter up to three e-mail addresses or mobile phone numbers using the "My Ooma" online control panel (you can set up many parameters there). Once you've set up the emergency notification group, Ooma will automatically send alert messages to specified recipients whenever 911 is called from your Ooma phone number. Perhaps a neighbor with a baseball bat – or a gun – can respond more quickly than the cops when your home is invaded? Or maybe your neighbor's a paramedic…

Ooma also offers Bluetooth service, with which mobile phone calls can be answered on the Ooma home phone systems. Ooma Wireless service allows the Ooma Telo (the little black box) to be placed anywhere in range of a Wi-Fi network. Both of these require an extra cost adapter, but could come in very handy.

The company also offers a Premier service, for $9.95 a month, which includes "more than 25 advanced features," including three-way conferencing, Multi-Ring (simultaneously rings or forwards calls to a mobile phone) and Voicemail Forwarding to Email – a feature I've grown to love with other Telcos: it lets you listen to voicemails from anywhere you can get your email. There's also a Blacklist feature that will block callers you don't want to interact with or it'll send them to voicemail. It's a wonderful way to avoid those pesky salespeople.

I'd like to see the voicemail to email feature as standard, but they never asked me.

The Ooma Telo has a list price of $179.99 and includes a 60-day free trial of Ooma Premier. Theoretically, the only other fees you should have to pay is the stuff rendered unto Caesar – and maybe just a smidgen more on your electrical bill because the nothing electrical operates on butterfly sneezes. This applies to electric cars, too.

It appears that once you've paid for the initial investment, which will depend upon what features you order and what you're paying for now, the Ooma could offer you a way to save some coin and still get a fully featured phone service. Other than my apparent bandwidth issues it worked fine, and it does seem like an interesting way to get cheap phone service without resorting to tin cans and string.

Copyright 2012 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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