UPDATE - May 21: Today I posted my answer to the question...
In our new home, do I get a land line?
Or do I move our home phone number into "the cloud"?
We're closing on our home in Keene, NH, next Thursday and as we get set with the utilities that is one of the key questions on my mind. Do I actually "cut the cord" and NOT sign up for a land line with Verizon/Fairpoint?
On one level, we don't need it. My wife and I both have our cell phones. Our daughter is six and isn't yet at the age to make phone calls. I work in the world of voice-over-IP and can certainly get a solution there.
Why should we get a land line?
ADVANTAGES OF A LAND LINE
In thinking about this, it seems to me there are the following reasons to get a land line:
911 - UPDATE: As PhoneBoy reminded me in a comment, the overarching reason for having a landline is 911! A landline is the only guaranteed way to dial 911 and have emergency services arrive at your house. Precisely because it is tied to your geographical location it does indeed provide this critical function!
- SECURITY/AVAILABILITY - Even when the power is out, your land line still works. VoIP solutions are tied to your Internet connection - which requires power. Okay... but how often does your power really go out? Or... how often does the power go out and your cell phones aren't available?
- NO BATTERIES/CHARGING - Similar to the above, landlines (at least, the wired landline phones) don't need batteries and are always available. Cell phones need recharging.
- LOCAL DIRECTORY LISTING - Your landline is listed in your local phone book. It's in the "411" directory. If people in your community want to find your number, they can dial 411 or look in the local phone book. With cell phones or VoIP, you aren't in those directories.
- LOCAL PHONE NUMBER - Your landline is tied directly into your local exchange and so you have a phone number with an prefix that is "known" in your local community. Neighbors will "expect" that your phone number has one of the local prefixes. With cell phones or VoIP, your number may be somewhere else (and even have a different area code). However, in this era of "10-digit dialing" here in the US, and even more so with people simply programming numbers into their cell phone directories, does having a local number even matter?
- LOCAL DIALING CHARGES - One point of having a local phone number is that others in your neighborhood (maybe only a few) may still have dialing plans from Verizon/Fairpoint that cost more if you dial outside your "local" area and so it may cost more to call you. However, in this era of "unlimited calling plans" these local charges are pretty much nonexistent for the vast majority of users.
- MULTIPLE HANDSETS - How many times in your household in the past did multiple people get on the same call through using different handsets? (Or in how many households did someone eavesdrop on a call by silently picking up another handset?) A landline gives you this option where a cell phone does not (easily, at least). Still, how many times do you actually do this these days? And with the increasing quality of speakerphones, even on cell phones, is there really the need for multiple handsets? (And yes, you could do this with a VoIP solution.)
- COMMON IDENTITY - Until recent years, it's been the norm that a family has had one number that was their identity. "Oh, yes, you can reach the Yorks at 660-9675." There was one number that would reach your household. Today in the era of ubiquitous cell phones, this concept is going away. It's not "you can reach the Yorks" but rather "you can reach Dan York at.... " and "you can reach Lori York at..." It's not "our phone is ringing"... it is "your phone is ringing".
DISADVANTAGES OF A LANDLINE
It is also easy to highlight the reasons not to get a landline:
- EXTRA COST - FOR WHAT? - Why should I pay my local carrier for a phone I almost never use? I simply don't call as many people any more, even for business, and very often make those calls on my cell phone. Who do I call on my home phone right now?
- local vendors/contractors when I need to get something fixed
- local stores to find out their hours or if they have something
- delivery of pizza or Chinese food
- family members usually once a week (but we've moved much of this to cell phones because of the "unlimited" plans)
- very occasionally friends (but we've moved more to cell phones, IM and email)
Who calls us?
- family (but they'd call whatever number we gave them)
- friends (but they'd call whatever number we gave them)
- political campaigns and charites
- people responding to Craigslist postings (but they'd call whatever number we gave them)
- other parents of kids at our daughter's school (from the number in the school directory or from the phone book)
That's about it... so outside of the people in our community (like the parents) who might look up our number, most other folks get our number from us. So they would use whatever number we have.
I'm already paying for my cell phone - why should I pay for another phone that I seldom use?
LACK OF MOBILITY - The landline is by its nature locked to our house. If a call comes in and I'm outside, I have to run to get the phone - or carry a wireless handset. But if I already have my cell phone with me, am I then carrying two handsets? And if I'm traveling, I can't get the phone calls to my home number (unless I've forwarded it).
Those are really the key factors. My cell phone is almost always with me. Now currently at home I leave my cell phone in my office at night, so if a call came in while I was sleeping I wouldn't easily hear it. But with one change of habit I could simply bring it into the bedroom and have it there to receive calls.
So do we need a home landline?
BUILDING AN ABSTRACTION LAYER IN THE CLOUD
Perhaps of all the advantages I outlined above, the one of most interest to me is the "common identity". I like having a single number that family and friends can call and reach either my wife or I (or, we know will soon be the case, our daughter). If I cut the cord and drop the landline, can I maintain that identity?
The reality is that in this era of VoIP it is possible that I can maintain that common identity through a very simple action:
Push the phone number up into "the cloud".
Move the phone number that you give to everyone up into the VoIP cloud. Think about it... with a service like GrandCentral (now Google-owned) or similar services, I can give everyone one number that rings:
- my cell phone
- my wife's cell phone
- my SkypeIn number
- any VoIP handsets I have in our house (if I actually get around to installing Asterisk or any of the other IP-PBX systems (or my employer's Prophecy app server))
- any other phone numbers I want to have it connect to
In fact, I can phase this in and add/remove numbers as I evolve services. Start out with my our current cell phones. Change that as we get new cell phones. Add the VoIP handsets when I set something up. Remove them if I change the system around.
I have incredible flexibility if I move the number up into the cloud.
CHALLENGES WITH THE CLOUD
There, are though, some challenges with this approach:
AVAILABILITY - The PSTN has been around 100 years now and the folks who run it have a pretty good clue about how to keep it running. Even as our landlines pass from the age-old world of Bell (now in Verizon) to a new company, Fairpoint, it's still all in the world of telco solidity. On the other hand, the cloud has a certain amount of inherent fragility. Networks break. Computers fail. Routers get clogged up. Packets get dropped. DO I TRUST THE NEW "2.0" COMPANIES TO GET MY PHONE CALLS TO ME?
BUSINESS STABILITY - For that matter, do I trust the new companies to be around? The telcos that run the PSTN and provide landlines aren't going anywhere. Due to regulations, legislation, emergency services, etc.... as well as certain (usually older) parts of the population that will never part with their landline... due to all of that the telcos will be here probably as long as we have phones. (Perhaps smaller, or amalgamated... but still here.) Can the same be said of the "2.0" companies? It sure looks like Google will be around for a while, but will they keep their "beta" GrandCentral service around? Who wants to bet on the long-term viability of Vonage (another option)? Look what happened to all of the SunRocket customers...
TRUST - Do I trust these new companies with my data? The telcos have all sorts of legislation regulating what they can do with my data... both my identity (address, phone numbers, etc.) data and also my call detail records. The new companies really have no such limitations, do they?
LOCAL NUMBERS - While the whole notion of "area codes" here in the US is fading into irrelevancy with the rise of "unlimited" calling plans, I still have this perhaps quaint and archaic desire to have a "603" number if I'm living in New Hampshire. To those of us who have grown up with area codes, there is still a geographic connection that is of interest. Some of the "2.0" services can get phone numbers in your area code... others can't. (For instance, Grand Central doesn't have 603 numbers right now.)
LOCAL NUMBER PORTABILITY - With the PSTN and the telcos, I do have a degree of portability of my phone number. I can move my telco-assigned phone number to another service (but not always back). But it's not at all clear to me that I have that with the 2.0 companies. If I have a number with GrandCentral, can I later move it Vonage (or vice versa) or to SkypeIn or to Gizmo or somewhere else? From what I've seen, that's not likely to be an option (you currently can't move a GC number). I don't like lock-in. I want to be able to move to another provider if I don't like the current one. I want to be able to take my number with me! It's part of my "identity". I want to control it.
EASE OF USE - For all its faults, the PSTN has one thing going for it - it's insanely easy to use. Pick up the phone. Talk. No buttons to press (with typical wired phones). Cell phones have certainly added complexity, but we do seem to be doing okay with that. Adding a cloud-based abstraction layer has the potential to add more complexity.
For instance, GrandCentral rings the range of devices you have indicated and requires you to press 1 to accept a call on that device. So when my cell phone rings, I have to:
- Take my phone out of my belt holster (or potentially find the phone if it's not on me).
- Press the green "talk" button to accept the incoming call.
- Listen to know if this is someone calling me directly or a call coming in from GrandCentral.
- If a GC call, press "1" to accept the call
Now in fairness maybe there's a way in GrandCentral to configure it differently, but I couldn't find it. I just want to accept the call on the end device of my choice and as soon as I "accept" the call on that device - whether it's picking up a handset or pressing the green button - I want to start talking to the caller.
MESSAGING - So if you can ring a whole bunch of phones on different services, where do your voice messages go if you don't answer the phone? Today we have a home "answering machine" where we get all our messages. We walk into our kitchen, look at the machine, see how many messages there are... and start listening. When we first moved to VT in 2005 we tried the Verizon voice messaging service that effectively moves messaging into their cloud. You picked up your landline and if you heard a quick set of tones you knew you had messages. It was nice, in a way, that if you were on the phone and someone else called they would automagically go to voicemail. The thing is... we usually forgot to check for messages. Especially after we were on a call with someone. It is not intuitive to hang up a call and then immediately pick up the phone again to see if you have messages.
I think you do need some kind of message waiting indicator. That's largely why we dropped the Verizon central voicemail and went back to a home answering machine. When we get a message there's a blinking light (in fact, it blinks on all our wireless handsets).
So how does this translate into the "2.0" world? Going back to GrandCentral, because they retain control of the call, they can route it to your voicemail box there at GC and then send you an email saying you have voicemail with a link back to the message. With my Blackberry 8830, this works out rather well because I just click the link in the email message, confirm that I want to "Open" the link and... ta da... the audio file is downloaded and played on the 8830's speakerphone. (Paying Verizon for the data download, naturally.) It works out well because I get the message in several places (it actually goes to a Gmail account that is then pulled down to my MacBook and also sent to my Blackberry, so I can read it wherever).
Is an email enough of a message waiting indicator? I don't know. Can I configure it to send the email to both my wife and I? (Sure, if not directly through GC then through setting up an alias somewhere.) If I set up some voip phones at home could I somehow configure them with an MWI? I don't know.
TRANSFERS - In the world of the landline, a "transfer" to someone else involves handing someone a phone or having them pick up another handset. With an abstraction layer, you are answering on different devices on different systems. Obviously you can still physically pass the phone to someone. I remember hearing of a service that let you press a number and essentially park the number and pick it up on one of the other devices in your account... but I can't remember what that service was (GrandCentral does not seem to list this as a feature if it was them). I don't know that I'd realistically ever need this feature, but it's interesting to think about.
LOCAL DIRECTORY and 411 - One detail with a number in the cloud is that it won't be listed in the "yellow pages" directories that are passed out by the local telcos. Nor will it be in the 411 directory or probably in any of the online phone number directories. Now maybe this is fine. From a privacy perspective maybe it's good to not be in the directories. And anyone entering my name into Google can quickly find a page of mine with a phone number on it. (This happens to work for me because of my prolific writing and public life. Someone less prolific/public would have a harder time being found.)
COST - In end, what's a cloud-based solution going to cost? Today, the cost can be free (GrandCentral), $35-ish per year (Skype or Gizmo call-in number, which could be redirected to other phones), or $25/month (Vonage and friends). Plus, naturally, the cost to accept and make calls on the different devices. But we'll already have cell phones with essentially unlimited calling (at least, for the amount of calling we do). Will the cost stay this low? I don't know.
CONCLUSIONS (such that they are)
Are these challenges surmountable? Can I truly "cut the cord", not install a landline and push my home phone number out into the cloud?
I don't know yet. It seems like an interesting experiment to at least try (I can always get a landline installed later). I like the idea of building an "abstraction layer" in the cloud that lets me control the devices associated with my phone number.
I still get concerned about the challenges #1 and #2 that I outlined. Can I trust companies like GrandCentral to always get my phone calls to me? Can I trust that they will be around for some time?
My next step I think is to dig into a bit more what options there truly are out there for pushing my number into the cloud and building an abstraction layer. GrandCentral is obviously one option. I could build my own using some of the VoIP application platforms out there (including that of my employer). Are there other services that compete with GrandCentral? I need to investigate a bit more. (Suggestions are welcome)
What do you think? Should I do it? Or should I get a landline? Or should I just stick with multiple cell phones and forget about the "common number" concept?
In the end, I look forward to the day when we're done building the IP interconnect and we can purchase phone numbers just as we can domain names today. Why shouldn't I be able to do so? I can go to any of a zillion registrars and spend $10/year for a domain name that can point anywhere. I can move it between registrars. I can change where it points. I remain in control of that domain name.
Why shouldn't I be able to that for a phone number?
(And maybe I will be able to for some other SIP identifier that is not a "phone number", per se, but can be reached by other phones... but that's a subject for another blog post some other day... (and one that I saw *some* other VoIP blogger writing about but I can't for the life of me find that post!))
 Fairpoint Communications bought Verizon's land line business up here in northern New England.
P.S. And yes, I could do all of this running Asterisk or something like that on a server in my home network - but I don't want to do system administration! I don't want to set up a server. I don't want to maintain and upgrade a server. I don't want to deal with security issues on a server. I don't want to have to deal with connectivity issues to that server. I just don't want to deal with servers, period! I'll pay, if I need to, to make those sysadmin/security/reliability/availability problems someone else's problems!