What’s the best replacement for my phone service?

Update February 4: Well, CenturyLink was true to their word. The numbers were ported on January 31, a tech came out to confirm the lines worked (they did), and I am now back in POTS-ville temporarily until I settle on a more modern telephony solution. Thanks for all the suggestions in the comments below!

Update January 24: After a morning spent on the phone with CenturyLink support (via Skype, ironically), I finally managed to reach people with problem-solving capabilities at CenturyLink. Phone service is back online, numbers will be ported to landline effective January 31, where they will basically be parked, and I will have the opportunity to research the best replacement. Whew!

Update: As of Monday morning, January 23, less than two days after getting the “final notice” call I describe below, my existing numbers have gone dead. If you try to call my home or business number, you will get a message that says the number is out of service. I have dial tone, but if I try to make a call I am told that my service has been suspended. Thanks, CenturyLink!

The company that has been supplying me with phone service for the past five years or so is dumping me.

Well, technically, CenturyLink (the company formerly known as Qwest) has decided to stop offering its residential VOIP service and is shutting it down completely as of January 31. Yeah, that’s less than two weeks from now.

Did I mention that they forgot to actually tell me they were doing this? I didn’t find out until yesterday afternoon, when both my home and office lines rang simultaneously. Each was getting the same robocall from CenturyLink, with a professional announcer’s voice telling me this is a  “final notice your my broadband phone service.”

My reaction: What? Is this a collection call?

The caller went on: “This matter requires your immediate attention. If you have already contacted us regarding the discontinuation of your broadband phone service, pleases disregard this message.”

Me: “Discontinuation”? What?!

The caller continued:

“This is your final notice that service will be discontinued in the next week.”

Me: [unprintable]

Needless, to say, I stopped working on the project that I had hoped to work on for the rest of the day and dove headfirst down the CenturyLink support rabbit hole.

The support rep I spoke with was very polite, profusely apologetic, and completely unhelpful. The service is going away, and the only option they are willing to offer me is to switch my VOIP numbers over to landlines. Plain Old Telephone Service, or POTS.

Me: Oh, hello, 1999! So nice to see you again.

Oh, and did I mention that that option will raise my monthly phone bill by 90%? And it will require a visit from a CenturyLink tech? And I’ll have to fiddle with the structured wiring in my house, which hasn’t had a POTS jack in years?

Gee, thanks, CenturyLink.

The unhelpful people who staff the apparently ironically named @CenturyLinkHelp on Twitter told me it’s not their fault:

@edbott Sorry you didn’t get your notification we started informing customers on 11/14 via  direct mail,bill messages and voice message

You know, as someone who writes about tech for a living and relies on phone service, I would remember a message like that. I never received a single notification of any kind. No paper (my bill is paid automatically each month via direct deposit, and I signed up for the paperless billing option long ago), no e-mail, no phone message until yesterday’s “final notice.” And they obviously know how to reach me.

I do have options, of course. I asked my Twitter community for suggestions and they came through with some excellent suggestions. Here’s my list of options:

  • Switch to an alternative independent VOIP service like Vonage. That would actually save me some money.
  • Switch to MagicJack Plus. The Plus version doesn’t require a direct PC connection (which would have been a  deal-breaker). Reviews are mixed.
  • Switch my VOIP service to Comcast, from which I currently get Internet and cable service. A promotional rate would save me money for the first 6-12 months, but after that the costs would be nearly double what I’m now paying. At least based on my reading of Comcast’s confusing website.
  • Attach an OBi device to my network and use Google Voice or another free service.
  • Attach an Ooma Telo device to my network and then use their free service (there are some taxes and service charges to be paid). My Twitter community seems to love this option.

But there’s a complication in most of those scenarios. Anything that involves moving my service away from CenturyLink also involves porting my telephone numbers. Everything I’ve read says that process takes a minimum of 10 working days and can take even longer, depending on how quick the new service is and how cooperative the old one is. The robocaller made it very clear the clock is ticking:

“As a reminder, if you wish to retain your existing VOIP telephone number for an alternate service, you will need to call us. Otherwise, this number will no longer be available to you.”

After doing some research yesterday afternoon, I called CenturyLink this morning as soon as they opened. This time I insisted on talking to someone with actual technical knowledge of what the company is doing with this service. What he told me is even worse than I heard yesterday: “As of the 23rd [that’s Monday, one business day from now], they are taking down the platform. If you want to port these numbers, you gotta do it quick.”

He made it clear that if the numbers go out of service before the porting is completed, I lose them for good. Family, friends, businesses that have those numbers in their contact lists will get a “this number is disconnected” message.

So my only viable option at this point is to grit my teeth and allow CenturyLink to switch me back to their landline service. I just got off the phone with the company and got the ball rolling. But even they can’t guarantee they can get the work done in time.

If they do come through (fingers crossed, knock on wood, chant to every deity I’ve ever heard of), that will buy me a month or two to research my options and choose one based on something other than panic.

My favorite part? The robocaller voice signed off with this cheery message:

“We value you as a customer, and thank you for allowing CenturyLink to serve you.”

No, thank you, CenturyLink. As customer service goes, this is about as bad as it gets.

24 thoughts on “What’s the best replacement for my phone service?

    1. Franklyn, that’s exactly what I’m doing. They’re moving it to POTS so I can buy some time. The problem is, even they might not be able to complete the porting before the number is deactivated. And if that happens I have lost it for good. When I set the wheels in motion today, I was told the target porting date was January 30. If that’s accurate and isn’t overruled by a supervisor, then I’m screwed.

  1. Yikes! I’m a Qwest-now-CenturyLink customer too. I hope they don’t screw up my fiber-to-the-node/neighborhood internet service. (I don’t use any VOIP service.)

  2. Since you just got dumped by a company that decided VOIP service wasn’t worth the bother, you should NOT go with Ooma no matter how much money you save. It is questionable whether their business model is sustainable. Pay a little bit more for a company that’s unlikely to die on you.

    Of course, if you’re willing to keep close tabs on it and switch around, then maybe it’ll be an acceptable temporary option.

    1. Tom,

      Good point. I am willing to pay a premium for a company that is reliable, profitable, and willing to sell me a service at a fair price, which by definition will not be the lowest price.

  3. How about switching the number over to your cell phone and using the bluetooth link to cell handsets at home? At least here, if you don’t want the number ported to your primary cell phone, Verizon will give you a “free” basic phone to leave around the house and, again, to connect to the home phone system with bluetooth – added to the existing family plan, it’s about $15 a month.

  4. DaveN,

    I can’t go all mobile. I do regular radio interviews and conference calls that require high quality. Mobile is usable for casual conversation but not optimal for business use. Especially in my office, where reception can occasionally be spotty (that’s Verizon – with AT&T coverage is nonexistent).

  5. I would highly recommend Ooma. Your post makes it sound different from Vonage in some way, but it’s effectively the same thing (except that they don’t subsidize the cost of their hardware with their monthly fees). Also, the Vonage router/VOIP-box is pretty bare bones, where the Telo has some very nifty features with a slick/attractive physical user interace.

    I switched from Vonage to Ooma because I was sick of always feeling like I had to pay attention to how many minutes I was using (I was on their cheapest plan, and what I paid in overage minutes wasn’t quite enough to bump the plan up … but I didn’t like the nagging thing in the back of my mind that I should limit the time I was on the line).

    Also, I really like the Telo device. People who used to have answering machines love being able to screen calls and pick up the phone while people are leaving a message. Those people miss that when they move to Voice mail. The Ooma Telo gives you the best of both worlds. It’s a voice mail service, but you can also screen your calls from the device. And if you buy one or more Telo handsets, you can do the same thing from any room of the house that has one of the handsets. The handsets are pretty good except for a “just okay” screen.

    I LOVE the blacklisting features of the Ooma, something Vonage was sorely missing when I had them a year ago. In contrast, I loved Vonage’s forward-voicemails-to-email-as-a-wav-file feature. Ooma also has that feature (sending .mp3 files instead), but only if you pay $10/mo for their “Premier” service, which I do. Premier is well worth it, and is still a lot less $ than Vonage, BUT … it makes it take longer for the Vonage to pay for itself. However, even paying for Premier, it still does pay for itself before long, and is still less money in the long run than using Vonage (with free hardware).

    Ed, since you say phone lineS (plural), Ooma is for you. The telo handsets can receive calls from multiple “lines” (basically virtual VOIP phone numbers), even though I can’t seem to figure out how to tell it which of those lines to use by default when making an outgoing call (it always just uses the first available). There is a way to make one of your phone numbers a full autonomous service bonded to a specific handset (even with its own autonomous voice mail, but I don’t have a need for that feature). I know the telo handsets work with 2 lines, unsure about more than 2, you should investigate that if it’s important. Without the handsets, you can have multiple phone numbers, but can only use one of them at a time, I believe (as far as I know, the analog phone port on the back of the Telo only talks on the center (line 1) pair, but I could be wrong). With the Telo handsets, you can use more than one at the same time.

    One thing to take in to consideration: With either Vonage or Ooma, you ideally want to have the the device sitting between your modem and your exist router (or replace your existing router) so that it can throttle other internet traffic to guarantee voice quality during a call (“traffic shaping” / QoS). But since most people also want to use the device similarly to how they used answering machines (i.e., in the kitchen), you would need to run two network cables to wherever you want to place the device. This isn’t an issue with Vonage since it’s just a dumb router that you can stick anywhere — no reason to have it in the kitchen. You can skip this and just run a single cable (or use the new wireless adapter) to the device, but then it can’t do the throttling/QoS.

    I’m glad you’re not considering the version of Magic Jack that requires the PC. My Ooma has been rock solid, which is something I demand out of a phone service — it would be less so if it relied on a PC.

    Best of luck!

    -Jim (spec07)

  6. If you want plain old SIP service and already have a device, I’ve had good experience with CallCentric. We switched our business to them about 9 months ago and dumped our Verizon POTS lines.

    After a VOIP provider named SunRocket imploded suddenly, the FCC issued a ruling that requires VOIP providers to provide “reasonable notice” before shutting down their services: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-09-40A1.pdf

    If you really wanted to ruffle some feathers, you could check out going down that route.

  7. Ed,

    I have had Vonage for years and the service is excellent. I especially like all the features that are availble (forward to a #, call and caller list, voicemail, etc). The website has really advanced over the years. We also take advantage of the virtual phone number feature to allow my parents to call my phone free from a local number in their area code.

    1. Scott, the POTS offering from CenturyLink doesn’t begin to offer the features that my current VOIP offering has. The advantage of VOIP for me is the web-based interface where I can redirect calls, block numbers, forward voice-mail to e-mail, change ring options for specific numbers, see calling history, and so on. The ability to control those features is extremely valuable. The POTS offering has a few, but they are controlled through the handset with cryptic keypad combinations. I did that in the 1990s. Not interested in going back.

      In addition, the CenturyLink POTS option is very expensive, literally twice as much as I am currently paying. I would basically be paying $500 extra every year and lose access to features that a modern phone should have. No thanks.

  8. Admittedly, just about every feature of Ooma that I really like (and every feature I rattled off above) depend on you paying for the Premier service ($10/mo). If all you want is a fairly bare-bones phone service (well, “bare bones” from an Ooma perspective …. equivalent to POTS with every available feature added on, call-waiting, voicemail, etc.), you would stick with the free Ooma service (for me, “free” is $3.47 per month in taxes and regulatory fees).

    If you want call screening, using multiple “lines”, blacklisting, voicemail as email, etc., etc., etc…. then pay for Premier. This is the heart of the Ooma business model. Others above had implied that Ooma has no business model and is at risk of collapsing, but I believe they have a solid business model — I will continue paying the $10/mo for Premier, and I’m not alone. I appreciate that they don’t subsidize their hardware by building the cost in to the monthly fee (which means you’d be paying for the hardware indefinitely, long after they’ve made up their money on it). Without Premier, you can’t use every feature the Telo baseoffers. And unless you plan on paying for Premier, you would be largely wasting your money on the Telo Handset, since almost every benefit it offers requires Premier.

  9. Why not phonepower.com? This has the web interface to block/redirect and all of that. Plans range from $10/month (roughly) to $25.00 a month depending on what term you prepay/agree to. I’ve had the service for approximately two years. ROCK solid.

  10. An inexpensive way to hold onto a number is to port it to page plus cellular. They ported a number from my VoIP provider to PagePlus in two days. I can bring my own device (cdma) and pay as little as $10 for 4 months (120 days) of service. (or use the $10 in funds at a few cents a minute.) Customer service has been great.

    Also, Google Voice over Sprint’s 4G mobile, and over CenturyLink’s 7Mbps DSL has been working like a charm for me. One number usable from both mobile and home. And you can port a number in and use it for both home and cell.

  11. Ed, CenturyLink? Yes, extemely poor service. Sorry that was your option. I’ve been looking into the Ooma products myself. If you go that route, keep us informed of your experience.

  12. Nancy makes a good point — if your primary resistance to dropping the “land”/VoIP line altogether is cell signal, why not invest in a “personal cell tower” product (which provides a strong signal within your home, routing all the traffic through your internet connection)? I think Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon have such products available. Did your comment about voice quality refer to poor cell signal, or just audio quality associated with cell phones (even with a strong signal) in general?

    (Personally, there are other reasons — besides signal and voice quality — why I want to keep a land line, but that’s beside the point.)

    As an aside, on the topic of audio quality (another plug for Ooma): If both ends are using an Ooma Telo handset (or both have Ooma service / Telo-base with any other WIRED handset compatible with this feature, of which there are several) … Ooma will transparently switch to a different audio encoder with significantly higher (“HD”) voice quality (which uses somewhat more bandwidth). Otherwise, it uses the “standard” CoDec that’s compatible with the public telephone network and is more optimized for low bandwidth than for audio quality.

    I have several of my own questions that I’m going to work on answering related to multiple “lines” with Ooma … I’ll leave a post and share my findings when I can find some spare time to work on it.


  13. Jim,

    Good questions. I think even under optimal circumstances mobile quality is variable, but I can and should look into Verizon’s “personal cell tower” option. I tried the AT&T version way back when, and it was less than optimal. Our house sprawls, and it has lath and plaster walls which act like a Faraday cage, so one such access point isn’t enough (we need two wireless access points for full coverage, for example).

    Thanks for the recommendation on Ooma. It’s a serious contender.

  14. I have to put a plug in for PhonePower.com. I switched to them 3 years ago after being a Vonage client for 4 years. Their service is always up, call quality is great and the GrandStream hardware they provided for free is rock solid. I’ve never needed to reset the device in 3 years.

    Just poke around the support and technical info on their website. They make their techincal information public which is what I like.

  15. OK, all this talk got me motivated. Just recieved my Ooma device. Initial impressions were marred by a poor box setup. But, everything past the unboxing has been rather nice. The “free” service should run me $3.50 a month, but since I’m currently paying $35 for my digital phone, I’ve decided to opt for the “premier” Ooma service. They offered it to me over the phone for $99 per year so I’m still at a major savings. They also gave me a freebie off a long list of other services. I opted here for the free wireless handset (to give my daughter a 2nd phone line and number) and paid the extra $40 to port my landline number to Ooma. Seems like it will take about 3-4 weeks, so I’d move quickly Ed if you decide the Ooma route (or any other as it does seem long, and you might not have your exsisting number from what I understand.)

    Other features that peak my interest is the voice to text for voicemail. They also have Google voicemail for one of their products, but I didn’t get that product. And their high privacy protection ability, which seems to be good from what I read.

    I might report back in in a few weeks after the number port and some more usage…

  16. So, after all this talk I decided to jump into the Ooma product. Somewhat due to interest, other due to my phone bill comes down to about $15/month from $35/month total. I did sign up for the “Premier” service from Ooma, so I’ll get things like a second line, Google Voice integration (haven’t figure out what good that is yet…), and many call control features, etc etc.

    So far I’m impressed, but not completely. Number porting took about a week for me. Though they say it could take much longer. I used to work for a Telcomm, actually supported the system that DID the number portability (was in place 20 years ago BTW…) It doesn’t take a week to port a number. This length of time is due basically to the telcos being too greedy on numbers. You’d think they’ll get over that, but still seems to linger. I did sign up for Premier service at the start, and while my number was being ported, Google Voice did take over without my interaction and started fowarding calls to my temporaty Ooma number. (I had Google Voice setup for voice mail previously with my old land line. That was impressive.) Also, my second number doesn’t seem to be working yet. It’s assigned, but I get errors and it just doesn’t work. But I’ve got an open ticket on that, so we’ll see.

    So far, that’s the only bad. So I’m not unhappy. The quality of calls was much better than I expected. I have heard jitter, but extremely rare. Time will tell on that. I do have a 30 MB/s cable internet, so the speed and latency is not bad for my connectivity. If it were not for that connectivity I’d not consider VOIP. My folks have a super poor DSL line or I’d have them on Ooma today. But I guess I should take my Telo device there and test it.

    The voice mail options are the best I’ve seen in home service. Not as good as some business services I’ve used, but still quite good. Plenty of options, and quite a bit of allowance for privacy and such. Like 4 different system generated greetings with different levels of info. I’ve not tested all other features yet, but probably won’t use them much either. With the few phone calls I’ve had so far, I’m impressed with the quality overall.

    I’m still debating having the voicemail to text translation service. It’s $5/month for basic computer translation, or $10 for human assisted translation. I tried to see if the Google Voice integration would take the translation duty, but it didn’t seem to work. I’ll have to play with that a bit. They do have an iPhone/Android app, but it doesn’t handle the voicemail/translation stuff, so I won’t get that. I do hope they improve the app to include the voicemail control. That’d make life quite a bit easier. The app right now seems geared toward making money for them for calls, nothing else.

    So, a thumbs up for Ooma here. Easy setup for the non-tech types too.

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