Now, I’ll admit, I’m a penny pincher at times. If there’s a cheaper way of doing something, even if it’s a bit geeky, I’ll give it a go.
Stick with me on this one, because it involves something that Virgin have just announced which I think is a properly interesting proposition.
My problem? Our landline calls are costing quite a lot. Also, I have to pay line rental each month. Nobody really likes paying that. It’s always the charge that TV adverts try to hide. Yes, you’ll see ads pop up saying, “Fast broadband, just £5 per month” or something, but then – at the bottom – you’ll see some small text saying, “Subject to line rental – £18 per month”.
Add to that the call package that you probably don’t want and then, boom, you’re paying an extra £20-£25 per month thanks to those odd calls that are “outside of your package”.
So I wanted to try something. Something a bit weird. I wanted to drop the dependency on that phone port. This particular setup hasn’t saved me any money as yet (because of the up-front cost of the equipment) but it should do over the coming months.
My solution involves switching our home phone to a VoIP (Voice over IP) system. I’ll be honest right at the top of this story and admit that, if you’re going to do this, it’s better to transfer your number to a VoIP provider to begin with, rather than doing it the way I’ve ended up doing it. Currently I can’t transfer my number out, so I’m stuck with my current provider as they’ve got the phone number that everyone is familiar with.
We took out a package with Virgin Media about 3-4 months ago. They have a stack of packages but the one we went for was the Full House Bundle. You may remember how I detailed the install process and the differences in cable TV / broadband and phone. Anyhoo.. as part of this package we also had a phone line. It was part of the deal and something nearly every “quad play” company will offer. They want to deliver your TV, home phone, mobile phone and broadband if they can.
The problem is that I’m seeing a significant shift with friends, relatives and our own home. The shift is from watching “live” TV to more on-demand content and internet-streamed TV. It’s instant, it’s streamed, it’s programming when we want it. Although I’ve got a TV package, I find that I just watch whatever TiVo has got for me. Also, when my son wants to watch something, he just selects it from the on-demand content rather than waiting for it to be broadcast.
I guess that, ideally, I’d want to switch. I’m properly interested in the Virgin Media Business Broadband offering. No TV. No phone. Just broadband, and bloody fast broadband too. Up to 350Mbps from just £30 a month (or £36 with the VAT). As I mentioned on Saturday, I’ve checked into it (because I’m a geek) and you don’t need to be a business to have this system…
With that, and nothing else, I could get my on-demand programmes, perhaps free-to-air TV (or FreeSat with one of those clever PVR boxes) and a super-quick internet feed for my radio / streaming music / YouTube / Netflix.
What about that home phone though? Back in the “old days” everybody had a home phone. Now it’s probably just your mom that calls you on the house phone, even though it’s cheaper to dial through a mobile phone.
In our house we don’t really use the home phone unless we’re speaking to relatives. Just lately my wife has called family quite a bit, and because our Virgin package only includes unlimited weekend calls to UK landlines and Virgin Mobile numbers, it’s adding up. If we place a call on a weekday, even at 9PM on a weekday evening, it costs extra.
This increases your “fixed” monthly cost somewhat, let me tell you. That headline package deal you initially saw advertised jumps up thanks to those weekday evening and daytime calls. We’ve not exactly used the home phone a huge amount, but just over an hour and a half (97 minutes to be precise) has added £15.50 (with the VAT) onto our monthly bill. It means that a £52 TV / broadband / phone package suddenly becomes £67.50.
So I decided to investigate VoIP providers. These guys basically turn your phone calls into data and route them over the internet. They’re generally cheaper and you can “pretend” to be in countries you’re not. As an example, I could have a VoIP number in India and pretend to be calling from there, even though I’m in the UK. You can also get VoIP apps on your mobile phone and, with services like sipgate.com, you can get yourself a local landline number. There’s also apps like Sideline or Flyp which will do something similar. People will think that you’re using a landline, but you’re not, you’re on your mobile.
Here though, my issue was that our family still tend to pick up the home phone to make a call, and no amount of “advice” was getting their habits to change.
What I wanted to do, as I mentioned earlier, was to move my home phone number to a SIP provider. SIPgate, for example, will port your home phone number in and you can have 1000 “anytime” minutes to landlines for £5.90 a month. You can pay £9.95 and have unlimited calls to landlines and mobiles too. Either way, that’s cheaper than the £15.50.
Next, I need something magical to make this happen. This comes in the form of a Linksys PAP2 adapter. You basically unplug your home phone from the wall, plug it into this box, and out the other end, it’s an Ethernet cable to your broadband router and on to the VoIP / SIP provider. These things cost about £20 but you might get one cheaper. I ended up getting one for £14 from eBay.
I won’t go too much into the detail of how you set this up. There is a certain amount of configuration but, if you follow the comprehensive guides on the sipgate website, it takes about 5-10 minutes to get going. You basically need to put the username and password in (given to you when you get a free account at sipgatebasic.co.uk) and tweak a couple of settings to make it work. You’ll also need to add some NAT rules in your router and invest some “faffage” time.
Next problem then, and I wanted to “port” our home phone number over to sipgate. Trouble is, you can’t do this unless you’re ending the contract with your provider (from what I understand), so our regular home phone number was stuck with Virgin and there was nothing we could do about it. Perhaps, at the end of our contract and if I do switch to the fabled “broadband only” connection (without TV or a phone line included), I could port our home phone number across to a VoIP provider and just have Freesat or the regular digital terrestrial channels. For now though, I can’t.
So I’ve got my 01543 NUMBER-I-WANT-TO-KEEP with Virgin and my 01543 NUMBER-OF-MY-VOIP-LINE. This is a great setup f you want to run a business from home as you get two lines for not-that-much. However, I want our home phone to work as normal.
My solution includes a caveat then. First, I call Virgin and pay £1.65 per month to redirect my 01543 NUMBER-I-WANT-TO-KEEP to 01543 NUMBER-OF-MY-VOIP-LINE. Done. It’s a £1.65 per-month hit. Secondly, I totally remove the “regular” phone line because it’ll just redirect automatically. I plug my home phone into the Linksys PAP2.
Things are going well up to this point. Now, when people call our 01543 NUMBER-I-WANT-TO-KEEP line, it redirects and my home phone rings as normal. Nobody calling us notices any difference.
However, the major caveat is that, when the home phone is used for an outbound call, it send the 01543 NUMBER-OF-MY-VOIP-LINE out as the caller ID. That’s a bit confusing for people when we call them. They’ll see an unknown number and probably ignore it.
Not to worry though, because there is a way. Within sipgate you can easily alter the caller ID you send out. This could be abused I guess, but it means that you can send out a different number to the one you’re using..
So there we go. I’m all done. Now, anyone in my house can pick up “the normal home phone” and it’ll go through the Linksys box to route the call out through the VoIP provider. It’ll use the ultra-cheap calling package and the caller ID will be changed to match my standard Virgin landline. When a call comes in on my Virgin landline number, it’ll get redirected to the VoIP one. Boom.
The savings? Well, at the moment it’s not great. I’ve checked my last few bills and they were between £15 – £19 per month for calls alone. I’ve replaced this with a £5.90 calling package so I’ll only be paying that for the calls and then £1.65 for the redirecting. In total that’s £7.55 monthly, and of course I’ve spent £14 up-front for that Linksys box.
If you’ve got this far down then you’ll probably wondering why I’m doing this. I’m still paying £19 for line rental that I don’t really need and I’m paying a bit of my Virgin package for that calls package (providing weekend calls that aren’t working out for us).
Part of the reason? I’m a geek. I’ve worked with VoIP technology a number of years ago and I think I just get a geeky kick out of the fact that it just.. works.
The other part of the reason? Well, I did some research and Virgin will indeed sell me (as a private customer) the business broadband connection once our current contract expires in a few months. That’s just an internet connection. Nothing else. Their “bottom” package is just that. No phone line. No rental necessary for the internet connection to work – just an “up to” 350Mbps broadband feed. My home phone now just needs an Ethernet connection. I could stick it into a MiFi if there was an Ethernet port or I could just log my Android phone into the sipgate servers and answer my home phone number there instead. So, when I switch to an internet connection without a phone line dependency (or line rental), it’ll mean that my calls will go over the web instead of through a phone port on the wall.
Extra insanely geeky info
I should mention that Virgin are actually already playing around with VoIP and they offer it in their business plans. If you took a look at my earlier feature then you’ll have noticed that Virgin currently put their coax cable down the street alongside a bit of telephone cable. It means that two cables have to go into your house. However, on the top of Super Hub 3 routers you’ll notice that there’s two telephone ports. This could pave the way for a potential VoIP service.
However, we’re not there yet. With my setup there’s also a number of potential tweaks that needed doing to do with that Superhub router in order to get VoIP working properly through it. I took a very quick shortcut option and funnelled the VoIP traffic through my VPN router.
Yes, I’m under no illusions about my setup. It’s convoluted, complicated and doesn’t really save me a colossal amount of cash. However, like I said earlier, I’m a bit of a techy freak and I just like the fact that I can use my home phone number via VoIP on my mobile phone or via any internet connection rather than having to rely on the copper cable going to the exchange. It’s freedom and flexibility, and in all honesty it’s becoming clear that many quad-play companies will eventually have to embrace this. At the moment they’re locking you into their packages and TV deals. Line rental needs to die off. The future has to be a fast, stable internet feed which carries your TV, your internet and your phone calls. Mobile technology is already doing it. The data connection on your smartphone allows calls (VoLTE etc), data and mobile TV – it’s time to get the home broadband doing the same.