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My Experiment in Cutting Cords (and costs) with VoIP

Posted by bryan on November 1, 2012 in Cloud Computing, E-Business, Mobile with No Comments


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Example of residential network including VoIP

Example of residential network including VoIP (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like most Canadians, I have paid way more than I care to admit to the greedy Telcos over the past several years. My estimates put my average monthly bill for two smartphone plans and a home telephone line with an international long-distance plan at approximately $175/month (some months higher, some months lower, but that’s the average). Carry that cost over 12 months per year and about 5 years since I’ve been back in Canada and at the mercy of the Telcos, and you’ve got a scary picture. Add in Internet, TV and Movie services (i.e. Netflix) and what you’ve got is blatant wastage and inefficiency, something I intend to put an end to now that my major smartphone plan’s 3-year contract is coming to an end.

Feel free to jump straight to my problem and my proposed solution right now, but I’ll lay out some background on my particular situation, and what lead me to this current fleecing and desparation to find an alternative.

 

Mobile
At first I ended up with three separate carriers, which is almost never the cheapest way of doing things, but almost always the way a typical household ends up. As families grow, couples may have had separate services, and its not always easy or even possible to package, bundle or combine services due to prior contracts. It’s easy to blame the greedy Telcos, but at least some of the responsibility for this situation rests on my shoulders as a result of laziness or simple lack of time and energy to do anything about it sooner and/or do more research into all the possible alternatives.

Being incredibly busy but needing to fill an immediate need for services to get my wife a phone since I had no home phone line, before I had much chance to figure out how badly I’d be getting screwed, I had myself signed on to two 3-year contracts with two separate carriers.

Later, I needed to add a second smartphone plan, mostly because I had to get a Mobile phone plan for my wife before she was actually a permanent resident, and at the time there was a “special offer” on at Rogers that would have made it cheaper than adding a second line to my existing Bell-Aliant account. What I didn’t know was that despite it being cheaper, Rogers tends to hike their rates more later on down the line. Live and learn I suppose.

I’ve considered something like a Mobile 4G hotspot, but the thought of carrying it with me everywhere and being dependent on a spotty service that’s still being rolled out does not really appeal to me very much. That said, here’s what I found were my options:

I’m going to hold out until the New Year for a better deal, and if the prices go up, then no big deal, I’ll just go without a mobile data plan.

TV

A special bundling plan came out at Bell-Aliant when they rolled out FibreOp ne of the carriers, I switched my home phone, TV and Internet all into one package. Luckily, I was moving to a region where the original carrier Rogers had no service, so they were forced to let me out of my TV contract with no additional cancellation fees.
Bell-Aliant’s FibreOp to Rogers’s Digital Cable. I’m now debating whether I want to rely on certain online and mobile services, or, whether I want to spring for $36/month for Bell’s sattelite TV service (which I’ve heard mixed reviews about).

 

Phone
Who has a home phone anymore? Let me rephrase that, who wants to pay for a home phone plan anymore when there are so many other free or low-cost VoIP alternatives available?
For that reason, I expect I’ll get rid of my home phone for good.

 

Internet
I’ve gone through all the major providers, from Bell and Rogers to Eastlink in Nova Scotia. Since I had a bad experience with Rogers in 2008 with bandwidth capping and throttling, I’m convinced that FibreOp is sadly the only logical choice, unless you are in Nova Scotia, in which case I’d save money and go with Eastlink. If you are on the lower service level of FibreOp anyway, the speeds are not that significantly different so as to be noticeable to a “normal internet user” (that is, anyone who’s not constantly running P2P clients to pull down TB’s worth of software/, or someone not doing any hardcore online gaming). As far as over-promised and under-delivered services go though, I will admit that FibreOp definitely takes the cake, so its not necessarily much of a win.

 

Movies
Lastly, about Netflix Canada, their content leaves a lot to be desired with a severely limited catalogue compared to what is available in the US. For this reason, I’m also considering stopping their service again soon; I’ll likely just freeze my account and check it out again in a few months. One thing I can credit them for is the up to 6-month account freezing feature, which is a welcome service that Canadian Telcos could learn a lot from. Especially because it makes much more sense to be a customer of theirs when I know I’ll have free time coming up in a given month. The ability to freeze and unfreeze my account, rather than deleting it and starting over from scratch every time (i.e. losing viewing history, queues and ratings) is a huge asset, and if that feature went away I think I could safely say I would cease being a customer of theirs ever again.

 

 

VoIP

Spout is a new company founded by former Link2VoIP employees. I’m evaluating picking up a Cloud Number & DID from them and using their service via a VoIP softphone app (i.e. BRIA for iOS or CSIPsimple for Android). One of the better-known ways of doing the VoIP cord-cut is by using another Canadian startup called LES, along with a SkypeIN and/or SkypeOUT unlimited calling.

I did some quick and dirty calculations in the comments section there, but I’ll update to show my latest calculations for a year’s worth of VoIP service from the top 3 options I found:

1. SkypeIN + SkypeOUT + LES forwarding*
SkypeIN #: $60/yr
SkypeOUT unlimited calling: $7.99/month = $95.88/yr
SMS – FREE (available via web portal only)
LES – Unmetered DID: $1.99 (one-time setup fee)
LES – DID monthly fee: $8.88/month = $106.56
TOTAL = $264.40

2. Spout Cloud + DID + VoIP softphone**
Spout – Local Number Porting $30.00 (one-time fee)
Spout – Fixed-rate DID: $7.00 (one-time setup fee)
Spout – DID monthly fee: $9.99/month = $119.88
SMS – not supported
VoIP softphone app: $8.99 (or FREE depending on app)
TOTAL = $165.87

3. Anveo DID + VoIP softphone***
Anveo – Local DID port: FREE (special promotion, usually $14 one-time setup fee)
Anveo – Personal Unlimited Calling monthly fee: $2.00/month
Anveo SMS-to-Email: $3.00/month (300 @ $0.01/msg; personal usage estimate)
Anveo STARTER plan: $7.85/month (FREE option as well w. fewer IVR features)
VoIP softphone app: FREE (depending on app)
TOTAL = $154.20

—————
* Skype is priced in US dollars. If you want World ($13.99/month) or World+China ($21.99) unlimited calling in Skype, additional fees apply.

** Spout (a Canadian company) is priced in Canadian dollars. Spout would meet the CRTC’s e-911 requirements but the LES+Skype would may not, without additional service fees / features added. Spout also has a nifty feature called “Callback” which works like a calling card where you call their number first which then calls you back and prompts you to enter the actual number you want to call (billed as an incoming call this way, and connected for a flat-rate 1.1 cents per minute). The Callback feature could be used from other phone lines to save on long-distance calls.

*** Anveo (a UK company) is priced in US dollars. Not only does Anveo meet the CRTC’s e-911 requirements but it also offers SMS services (via web console, email-to-SMS or directly via push messages in supporting VoIP clients) which was the deal sealer for me personally, because as much as I try to minimize my monthly texting, I can admit it is an important tool for staying in touch with friends and family; especially while traveling as it is cheaper than the astronomical roaming fees you’d stand to incur if you actually made a call out of your “home region” on a regular cell phone plan. On top of all this, Anveo is actually a full-blown hosted IVR solution with call-flows, call-waiting, hold music, visual voicemail, virtual FAX machine & Email-to-Fax, click-to-call web button/widget, a comprehensive API, and lots of other fun features to play with!

 

So both Anveo and Spout sound good to me in theory, even LES + Skype would be good but I’ve heard too many complaints about call quality to take the plunge there at this time. Either way, you need a SIP softphone (piece of software that runs on your computer or device) to use either Spout or Anveo. Depending on the app you choose, you may have to add to your total; I used the $7.99 BRIA for iPhone app but got it for free thanks to an old iTunes gift card I had laying around. With Spout being very close to offering all the things I was looking for (except SMS), it was tough because I prefer to support Canadian first in most cases, but at the same time Anveo was the only provider with SMS support and free trials available, also I couldn’t pass up on the limited-time free Anveo LNP offer (seems like it was made to be as the free offer allowed me to setup the LNP request with my carrier for EXACTLY the day my contract with them expired, which in theory means I shouldn’t get blacked out as my number gets ported). So, I’ve taken the plunge into the wonderful world of VoIP in Canada with a non-Canadian provider, Anveo, and I’m just wondering if any readers have any experience or insights to share on the quality or long-term usage of their (or other competitors’) service. If so please comment below. Either way, I’m sure both solutions beat the alternatives in Canada, just see for yourself…

Rogers
MOBILE: Rogers voice + data or FIDO (aka Rogers)
PHONE: Rogers long distance
INTERNET: Hi-Speed
TV: Digital Cable

Bell-Aliant
MOBILE: Bell voice + data
PHONE: Aliant (aka Bell-Aliant) long distance
INTERNET: FibreOp or Hi-Speed
TV: FibreOp or Satellite

Telus
MOBILE: Telus voice + data or KOODO (aka Telus)
PHONE: Telus long distance plans
INTERNET: Optik or Hi-Speed
TV: Optik or Sattelite

And that brings me to the heart of the problem, none of the mainstream providers offers an affordable bundle for all my telecommunications needs (i.e.  Phone, Mobile, Internet, TV, Movies).

 

My Problem

The acceptance of unreasonably high prices and usage fees by our continued business is what perpetuates the unfavorable condition for telecommunications consumers in Canada. In short, we vote with our dollars and I fully acknowledge that like most Canadians, I’ve been asleep at the wheel and let the Telcos run amok on my wallet and monthly budget, simply because I felt there was “nothing I could do”.

Home Phone: Bell-Aliant, unlimited long-distance bundle  @  $45/month
Mobile (wife): Rogers, BlackBerry smartphone plan  @  $65/month
Mobile (me): Bell-Aliant, iPhone smartphone plan @ $87/month

Internet: Bell-Aliant FibreOp 20/15 Mbps   @  $68.95/month
TV: Bell-Aliant FibreOp, 300 channels  @  $42/month
Movies:
Netflix  @  $7.99/month

TOTAL:  $315.94/month (that’s an insane $3791.28 per year)

Yikes! I can definitely do better, less really is more in this case.

 

My Solution (for now)

First things first, I need to cut out waste from my monthly budget and minimize long-term contracts, with the ultimate goal of getting out of all forms of service contracts, forever. If government won’t protect consumers from predatory pricing practices and unreasonably long-term contracts with crazy “early cancellation fees”, then its up to consumers to get proactive and protect themselves by avoiding doing business with these companies whenever possible.

Home Phone: VoIP via Anveo, unlimited international long-distance & $0.01/msg SMS @ $13.65/month
Mobile (wife): Rogers $36/month single smartphone plan (to be used for local/emergency calling only)
Mobile (me): none  @  $0/month (worst-case, spring for 4G wifi hotspot @ $60/month)

Internet: Bell-Aliant FibreOp 20/15Mbps  @ $68.95/month
TV: none  @ $0/month  (worst-case, get Bell-Aliant Sattelite 150 channels @ $30/month)
Movies
: none  @  $0/month (worst-case, unfreeze Netflix @ $7.99/month)

TOTAL:  $118.60/month (worst-case: $218 or $1423-$2616 per year)

For a maximum total savings (with a little sacrifice of convenience of always-on internet everywhere I go), of almost $200/month which would equate to $2400 or approximately $7200 over the course of a typical 3-year contract; I shudder to think where I’d be if I had of taken the bait and gone for the “free handset upgrade” for my iPhone 3GS to something like an iPhone 5 or the latest Android device. This will be a huge benefit for our household as we recently purchased a house and are paying down several costs associated with that (such as downpayment, rennovations and required maintenance) over the next year or so. I’m happy to make the sacrifice and will update later to let everyone know how it went.

 

Conclusion

I consider home internet a sunk cost, and the home I was moving into was already wired for FibreOp, so it was basically a no-brainer. That said, I’ve noticed they are slowly increasing the rates just like they do with any new service. I’ll keep my eye on this trend and look for cheaper alternatives if necessary. I have alot of interest in the Dark Net these days as well, and if they drive the prices too high or make any further assaults on user privacy or net neutrality, then I will definitely put in the time required to “be my own ISP” as well. In addition, I would love to have a regular TV service but they make it hard by forcing me to buy 100′s or 1000′s of Channels when I really only want a dozen at most (i.e. CBC, Global, CTV, TSN, YTV, Treehouse, Comedy, TeleToon Retro, Spike, Discovery, History, AMC). When will a company come along and offer better a-la-carte style billing, or just any bundling system that actually makes sense and allows viewers to select individual channels they want and not have to pay for stuff they consider crap and will never view.

In the meantime, it feels good to at least be a step closer to independence from the Telcos and I applaud the efforts of innovative little VoIP startups like Anveo, Spout, LES, Skype, iCall and others. Even Microsoft’s latest prize, Skype, is also a better-looking alternative than one of the big Telcos’ offerings and would definitely be even more user friendly to work with for someone without the time or technological know-how to use one of the other less smooth around the edges VoIP services. For simplicity’s sake, I strongly considered Skype + 4G Hotspot on a laptop (or tablet) as my substitute since I had used Skype to shave up to $80/month off my cellphone bill when I was in Japan, and I bet that would work pretty good too (but cost a little more than cutting the contracts completely).

In the worst case, I may still end up with a 4G Hotspot but I’m hoping I can avoid it. Best of luck in your efforts to reduce your monthly bills and cut the cords from the big 3, its time they wake up to consumer demand and start offering realistic prices, or eventually, lean innovative startups like the ones mentioned here will gladly take the exodus of customers as times get tough financially and sacrifices need to be made by the average consumer.

 

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BC$ = Behavior, Content, Money

The goal of the BC$ project is to raise awareness and make changes with respect to the three pillars of information freedom - Behavior (pursuit of interests and passions), Content (sharing/exchanging ideas in various formats), Money (fairness and accessibility) - bringing to light the fact that:

1. We regularly hand over our browser histories, search histories and daily online activities to companies that want our money, or, to benefit from our use of their services with lucrative ad deals or sales of personal information.

2. We create and/or consume interesting content on their services, but we aren't adequately rewarded for our creative efforts or loyalty.

3. We pay money to be connected online (and possibly also over mobile), yet we lose both time and money by allowing companies to market to us with unsolicited advertisements, irrelevant product offers and unfairly structured service pricing plans.

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