My Mainly Free Phone Line

With my new web design business almost ready, I realized I needed a phone number. I’d rather use something other than my cell.

Google has free phone numbers for anyone with a Gmail account. I’ve got one.

Actually a I’ve got a few. Shhhh.

I can use Google Voice from my cell, home phone or computer.

That doesn’t tell the whole story. These Google numbers are cumbersome to use. Making a call is a multistep process.

Last week I stumbled upon a little box that makes Google Voice work exactly like an old fashioned home phone. I bought an OBI100 on Amazon.

As far as I can tell the OBI100 fools Google Voice into thinking it’s talking to your computer. Does it really make a difference?

Setup took a few minutes and was simple. The OBI100 has a little wall wart that brings it power, an ethernet cable to hook to my router and a place to plug my phone. Configuration was done through a web browser.

As with most VOIP phones, this line will not connect to 911. That’s important, but not in this circumstance where the phone is one of many.

Like I said, Google Voice is free. It has been free for years, though each year Google warns it could become a paid service in the next year. In other cases where Google has moved free services to a pay model, the price has remained very low. I expect that here as well.

The OBI100 itself was $38. So, for $38 I get a phone line with voicemail and free domestic calls for this year and probably the foreseeable future with no monthly charge!

It does seem too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Google Voice Is Almost Good Enough

I have no clue how it can be sustained for free, but I’m not claiming to be the smart guy here. I fly coach. The Google founders have a large luxurious jet.

I got an email from a friend yesterday. What was that thing where she could send text messages but not use her cellphone? The answer is Google Voice. It’s an interesting product that does a lot and stops short in a few functions that would make it a killer!

As with most of what Google does I’m not sure why they do this or where their money is made. It’s offered for free.

I have no clue how it can be sustained for free, but I’m not claiming to be the smart guy here. I fly coach. The Google founders have a large luxurious jet.

Google Voice starts simply by giving you a new, additional phone number. The number itself can be in your local area code or nearly anywhere else.

I got one for Stef with a Southern California area code with the thought she’d give it out and look local while Google Voice would sneakily (and freely) transfer the calls to her 203 cellphone. As far as I know she’s never used it.

The number comes with sophisticated voicemail which automatically transcribes messages to text and forwards them to you as a text message or email. The transcription is horrendous, but usually usable. The voice message is preserved just in case.

The Google Voice account can be set up to ring many separate phones from any incoming call. It would be nice if my friends with home, work and cell numbers used one Google Voice number. Instead of hunting them down all their phones would ring! So far none have used this–including me.

Like a cell phone Google Voice can be used for texting. If your cellphone has a data plan you no longer need a separate texting plan. It only handles text, not pictures. Too bad. I don’t know anyone who’s dropped their text plan for Google Voice’s free service even though it can be used from cellphones and computers.

All these things work. They work work reasonably well. Why aren’t they used? Is GV too kludgy… still lacking enough integration to make it an easy decision? Maybe. It still looks like a service designed by engineers for engineers.

Recently Google Voice released (and Apple finally accepted) an app to bring GV to iPhones. It was an immediate install for me!

It’s pretty slick, but every time you make a call through Google Voice it connects by first dialing through your cell account. Why doesn’t the Google Voice app use VOIP&#185? This one simple step could alter the cellphone landscape forever. You could buy a cellphone with a data plan only and no minutes or text plan.

Google Voice has loads of potential, but seems flawed in execution. Maybe that’s Google’s want. Maybe they don’t want it to be more popular than they’re capable of handling. More likely they’re showing what happens when a company gets big and products must satisfy too many managers and departments.

The difference between good and great isn’t that large, but it’s enough to inhibit use. Google Voice is good, not great.

&#185 – VOIP is voice over Internet protocol. It simply means calls are originated through the Internet and enter the ‘normal’ phone network late in the game. VOIP calls are data and shouldn’t use allotted cell call minutes.

The Times Tom Friedman Draws The Wrong Conclusions

It’s a race to the bottom. There will always be someone who has less and is willing to settle.

I read Tom Friedman’s op-ed “The Do-It-Yourself Society” in Sunday’s NY Times. His observations are correct. His conclusions are not. He sees, as I do, technology increasing productivity and competition. He misses what happens to the other two people when one person does the work of three!

No one looks upon FedEx, VOIP or the Internet in general as evil. Yet to many people they are. Technology has radically reduced the worth of many human endeavors!

Before technology shrunk the world we only competed against ourselves. We only competed with people looking for the same standard of living. No more. We’re now competing against people willing to live at a much lower standard than ours… which is still higher standard than their current one!

It’s a race to the bottom. There will always be someone who has less and is willing to settle.

Today it’s the Chinese. As their standard of living goes up and individual Chinese want more they’ll be undercut by someone else.

We have become a Walmartized world. We are driven by price and not much else.

Technology and advanced industrial processes have removed much of the advantage of craftsmanship. Until recently the best good were handmade. We now mass produce well made goods.

Our cars, our cellphones, our washing machines are better than ever while cheaper than ever. Our American labor has been priced out of the equation. If it’s made here, it’s made with fewer people. If it’s labor intensive it’s made where labor is cheap and plentiful and pliant.

I could easily do my weather job on three or four or more stations in three or four or more markets! I suspect some day I will. Technology removes the barriers.

I remember sitting in front of a TV in Bangor, Maine watching Jim Kosek doing the weather. He was in State College, PA working for AccuWeather. He was much better talent than what could normally be afforded in Bangor. Few watching knew he wasn’t local.

It’s already happened in radio. There are fewer local radio shows than ever. Many stations have no local programming or no programming produced by people who work solely for that one station.

What makes this awful is our society’s long standing tradition of valuing people based on the individual work they produce. We just don’t need as many people to produce what we need. From a goods and services standpoint we’d do just fine today with a significant portion of our society sitting on their collective hands.

Unfortunately, in our society if you’re unemployed or underemployed you are deprived!

Without jobs people have no purchasing power and no benefits. They can’t be the consumers that drive demand. And yet, in many cases, their lack of a job is the fault of our technological age and not themselves!

The Luddites were weavers, put out of work by the mechanical looms of the early industrial revolution. They protested by destroying the new mechanical looms as if destroying them would make them go way.

Recently I’ve had Luddite moments. Wouldn’t it be nice if the efficiencies driving people to the curb didn’t exist? My Luddite dreams are no more practical today than they were for the Luddites.

Our society and way of life is rapidly being dismantled. We can’t stop progress. It’s bigger than we are!

What we have to do is find a way to better distribute the gains of a world where the work of individual humans is less important. I don’t know how to do that, but I think about it constantly.

Until we rearrange things individuals have no choice but to try and be that one who does the work of three. None of us has a real choice. Slow down and you’ll be trampled.

A Day Without Hot Water

Helaine woke me up around 7:15 AM, two hours after I went to sleep. It only took one look to know, this was not a pleasure trip to the bedroom.

“No hot water,” she said. “Didn’t you hear the heater cycling all night?”

Using methods similar to those Tonto deployed in “The Lone Ranger,” Helaine has hearing and (now revealed) tactile sensory powers far beyond those of mortal men. The water heater is in the basement. Our bedroom is on the second floor, but it’s above the garage which in turn is built over a concrete slab – not the basement! How did she know?

I got out of bed and walked downstairs. My expertise in this sort of thing is limited, but I understand it’s my duty (as laid out in the ketubah&#185) to make like I know what’s going on.

Our heating system is a complex ‘hydroair’ system, powered by oil. The hot water is heated by the furnace which also heats the house. It is virtually impossible to run out of hot water!

The thermometer on the side of the hot water reservoir was pinned on 90&#176 – the lowest it registers. The water was certainly cooler. The furnace was quiet.

I checked the oil tank. We had plenty.

Thirty seconds of looking and I already knew this was way beyond me. I picked up the phone to call my oil man. If you’ve read the blog for any length of time, you seen comments from Woody. He’s my friend and my oil man.

Ring, ring, nothing. I hung up and dialed again. Ring, nothing. Uh oh. Ring, ring, ring, nothing. Even during the height of the summer, I knew they’d be there early. This was a bad sign.

I opened my mail program and started to compose a note to Woody.

Hi Woody –

I’m emailing because your office phone rings once or twice and stops! We have no hot water. Help!

We have oil. The temp in the water tank is as low as it gets. I have no idea beyond that.

Can someone come and help. xxx-xxxx.


I quickly realized, Woody might not be there. He’s bought a home in Santa Fe, NM, which he visits from time-to-time. We needed hot water now… or at least soon.

The oil company office is only a few minutes from here. I had no choice but to drive over and get the process started.

I sleep in pajamas, but they’re not really traditional pajamas. They’re the 21st century equivalent of sweatpants and a t-shirt. I threw on a hat and sneakers, kept my pajamas on, and drove away.

Helaine said, “I smell a blog entry.” Really?

It was only 7:30AM, but the oil company’s office was buzzing. Winston the dog was attacking the office workers, jumping at least five feet off the floor as if he was on a trampoline. Service technicians were getting their trucks ready. Everyone there – living in homes with heated water – seemed happy.

“Your phones aren’t working,” I said as I walked in.

“We know. Was that you who tried calling?”

By the time I drove home, Woody had replied to my email… and obviously had made contact with the mother ship.

i hear you were very handsome in your jammies when i called the office a couple of minutes ago. plus i can’t imagine you getting OUT of bed at 7am.

anyhow, sorry about the phones. they’re semi-operational right now. i have our VOIP provider meeting me there first thing. there will be no bluffing –

an ass kicking is on the agenda. hope your facial problem is better.

The technician arrived a few minutes later and quickly found a clogged nozzle. He replaced it and our filter. We have hot water again.

In retrospect, I can’t believe I drove away to see people while wearing my PJs. I’m starting to get very Britneyesque! Thank heavens I don’t attract paparazzi.

&#185 – A ketubah is a Jewish prenuptial agreement or marriage contract and is an integral part of a traditional Jewish marriage. Ours (as most others) is an ornately printed certificate, mainly in Hebrew – a language neither of us reads nor understands. Over time, both of us have ‘quoted’ the ketubah to try and justify ridiculous things we’ve done or want.

Calling France – Bonjour Farrell

How much does it cost to call France? Don’t answer yet.

Stef has an assignment for a journalism course. She has to compare media in the United States with media in another country. I know two people who’ve worked in media in Singapore. I suggested she choose that. Contacts are invaluable.

My friend Farrell, who now runs a TV network in Poland, used to run stations in Singapore. Usually we talk on the computer, using IM or email. To ask some questions for Stef, I figured I’d call.

It’s not that easy.

There’s a broadcasters’ convention currently underway in Cannes, France. Farrell is there.

He gave me his phone number, tapping it out on his Blackberry via IM and I called the hotel… but instead of getting it, I got a recording telling me my call couldn’t go through and I should check with my system administrator.

That’s me! I hate when that happens.

A quick call to my VOIP phone provider, Broadvoice (where tech support answered on the FIRST RING!!!) brought an equally quick answer. Buried two menus deep on their website was a checkbox allowing international calls on my account. The box was unchecked.

When you call a hotel in France, they answer in French. I don’t know enough to ask for a room, so I panicked and blurted out my request in English. The operator totally understood.

“Merci,” I said… though probably too late for her to hear. Farrell picked up a second later.

I have to say, the quality of this call was very impressive. Because I was typing notes, I had him on the speakerphone. Helaine commented he sounded better than if he were on my cellphone.

So, how much for the call? My plan, Broadvoice’s least expensive, is $9.95 per month for unlimited calls to Connecticut. International is extra.


Each minute to France was 3&#162! That’s crazy.

I remember, in 1967, when AT&T totally overhauled its rate structure for domesticlong distance calls. Station-to-station, direct dial calls within the United States went down to 10&#162 per minute as long as the call was placed after 11:00 PM or on the weekend.

We live in amazing times for technology.

First, A Word From Your Phone Company

I have about 1,000 photos from my Maine trip, and stories to tell. I will in the next day or so.

Meanwhile, a problem was simmering at home while I was gone. Crank, hang-up, phone calls. The caller ID was no help as the display read “Unknown.”

The problem is now fixed, but not without cost – and it really riles me. Here’s what I just sent to AT&T:

This week, while I was away, my wife began receiving calls which were listed on caller ID as “Unknown Name” “Unknown Number.” The caller hung up as soon as the phone was answered. These calls were very disturbing to my wife and me.

I have just signed on for your blocking feature. However, I am incensed to be forced to pay to stop these calls. I am upset that AT&T would charge such a large amount, $60 per year, for a service which costs you next to nothing and which is needed because of a crank caller – out of our control.

If you’re looking for reasons people are jumping to VOIP or cellular, this is one. I don’t want to be nickel and dimed to death by you, especially when the VOIP provider for my second phone (Broadvoice) offers this feature for free.

Under these circumstances I will consider moving my number to my VOIP unless AT&T waives the fee for this service. I have been your customer for 22 years in Connecticut, but you are surely driving me away.

Geoff Fox

OK – maybe the threat of moving my number, though a real threat, is over-the-top. This is a service that costs them nothing… or nearly nothing. Certainly, once it’s turned on there is no additional incremental cost to AT&T.

It should be noted that since we’ve been here, we’ve had SNET, SBC and now AT&T – all supplying the same line. With each corporate restructure, Connecticut in general and my phone in particular, has become a smaller more inconsequential piece of their puzzling business.

To add insult to injury, while on the phone with an AT&T rep, she tried to “upsell” me more services. Wasn’t this an inappropriate time to try and make a sale?

More On The Future Of TV

This is the week of the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) and RTNDA (Radio, Television News Directors Association) convention in Las Vegas. Most people who do what I never get a chance to go. For a few years, I demoed weather equipment, and so I got a chance to look.

NAB/RTNDA is more a hardware than idea convention (though the people selling the hardware have ideas of how your should use their products). In fact, I was very surprised at the percentage of non-broadcasters there. Most of the attendees, or so it seemed to me, represented production companies – people who shoot video and produce programming directly for clients.

I’m not at NAB this year, but I’ve been reading a few blogs from people who are, including Scott Baker, writing for MediaBistro’s TVNewser blog.

“By this point in the night I had talked with a legion of news directors about their list of priorities. All of them said, some version of — the Internet.

Nearly all of them, when pressed, indicated a general sense of — what the heck do I do now?”

You betcha!

There’s a sense that, in the future, the classic model of a television station might not be the best way to distribute programming. Make no mistake about it – it is now, but everyone is looking toward the future.

We’re not alone. There’s AT&T vs Vonage and the other VOIP carriers, The New Haven Register classified section vs Craigslist, and any company that provides telephone support in the US vs low cost operators halfway around the world. These are all competitors that didn’t exist, or couldn’t have existed, before technology matured.

There seem to be two obvious questions. Can we make as much profit from the new technology as we did from conventional TV? Are we agile enough to compete with very low cost competitors?

If a transition from old to new business practices becomes necessary, how do we decide when to make the switch? Too soon and you’ve lost your business model. Too late and you’re way behind your competitors.

It’s all very scary.

The good news for viewers is, you’re about to be introduced to ‘slivercasting’. A perfect example is PhotoshopTV, a weekly half hour’ish show totally devoted to using Photoshop.

There’s no room for PhotoshopTV on the air, but there’s plenty of room on the web. It’s not my interest, but I assume there are analogous shows for knitting, car buffs… for any affinity group.

To advertisers, these are reasonably good deals (I don’t know how much they charge, but I’m talking in the abstract). If you sell Photoshop related products, what could be a better way to show your stuff?

A few paragraphs ago I said this is good news for viewers. It’s also bad news… or it might be. Will inexpensive, slivercast, programming drive more expensive broadcasts out of the market? It’s Gresham’s Law at the TV station&#185!

Broad versus sliver. Expensive versus low cost.

It’s not around the corner by any means, but it’s possible to see how that could be a reality if trends continue and broadcasters stick too closely to their current core. Agility will be rewarded.

There’s an expression that says, “The good old days are always in the past.” I suppose, that knowledge always leaves us fearful and pessimistic about the future. On the other hand, the future might be an incredible opportunity we just haven’t discovered yet.

That’s my hope.

&#185 – I probably have this all screwed up, but this is my 21st century interpretation of Gresham’s Law. Let me borrow from the Wikipedia:

Gresham’s law says that any circulating currency consisting of both “good” and “bad” money, where both forms are required to be accepted at equal value under legal tender law, quickly becomes dominated by the “bad” money. This is because people spending money will hand over the “bad” coins rather than the “good” ones, keeping the “good” ones for themeselves.

So, how do we get to TV? Gresham (who’s been dead over 400 years) implies that less expensive programming, with less potential downside, will dominate if the relative rewards of both are reasonably equal.

I was introduced to Gresham by Martin Wolfson, my very learned and totally screwball, history teacher at Brooklyn Tech. I’m sure he’s gone now. If he could read this, he’d be pleased I remembered Gresham and not bothered by being called screwball.

Watch The Gatekeepers

This might be a choppy entry. I’ve already tried two analogies and failed. How to explain what I want to say?

I’ve just read an article on c|net which points to an upcoming controversy. As video shifts from broadcast to on demand (and make no mistake, that change is happening) will the gatekeepers allow unfettered access if that access diminishes another part of their business?

Is that obtuse? Am I making the point?

Try this. Lets say you own a high speed Internet provider. It could be a cable company or phone company or other business. It doesn’t make much difference because they are all becoming the same business.

Your customers are looking to download video programs over the fat pipe of data you bring into their home. Do you allow them to download programming that you currently sell… or want to sell? Can your customers pull an end around on your pay-per-view offerings, for instance?

If you’re a phone company, can your Internet customers use the Internet to hatchet your POTS (plain old telephone service) package?

An item in the Sunday edition of the industry newsletter Future of, published by Broadband Reports publisher Dave Burstein, quoted SBC’s chief operating officer, Randall Stephenson, as saying, “We’re going to control the video on our network. The content guys will have to make a deal with us.”

The brief item in the newsletter implies that SBC will block all video traffic traveling over its broadband network even if it comes from the public Internet. This means that SBC would essentially block video traffic from any Web sites that distribute video, if the content provider has not struck a deal with SBC.

SBC’s PR people were quick to say it’s not so. Then, the author of the original report actually put a comment on c|net, sticking by his assertions.

SBC’s comments are disingenuous. What I reported was that consumers would not be able to “access content of their choice”, nothing about port blocking. But SBC is limiting bandwidth the user can access to less than the speed of the live video on their coming service, and probably will compromise that bandwidth with excessive QOS, etc.


When an Internet provider in North Carolina limited its customers access to the Vonage VOIP phone service (which would eat into it’s phone business), the FCC quickly stepped in.

However, we’re talking about the big boys now. There’s a lot of money and control at stake. Actually, that sentence works better as: There’s a lot of money at stake with control.

I know this is a complex issue, and I’m not sure I’ve done it justice. Even if I haven’t explained it well enough for you to get every nuance, here’s what you should take home – People are currently fighting over the future of our communications infrastructure. It will affect you at home and at work. It will affect you in the wallet.

Discovering Skype

Earlier today, I got an email from my friend Bob Wood in Austin, TX. He’s having a computer problem, as Windows XP fights with an application written in the ‘golden days’ of computing.

I picked up my cellphone and gave him a call. We ran through the typical trouble spots and found nothing.

As we went through a list of programs in msconfig, I looked at the cellphone and saw we were already 20+ minutes into the conversation. Hey – I’m not made of minutes!

I think it was then that Bob mentioned Skype. Skype is a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) service.

VOIP isn’t a new concept. In fact, we already use a VOIP service at home as an extra phone with unlimited Connecticut calling.

What makes Skype so different is its excellent integration into your PC. It took under 5 minutes to download, install and activate my Skype account. From that point forward, I was talking to Bob PC-to-PC. In that mode, Skype is free!

There are also ways to use Skype to call an old fashioned phone. That’s what my friend Peter did while traveling through France. Calls from a PC to a telephone cost a few cents a minute – even when calling from Europe.

The voice quality was excellent. There is no noticeable lag. Bob said radio stations could conceivably use Skype for remote broadcasts. I agree.

Where Bob and I disagree is his contention that Skype is a telephone killer. It’s good, but it’s not convenient. You need to be near your computer. It’s not portable.

It’s an adjunct, not a replacement. However, it’s a pretty darn good adjunct.

A Quick Glance At The Future

I went out to dinner last night with Noah Finz. He’s our sports director at the station, a very nice and smart guy, but a technophobe.

We got to talking about where technology is going, especially as it concerns communications. I was surprised at how interested he was… or how well he feigned interest.

With that in mind, I thought I’d write a little about where I see things going. Please remember, the past has taught us it’s really tough to accurately predict the future. This is even tougher than weather prediction because this part of the future will not replicate past events. And, remember these predictions are coming from someone who loves technology. I’m trying to hold back my bias.

To me, the key to the future is not in speedier processors nor more memory and storage, though certainly those things will enter the picture. The big deal is bandwidth. It is the 500 pound gorilla in the room.

Bandwidth limitations is why you ‘only’ receive 150 TV channels. Bandwidth bottlenecks are why your computer often waits while it is plucking data off websites or the Real player takes so much time caching those first few seconds of video before it starts to play.

With enough bandwidth, television can become a one to one medium – unlimited video on demand. Any show or any video source can be run when you want it. Desperate Housewives Tuesday at 8:41 AM. Why Not?

Already, even if you’re not in their home market, you can still watch your favorite baseball team play, because nearly all the games are available over the Internet. CPTV, here in Connecticut, sells a package of UCONN women’s basketball games for out-of-towners with high speed Internet access.

The radically changes the paradigm of commercial television. Without a mass audience watching the same commercial at the same time, television begins to lose its unique sales appeal. There will have to be another way to pay for this.

It could be commercials, maybe a subscription, or maybe both. We’re not limited by what we’ve seen in the past. Sending video as a digital stream rather than analog allows for the integration of other info.

This ability to receive the programming you want, when you want it, will turn television into a narrowcast medium rather than its current broadcast model. There is a demand for shows on knitting or cars or computers or… well you get the idea. Those sharply targeted programs&#185 will steal audience from today’s broadcasts.

In the pre-cable days there were a lot of shows that, today, look like they were ‘going through the motions’ to fill the time. I’m afraid we’ll look back at what’s on TV now in the same way, as soon as the floodgates open in this new communications world.

The days of high production cost TV production are limited. Gresham’s economic laws will be seen affecting TV. We’re already seeing some of that as networks run more ‘cheaper to produce’ reality shows and re-run more of primetime TV.

Is there a long term viable business model for shot-on-film hour long dramas? I’m not sure.

Today, local television stations serve two general purposes. They produce and distribute local programming, like news, and they act as a distribution channel for nationally networked and syndicated shows. With video on demand, I can’t see why these program producers will need local stations.

Local stations will be forced to be local stations. Those who don’t will be marginalized out of profitability. This has happened in radio over the last 40 years.

That doesn’t mean the economic model of local TV is gone. It just means stations will have to better understand how to produce more content for local consumption. I also think they’ll have to shift their focus from producing programming to fill their air time to being producers of programming for anyone who will distribute it.

Today’s TV stations will have to turn out video streams the way Chinese companies, like Twinhead, turn out laptops. The majority of Twinhead’s products are produced for others with other people’s brands on them. You might be using one now, with no way to tell. Twinhead’s expertise is production… as is today’s TV stations.

A newspaper in Wilmington, DE is already producing video webcasts of local news. The New York Times is expanding their multimedia content online. I think, in the mature model, newspapers will provide the news and a company with video production expertise will package it for them.

All this is happening and we haven’t even hit our stride as far as bandwidth is concerned. My cable modem at home now brings in data nearly three times as fast as it did a year or two ago. It’s getting to the point where it will soon become faster than my home network can handle!

The price of this bandwidth will do nothing but fall for the foreseeable future. There are many factors at work here.

First, there is the onrush of technology which promises to deliver bandwidth wirelessly. That should add another level of competition for the cable and legacy phone companies.

Next, there is a vast network of ‘dark’ fiber – glass lines that have loads of capacity but have never been used. My guess is, the intercity capacity of unlit fiber is a multiple of what’s currently in use.

The people who really need to be worried are the incumbent wireline phone companies. More bandwidth is their enemy. Already they are facing competition from broadband VOIP companies like Vonage, with cable companies jumping in.

When there are wireless access ‘clouds’ of connectivity over most areas, portable VOIP phones will trump cellular and wired phone networks with cheap and probably unmetered, flat rate, phone service.

It is a very exciting, very different world of telecommunications that’s right around the corner.

&#185 – I am having trouble using the word program here because it describes something that might not be. When content becomes very narrow and the viewer becomes very focused on its content, the formality of a ‘program’ may vanish altogether.

Enya’s Back

A few days ago, Helaine went to make a long distance call only to get a recording saying ‘nope.’ Not this again!

I just don’t know what to do, but I will give my long distance provider one more try. I’m not sure why.

Though I’d like to go with VOIP service, I have resisted because 911 service is still somewhat fluky.

In the meantime I’m back on hold to India. Enya’s CD is playing in a continuous loop. It is torturous to listen to.

Who will answer the phone? Will it be Keith? Maybe Andrea again? Whomever it is, can they fix my service? And, if they do, for how long this time.

Long Distance Service Returns

As of late this morning, we still didn’t have long distance service. Because of the nature of the telephone business there were two possible points of failure – but I knew it was my local company.

I dialed 811 and then, with insight gained from a technician I spoke to yesterday, just kept pressing “0” at every prompt until a human answered.

It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t difficult. It was time consuming. I was called back a few times as technicians used my ‘dial tone’ to make sure their reprogramming had stuck.

My phone now works the way a phone should, but it is becoming increasingly difficult not to seriously consider cutting my bill in half and switching to a VOIP provider.

Plenty of Time to Write This

A few days ago I wrote about a problem with my long distance service. I had been cut off from making calls to the rest of Connecticut. So I called my local telco, told them the problem, and they proceeded to make my intrastate and interstate service work equally well.

Yes – they left intrastate broken and cut me off from interstate long distance too!

I’m sure at some point in the not too distant future this will be worked in. In the meantime there’s something I’ve learned. Though the long distance provider gave me a code that defines my long distance path as 4 digits – 0333 – the local company wanted something that was three letters – UTC, for instance.

I am now on my fourth call to the long distance company – on hold each time. The first time I only waited 11 minutes before hanging up. The next time it was 29 minutes. I am now on hold for 33 minutes and I know one thing for sure… I hate their music on hold!

Actually, in between there were a few times where I called and got a busy signal and other times where I’d get an announcement telling me to hold and then get cut off!

VOIP is looking more and more like a better deal. We’ll get one bill for long distance and local, get all the features and cut our bill in half! I just have to figure out how to get it into our standard wiring.

The next available agent will be with you momentarily. Please remain on the line. I’ve been hearing that for 38 minutes now!

Long Distance – My Short Story

Helaine went to place a call to Hartford a few minutes ago. Instead of connecting, she heard a message saying our number had been disconnected. You read right – not the number we were calling – our number had been disconnected!

I tried by placing a call to my cell phone. No problem. Then I called my folks in Florida. Again, without problem. So I called the area code 860 number Helaine had tried and sure enough, there was the announcement.

It didn’t take me long to realize intrastate and interstate long distance are treated differently and maybe there was a screw up with ours. Between cell phones and Steffie’s VOIP&#185 service, and our really large local calling area, we hardly ever call long distance in the state.

Our long distance service has been handled for years by GTC Telecommunications. Who knows who they are? I had never heard of them. But for years we had been getting our long distance for 4.9&#162, painlessly.

Then, one day while looking at their website I noticed they were advertising long distance for 2.9&#162 per minute. I called, asked to be switched, and I assume the problem started then.

After waiting on hold for about 5-10 minutes Keith answered. I asked at the end of the call, but guessed from his first words, that Keith was in India. Though he was able to take care of the problem, and he did speak English perfectly, there were communications problems because he doesn’t speak American English.

There are phrases and ironic statements that we all use all the time which were… well, they were foreign to Keith.

At the end of the conversation he told me I’d have to call my local phone company and tell them I needed my intrastate carrier changed to ‘pic code 0333.’

No sweat.

I picked up the phone and called SBC, my ‘local’ phone company. I have accented ‘local’ because, until recently, we had our own lovely, local, responsive phone company – SNET.

SNET was the classic non-Bell local phone company, covering the vast majority of Connecticut. A few years ago, in a deal that richly rewarded their top management, SNET was sold to SBC. My phone still works, but now I’m a little jerkwater customer far away from SBC’s Texas home office. Before Connecticut was SNET’s only business.

SNET was sold, we were told, because they couldn’t compete in this increasingly complex world of telecommunications. Now, if business is bad somewhere else in SBC’s system, our bill goes up here.

After working through the voice mail tree (some options have recently changed – right) a pleasant woman with a Texas accent picked up the phone. I assume that used to be a Connecticut job. I explained my problem and read her the pic code – 0333.

“We use codes with letters” she responded.

Luckily, the carrier for my intrastate service was the same as the working carrier for my interstate service. She says it will be fixed before the close of business today. There was a $2.60 charge for switching, but considering someone dropped the ball in this mess, she waived the fee.

She couldn’t have been nicer… even though she tried to upsell me some services before I could hang up.

The sad part is, years ago this was a big deal. Long distance was a much larger line item. Now, with cell phones and Steffie’s VOIP service, we make many fewer long distance calls with our wired phones. Most months we’re under $20 – closer to $10, for long distance.

There are people at work who don’t have wired phones at all. Maybe someday soon, we’ll join them.

&#185 – VOIP is Voice Over Internet Protocol. Instead of having a real connection between two phones having a conversation, the phone call is digitized and sent as packets through the Internet or other data network. It is much cheaper to provide that standard phone circuits (called POTS for Plain Old Telephone Service). Steffie’s phone has unlimited calling in Connecticut for $10 a month – with voice mail, caller ID and anything else you could imagine in a phone. It is why GTC can afford to route customer service calls to India and what SBC’s executives have nightmares about every night.

Broadband – How Broad?

I read an article on c/net earlier today. It’s about broband ISP’s, like Comcast which I use, limiting bandwidth.

The article was interesting in that some customers had been kicked off line, unsubscribed to the service, for violating an unpublished limit which Comcast will not divulge. Just don’t go over it!

What seems to be missing from this article, and what worries me about broadband, is the people selling the service are selling it at their own peril.

Comcast and other cable companies make good money on pay-per-view and premium services. But, with a good broadband connection, there’s a case to be made for getting your premium entertainment directly off the net and eliiminating the middleman (Comcast). Comcast’s profit on PPV and premium channels comes from being the gatekeeper. If they’re bypassed, that’s gone.

A perfect example already exists in sports. Both MLB and the NFL sell Internet packages. Those packages compete with other premium channels available on some cable systems. Comcast gets nothing extra for providing the pipe that brings basbeball to my house. And, I don’t buy games on PPV.

Are the cable companies and/or phone companies the right companies to be our broadband gatekeeprs (After all, even phone companies are now seeing competition from VOIP carriers like Vonage)? Certainly, they have an advantage with much of the infrastructure already in place because of ther more mature businesses.

It’s going to be interesting to see this play out over time. At this point the FCC is not exactly pro-consumer, so I don’t expect outside pressure, yet.

(As part of my retirement portfolio, I own a little Comcast stock)