For the Connected Missionary

Missionary Geek

This is a guest post written by Shane Rice. Shane is a missionary serving in Peru as a church planter. Shane is the one who introduced me to the whole concept of hardware Voice Over IP (VoIP) systems. Previous to learning about services like Vonage I was only familiar with software options which were really not that practical for receiving phone calls.

I recently became frustrated with my current VoIP provider and started shopping. As it turned out my frustration was because of a hardware failure not related to the provider in any way, but it ultimately resulted in their loss of a customer.

What is VoIP? Let me explain this as simply as I can. Do you live in a foreign country? Do you have Broadband Internet (DSL, Cable)? Do you want to pick up a telephone a dial your friends, family or churches in the USA, or vice versa? Then you are interested in VoIP telephony. I didn’t learn about VoIP until after I got to the mission field. The hardware is a small box that connects to your router and to a telephone which allows you to call the USA directly over the Internet with a regular house phone.

British Phone BoothMy recent shopping for a new VoIP provider resulted in a lot of notes that I hope you can benefit from with this buyer’s guide.

I looked into these major providers in random order: Vonage, Voice Pulse, Skype, ViaTalk and Ooma.  Be sure to do your own homework and choose the right service for your needs. These notes are meant to be a rough guide to help get you started in what to look for. This is not meant to be comprehensive. This information is also meant for ‘family’ usage, or missionary usage for calling the USA before coming home on furlough to set up meetings. It is not for business calling needs—though it may be suited for a small business.

Vonage

I had been a Vonage customer for years, until that odd day I had a problem which was no fault of theirs. I signed up for the least expensive plan they had at that time. This was the $15 plan that gave me 500 minutes of calling in the USA with unlimited incoming calls. The first bill was about $18 after taxes and misc charges. Through the years, I was forced to a higher plan and my bill is now up to $24. Currently they have a new plan for a featured price of $12 a month for 300 minutes. I asked and they said the bill would arrive at about $15 when all the taxes are applied. You can also choose their unlimited US and Canada calling plan for $25 a month, or 750 minutes a month for $20. These prices are all before taxes and misc fees that will be applied to your account adding roughly a $5+ charge on top.

The support through Vonage has been decent; though I didn’t use it much. I was able to troubleshoot and set up the hardware on my own. I don’t much care about features, however they have voice mail and caller ID that is included in their plans. They also have call forwarding that I used while in the USA to have calls forwarded to my cell phone while traveling. This may have been an additional expense, though minor.

Voice Pulse

Voice Pulse comes with a high recommendation from David, a knowledgeable technology friend and admin of this web site. Voice Pulse has a competitive web page that compares their prices and plans with Vonage—probably the most well-known VoIP provider today.

I was impressed with their plans as the price of the plan is basically what you will see on the bill! They offer a basic $15 plan with the standard unlimited incoming calls and 200 long distance calling minutes. Voice Pulse has a very large ‘local’ calling area. They also offer a $20 plan that gives you unlimited calling in the USA. You have to pay $30 up front for the hardware on the basic plan; however they were able to transfer my existing Vonage phone number.

Voice Pulse seems as though they would be probably the best choice; although, Vonage is certainly maintaining the competitive edge by offering the 300 minutes at a $15 monthly rate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Voice Pulse offers another plan in the near future or lowers their prices based on the recent Vonage plan addition. These two seem to be the major VoIP contenders.

Skype

Skype, to say the very least, is complex. It is not as user friendly to start off as the other solutions, however I would consider Skype to be the swiss knife of the VoIP industry. Skype has been around and is well known for their ‘soft phone,’ or calling through a computer. They are probably one of the most well-known services for this and I love that there is no contract. They have a pay-as-you-go service that has worked great as a ‘fall back’ phone when I’m traveling in the USA or abroad. Because it is software there is no need to buy equipment (unless you don’t have a microphone for your computer). Headsets are relatively cheap if you need a mic and they give you much better sound quality.

Pay as you go with Skype by putting a minimal $10 credit on your account. You will pay about $0.02 per minute to call a US phone number. You can also add a phone number to your account for $6 a month which makes it possible for people in the USA to call you. This price is if you purchase a 3 month subscription. The cost is $5 a month when signing up and paying for a year. [Editor’s note: You won’t find this information on the Skype website. For whatever reason, you either have to call Skype, ask a question in their support forum or actually purchase the number to find out the specific pricing information for a Skype number.]

You can add a subscription to your account for about $1 a month which gets you 60 minutes of calling in the USA; $2 for 120 minutes; $5 for 400 minutes. Those are also for a 3 month minimum; signing up for a year offers even lower prices.

Their FreeTalk hardware puts them up to the plate with the current VoIP providers. It is a box much like Vonage and Voice Pulse that connects your router to a telephone. You don’t have to be dependent on a computer to make phone calls. The cost of the box is $40. Besides the FreeTalk device, there are other ‘phone’ type options. They have WiFi and USB phones which are a little more computer dependent.

The great advantage I see with Skype, is the ‘softphone’ ability to travel with your phone and make and receive calls anywhere you have Internet access. They have become popular on smartphones as well. This makes them even more versatile if you were to use their service. As I stated up front they are a complex outfit, but it is because of that, they offer the MOST versatility. Skype, as far as I can tell, is the only one that will work on a 3g wireless connection as well. If versatility is what you want, Skype is your answer.

ViaTalk

If you are an international missionary, stay away from ViaTalk. They were very clear to me up front they DO NOT SUPPORT INTERNATIONAL CUSTOMERS. Ok, that being said, let’s see what they offer.

Their service may work outside of the USA but you are 100% on your own. They offer no tech support, or help of any kind for people outside the USA. They have a very nice and friendly online chat that pops up when you visit their web page. They always notice my IP is outside of the USA and state clearly up front that they don’t offer support for me. However they are always helpful and answer my questions.

ViaTalk offers an $11 monthly plan that gives you 2000 domestic minutes. The bill after taxes is around $15 a month. They seem to offer the most minutes for your money and offer the standard features of voicemail, caller ID, call waiting, two lines, as well as all incoming calls for free. They offer an unlimited calling plan in the USA and Canada for about $17 a month. It probably comes with an additional $5 on the bill for taxes and other charges.

I won’t expound much on them. If you are interested check out their web page. Only use them if you plan on staying in the USA and not taking the box overseas. They seem to offer a decent amount of minutes for the money. You don’t have to pay for the equipment, however you do have to pay the shipping which amounts to roughly $12. I believe if you cancel your service you will either have to buy the equipment or ship it back to them.

Ooma

Ooma is intriguing and risky at the same time. I’m not going into a lot of detail but include them as an introduction to them. They have a high upfront price of $250 startup fee—the price of the hardware. Once it is sent to you, you can have a FREE phone. You do get basic features of basic caller ID, call waiting, voice mail and free calling in the USA. Even though the service is free you get a monthly bill of about $3.50 because they are required to collect a tax on the monthly phone service.

You can get more advanced features for a monthly fee of $10; bumping you up to about $14 a month with the taxes. That coupled with the startup fee, you had better stay with them for a few years before you can actually get ‘ahead’ of the other companies. Even with just the basic features, $250 divided by 12 months of service comes out to $20 a month. After 2 years you are down to $10 a month. You can continue with the math if you like, but you get the picture. If you want any of those extra features, then you are going to have to stick with them for quite some time, or make a lot of phone calls to make up for the difference.

VOIP Provider Minutes Est. Bill Startup Cost
Vonage1 300 $15 $0
Voice Pulse 200 $15 $30
ViaTalk2 2000 $15 $12
Skype3 400 $10 $40
Ooma4 Unlimited $13.50 $250
Vonage1 Unlimited $25 $0
Voice Pulse Unlimited $21 $29
ViaTalk2 Unlimited $22 $12
Skype3 Unlimited $12 $40

1 – Appears they are waving the $80 startup cost
2 – No support outside of the USA.
3 – Based on 1 Year, startup cost assuming you want to talk on a telephone without computer.
4 – Basically the same features as others, though this could be lowered to $3.50 a month, with most basic features.

About the author

Shane Rice is a church-planting missionary serving in Italy after working in Peru for 11 years. God has blessed Shane and his wife with 6 children. Besides being a missionary, Shane shares a love for technology and is always looking for ways to make ministry more streamlined by using tech tools.

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