Thursday, September 20, 2007

PhoneGnome Cheap and Free Calling

Free Calls

If you are familiar with Skype, then you understand PhoneGnome free calling. Skype says: "It’s free to download and free to call other people on Skype." In this case, "free" means you don't pay Skype, or anybody else, to make calls. It's the same concept with PhoneGnome. It's free to call other people on PhoneGnome, as in, you don't pay. This is in contrast to Vonage "free" calls, mobile phone "free long distance", and so on, which one pays for every month on their phone bill.

The difference with PhoneGnome is that everything is done with real phone numbers. To call someone on Skype free, we call their Skype "handle" (or nickname). With many other VoIP services, we dial a special number to place a free VoIP call. With PhoneGnome, we call the person by dialing their real phone number and the call is automatically free if that person is a PhoneGnome user (whether that person has the "PhoneGnome box" hardware or not).

There are some special codes and ways to dial "handles" and nicknames that apply when we are using PhoneGnome to call people on some other systems, or to place a call to a SIP address, but this is only needed because of the situation of that other person and the VoIP or IM system they are on, not because of PhoneGnome. In other words, in cases where the other system does not give users real phone numbers, we may have to use a handle or special "**" dialcode prefix or similar, but that isn't PhoneGnome's fault -in fact, PhoneGnome is one of the few VoIP services that provides any means to call such services free.

Paid Calls

That covers free calls - we dial the person's regular phone number, and if they are on PhoneGnome too, the call is free. What if they are not on PhoneGnome? Here is the way it works.

  • Always Local: The call is 911, a local call, a 1-800 number etc. - it goes out via the locally attached landline

  • Domestic Long Distance or International: If we activated a VoIP calling plan through our My PhoneGnome setup, the call is placed using the VoIP service. If not, the call is simply placed as usual, via the locally attached phone line.

Remember, this "calling plan" issue only applies if the call cannot be sent free. PhoneGnome always first checks to see if a number is a free call (applies to international calls too), in which case any optional calling plan is irrelevant.

Let's pause and take a look at a few scenarios or applications for the PhoneGnome box, given the above:

  1. I just want to make free calls to PhoneGnome buddies (imagine Skype without SkypeOut).

  2. I'm more interested in saving money on calls to non-PhoneGnome members.

For Scenario #1 I don't need any plan for non-PhoneGnome numbers. I can get Skype-like free calling to my buddies that I get to join PhoneGnome by simply dialing their phone number on my regular phone, the same way I called them before PhoneGnome. The rest of my calls happen the same way as before, whether local, 911 or whatever. There are no monthly or other fees. My friends and I call each other free, without turning on our computers or picking up a separate VoIP phone - without even dialing in any new way. I do the same things I did before with my phone, but now my calls to those that are on PhoneGnome too are automatically free (they don't need to buy the PhoneGnome box to register their number with PhoneGnome - it's free).

For Scenario #2 I want to select a calling plan that matches my requirements. Specifically, with VoIP plans, one is generally balancing price vs. quality and reliability. When looking at price, you need to consider where you call most, or perhaps more importantly, where you're spending the most money. Different VoIP providers and plans tend to always have some good prices to certain places and some not so good prices to other places. There really is no plan with the best prices across the board.

The most convenient option here is to select one of the PhoneGnome plans. To maximize the savings, one should also eliminate or reduce the long distance plan on their standard phone line. There are long-distance services that have no fixed monthly fee. Often you have to opt for on-line or paperless billing. It's worth it, since with PhoneGnome and a VoIP calling plan, you won't be sending calls to your Verizon (or AT&T or whatever) phone line anymore, it makes no sense to pay a monthly fee for a long distance plan on that line. Some people drop all long-distance plans (in which case long-distance calls cannot be made using that line). I don't recommend this. I suggest getting one of the no monthly fee plans instead, so you at least have the option to make a call in a pinch using the landline, if you had to. It doesn't cost any more to do so if you get a service with no fixed monthly fee. Given how cheap VoIP services are, the amount you save by eliminating a fixed fee on your landline alone might cover the costs for all your calls made using a PhoneGnome VoIP service.

The "default" PhoneGnome option is a service called "voovox" which is a per minute service (like SkypeOut). In general, the rates are reasonable and the service works fine. You can see your voovox balance right on your My PhoneGnome site and you can top up right from the My PhoneGnome site (which takes you to the PhoneGnome shopping cart). This is by far the easiest option for cheap calls with PhoneGnome, without complexity. You simply buy credit and PhoneGnome automatically completes the setup for you. It's a great way to test the VoIP waters too, because you can buy $10 worth of credit and try it out without a contract or long-term commitment.

If you make a lot of calls, PhoneGnome also offers a couple of flat rate "unlimited calling" plans. They offer a $14.95/mo plan for unlimited calls to US/Canada and a "Platinum" plan for $21.95/mo that includes calls to Europe, parts of Asia, and common international countries. They also have a plan called "Reach Beyond" that works like MyFavs, except it works for numbers outside the US too - about 15-20 countries, (typically landlines-only outside the US/Canada).

A unique feature of PhoneGnome is that you can select a different plan for your International calls versus your Domestic (long-distance) calls. For example, you could use your landline service for Domestic calls (maybe you like the bundle you already have) and voovox just for international calls.

Hacking PhoneGnome

A very unusual thing about PhoneGnome is that they let us use third-party VoIP services almost as easily as the PhoneGnome plans. Once such a service is configured, it works just like the PhoneGnome plans. You just dial, and calls are sent using the service automatically. This is still geek territory in terms of setup though. Selecting and activating a PhoneGnome plan like voovox above is essentially automated, where all the dark secrets go on in the background, behind the scenes. Not so, if you want to setup a third-party provider. You have to be comfortable with SIP usernames, proxy hostnames, and so on. If you have configured a SIP softphone, it's roughly the same thing (although somewhat fewer settings to figure out).

Here's how to get to the option for using a third-party provider:

Features / Low Cost Internet Calling / Edit / [Add Internet Calling Service] / Manual SIP Settings

PhoneGnome provides a site where users can share their experience with third-party providers. There is a link to this on the Manual SIP Settings page where you can see if other PhoneGnome users have anything to say about the service you want to try. People have used the following services with PhoneGnome: Junction Networks, voipcheap, SIP Discount, VOIPBuster,, Gizmo Project, wengo, VOIPdiscount,,, Inphonex,, FonoSIP, Terracall, VoicePulse,, and others, which speaks to the flexibility and compatibility of the PhoneGnome system. Clearly, some services work better than others. You can view the reviews (site here) but you need to be logged in to your My PhoneGnome account to provide feedback about a service.

The other thing to keep in mind, if you want to take the third-party VoIP provider route, is that PhoneGnome doesn't provide support for these DIY services (only for the ones they provide). Their site says:

Note: The capability to select a SIP ITSP service is provided as a convenience to our customers. Your use of this capability is at your discretion. You assume all risk associated with doing so. These services are offered by third-parties and may be subject to terms of use and/or privacy policies of such third parties. Please contact the appropriate third party for further information regarding such terms.



Even More Hacking

If you are the ultimate VoIP enthusiast, boy does PhoneGnome have something for you. They call it "Overrides" and it is a way to direct numbers for a given location (country, city, area code etc.) to an alternative VoIP provider/plan. It's beyond what I'm going to get into here. You can read about it on their blog: Fine-grained Internet Calling Feature

I'll conclude with this from the "Overrides" page:

In general, it's not a good idea to start experimenting with more obscure features like overrides until you are comfortable with the standard ITSP settings (without overrides). Overrides are only useful when you have MORE THAN ONE ITSP provider configured AND you want to direct only certain calls to an ALTERNATE ITSP. The main ITSP settings page defines the main ITSP(s) to be used for all long-distance (national toll) calls and/or international calls. That's all most of us ever need for setting up low-cost Internet calls. Calls are automatically directed to our selected log-distance or international provider. You only need overrides if you want to send CERTAIN international calls to a DIFFERENT provider.

Personally, I'll take that as sound advice and stick with the convenience and simplicity of the basic voovox service (essentially PhoneGnome's version of SkypeOut).


Mark said...

Nice post. I have several friends and family using PhoneGnome and it lets us call one another for free. No purchase is needed, however they do sell a box that can simplify the calls even more. If you want to buy the box, there is a special going on right now for a limited time you can get the box plus 12 months of their power suite product (we can talk about its advantages later if you want) for the low price of $79.99 and that can be found at the URL and this offer will give you a savings of $44.99 if you decide to buy it. You get an e-mail also once once you register for the free account, so follow any instructions in that mail that it asks you to do.

simplecall said...

I live in CANADA but most of my relatives lives in other countries so i wanted to know how to make cheap international calls from CANADA to reduce my call rates.

simplecall said...

I live in CANADA but most of my relatives lives in other countries so i wanted to know how to make cheap international calls from CANADA to reduce my call rates.