Don't Call Us, We'll Call You. Really.

To say that telephones are the bane of my existence would be putting too fine a point on the subject. It would be fair to say, however, that I avoid using the phone when I am not at work. I find that most calls are telemarketers, often either trying to sell me on something I’d already told them I didn’t want, or trying to sell me something I’d never buy in the first place. In the U.S., we were able to eliminate most calls using the Do Not Call system, which recently came to a renewal point, but the phone system became noticeably quieter after its initial creation. Canada isn’t there yet, and we’re not waiting.

But how do you take control of your telephone communication?  Of all of the utilities I use, it is the one I feel provides the least value for the expense.  Simultaneously, it is the most intrusive.  Not a good mixture.  It’s not as simple as just canceling your phone: what about 911 emergencies, what about family and friends who want to communicate?

After significant research, we decided to come up with a hybrid approach.  The only constant was that our local Bell Canada telephone service had to go.  The portfolio of replacement technology will meet our (perhaps less than common) needs while giving us some control over our communication.

Skype Gets You Coming and Going

The first piece that came into play was long distance.  Since most of our friends and family are outside of Canada, we decided to test out Skype.  At first we were a bit leery of voice over ip (VOIP).  It can mean you are tethered to a computer, and are always reliant on an Internet connection.  The quality can be poor.  On the other hand, Skype has a number of very nice features.  One is the SkypeIn function, which enables you to have a real phone number that people can dial.  We licensed a U.S. phone number to enable our U.S. based families to contact us with a domestic number – and charges!  It comes with voice mail, so we don’t always need to be online.  Other international callers can use the Skype software to connect directly to us over the Internet.  I don’t like asking others to get on the VOIP bandwagon, but we found that it was more common amongst our foreign friends than we expected.

Going the Distance

The next piece was our long distance calling.  Skype works well for outward bound calls, so that was two birds with one stone.  When we need to speak to someone in Canada (or the US), we just call on Skype.  The downside was the computer connection.  It’s not as convenient as having a real handset.  Fortunately, that’s not a problem.  There are numerous Skype-enabled telephones.  Most still rely on being connected to the computer.  Ours is a VTech Skype phone, which connects its base to the computer via USB and is controlled by a software application on the computer.  The handset is like any other cordless phone, though, and the call quality is very good.  It has an additional feature, which is that you can use it on your landline, if you have one.  The VTech USB7100 can access your Skype phone directory too, so you can really forget about the computer when you’re making calls.

A Cell Phone to Call My Own (True Love)

There were only two other bases we wanted to cover while making this change.  The first was to ensure we could make and receive local phone calls, primarily to enable local friends, schools, doctors, etc., to contact us.  And we wanted to have a way to talk long distance over wireless, since neither of us had cell phones but it was becoming more obvious that they’d be beneficial.  I commute outside my local city, so when I’m on the train or, more importantly, if I’m NOT on my train, it’s helpful to have a wireless phone to be able to call home.

We looked at all the wireless plans, most of which offer a vast array of things we’d never use or need.  The biggest trick was that most of the Canadian carriers – Bell, Rogers, Fido, and Yak – are focused on local calling, probably due to people working near home and teenagers.  We ended up selecting Telus because we can have free unlimited long distance calling between plan members, while still having some local calling options.  We subscribed to the most anemic plans, but already we haven’t used our 100 minutes of local calling a month (that’s just my wife’s phone; mine has no free local minutes, beyond weekends and evenings), because our use is almost entirely long distance: home to work or the other way around.

VOIP and 911

Another benefit of the wireless phone is to eliminate the “fear factor” of the land line companies regarding 911.  News stories about Skype and VOIP will often focus on the inability to pinpoint your location for emergency purposes or, worse, being unable to make a 911 call.  By getting an inexpensive wireless plan, we eliminated that issue while getting several benefits.

I’ll Drink When I’m Dry!

The last stage was to make sure our Internet connection was maintained, since we were dumping the local phone company.  We soon learned about the term “dry DSL” which enables our DSL company to continue to connect to our house even though we no longer have a phone line.  It’s a slightly higher cost but minor compared to what we’d pay to have the least expensive local-only service.

At the end of the day, we’re paying about $15 more per month than we were paying before, which represents the addition of the wireless package.  We had a one-time cost for the Skype phone, but the pay as you go calls and the nominal cost for a phone number were minor compared to the cost of local Bell Canada phone service.

Bell Canada and the Upsell

They were the saddest part of this whole journey.  When I called up last week to cancel, they immediately went through a long set of alternatives

“What’s wrong with your current local + long distance?”

“How about just a local service ($26 a month!)?”  (Yes, I know if you look at their Web site, Bell offers a phone line only, for $19.95 – but that’s not what they countered with; but it is what I was basing our initial price comparisons against.)

“What about $5 off the first three months?”

“Well, if annoying calls are the problem, why don’t you add on a call control feature (+$5 per month)?”

“No, that wouldn’t block all the calls, but we’ll be rolling out a plan in the next 2 years to do some of that.”

Any way, you get the picture.  At the very end, they suggested we bundle our phone service with our high speed Internet.  But that both missed the point (we were unhappy with the service, at any price) as well as got the facts wrong (we don’t have Bell Canada high speed Internet).

Starting next week, if you’ve got my number, don’t bother to call it.  We don’t want the insurance package you’re selling, we’re not going to join your travel club, our roof / windows / doors / flooring / fence / grass / pest control  / heating / plumbing / cooling is just fine, thank you very much.

The nice thing is that people who need to know can – either by hearing from us, or by finding us on Skype or some other way, just as they would have looked in a phone book or online directory in the past.  It’s nice to be in control of our telephones once again, and unplugging from the corporate telecom grid.

Update 7/31/2008

The National Post reports that Bell Canada will roll out a do not call service in the next few months.  As the Genie notes in Aladdin, your options are limited by some “provisos, a few quid pro quos, “.  Here is more on the Unsolicited Telecommunications Rules, although the rules don’t apply to registered charities, political parties, nomination contestants, leadership contestants or candidates of a political party,opinion polling firms or market research firms conducting surveys when the call does not involve the sale of a product or service, general circulation newspapers calling for the purpose of selling a subscription, to consumer who has an existing business relationship with the organization, and to business consumers.  The eminent Michael Geist has spearheaded iOptOut which may help you to eliminate callers from this latter group, by proactively e-mailing them “do not call” requests.

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