Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2020/ Cheap Phone

Cheap Phone Service

At the Cult we offer free community voicemail. This consists of an ancient (1998) Norstar NAM voicemail system. People can leave each other messages and retrieve them by calling in.

An easy change is to swap out this ancient (but reliable!) phone system for something running Asterisk or FreeSWITCH. This has the advantage that people can get their voicemail messages emailed to them. (Full disclosure: this system exists, but we do not yet use it for community voicemail.)

Because of this lockdown, I secretly hooked up a phone extension to this system, and routed it over a VPN to my computer. Now I have an office extension. It occurs to me that this might be a neat way to offer extremely low-cost phone service to people. I do not think this would be free (because minutes cost money) but it could be cheap. Here is one possible infrastructure:

The cost to the organization would be in operating and running the Asterisk server, the cost of a phone number (DID), and I guess the cost of VoIP minutes or collecting funds from phone users to cover those costs. For a non-profit, we could probably cover these costs with $5 per month, especially if we used flat-rate POTS lines instead of doing everything via VoIP. Maybe the difficult part would be in supporting the userbase. That could get very expensive very quickly, because (unlike community voice mail) we do not control all the equipment in question.

Maybe this is no longer relevant in the days of Zoom. Maybe it is stupid because you could do a similar thing (offering extensions for a fixed phone number) directly on . That might be the way to go.

If existing softphone/VPN software already exists for iOS and Android, then maybe configuring bundles that people could easily put on their phones would be doable. But the more I think about the problem the more I think this solution is stupid. Our median user is not very technical. A significant number of our users have smartphones, but they are sometimes older hand-me-downs, which will cause software versioning issues. Also even $5/month will be tough for some people. My understanding is that you can get reasonable (not great) plans for $15/month. At the other extreme are Fongo and TextNow, which are no-cost ad-supported platforms supporting phone and text. Maybe the real solution is to get people familiar with one of those alternatives rather than trying to roll our own solution.