If you frequently use a mobile phone for business calls and text messages, you know that the fees from your carrier can add up quickly. But with suitable apps and programs, you can add an office line that lets you use Wi-Fi to make voice calls and send texts from your mobile device or desktop at no extra charge, using the Internet service you already pay for. Having a second phone line for business also can help you separate your work from your personal life.
A VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) line can be an inexpensive way to add a second phone line for business use. VoIP enables you to make voice calls over an Internet connection. Using VoIP, you can even transform a Wi-Fi-only device such as an iPod Touch into a phone, make cheap or free phone calls from your computer, or conserve your mobile minutes by making calls over the 3G or 4G data network or Wi-Fi connection.
The technology has improved in recent years from the early days of poor quality and annoying latency--the delay between when the other person speaks and when you hear them--to an experience comparable to a regular phone call.
Dozens of VoIP apps are available in various mobile app marketplaces, but this article focuses on the most widely used ones. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see a comparison chart of their features.
(Note that none of these apps allow 911 emergency calling. As a result, they are suitable only as secondary lines. You should still have access to a phone line for emergency calls.)
Toktumi's Line2 is a mobile app for Android and iOS devices that provides you a phone number and allows you to make and receive voice calls and text messages over a Wi-Fi or cellular data connection. Last Thursday, Toktumi released a version of Line2 for iPad, so now you can turn your iPad into an oversize phone, too. Though the app is easy to set up and use, it does require you to enter a forwarding phone number that will ring in case the app is offline. I had no trouble calling out, but I ran into some problems trying to get incoming calls to ring on my Wi-Fi-only devices. In those cases, the calls went straight to the forwarding number.
In my testing, call quality on a Line2 call made over Wi-Fi using an iPhone (with no SIM card) was comparable to that of similar calls made over AT&T's network on my Motorola Atrix Android phone. Outbound calls connected and began ringing quickly, and when incoming calls rang through, they picked up quickly, too. There was no more latency than on a typical cell phone call.
What it costs: Line2 service runs $10 per month for unlimited voice and texting to the United States and Canada, including conference calls from the mobile app; or $15 per month for mobile apps and a desktop softphone app for calling and texting from a computer. Low rates apply to international numbers. Line2 also offers a seven-day free trial.
Bottom line: Line2 pricing is inexpensive and easy to understand. Call quality is better than most other VoIP apps I tried, with a call across the country sounding much the same over Line2 as over a cell phone. Line2 also supports visual voicemail and conference calling. Though Toktumi doesn't offer any free plans, a free trial lets you test the setup.
Truphone provides two services: its Tru App for mobile devices; and Tru SIM to permit users to call through the Tru network, even when roaming internationally. For this article, I tested only the app. As Truphone tends to focus on international calling, you can get numbers from other countries (currently the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia) in order to provide a local calling option for people calling from those countries. Calls are also free between Tru and other VoIP services, such as Skype and Google Voice.
Unfortunately, Truphone's call quality didn't quite keep up in my tests. The audio was very compressed and sounded tinny, and I noticed more latency than with a regular cell phone call.
What it costs: For $13 per month you get unlimited calling to U.S. landlines and mobile phones. You'll have to add another $5 per month to get a phone number to receive incoming calls.
Bottom line: Truphone is a good option if you frequently travel internationally, or if you want to have a local number in another country. But if you need to call only within the States, you'll find that it's a more expensive option despite its subpar call quality.
Though perhaps best known for its video chat, Skype also offers voice and conference calling to mobiles and landlines, as well as texting. On the business side, Skype Manager lets a business manage multiple users and allocate features and calling credits. Skype has service plans at levels from individual to enterprise, including accessories to set up offices for conferencing, plus phone adapters to make Skype calls from landline phones. The desktop calling program runs on Windows, OSX, and Linux; and you can find Skype mobile apps for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad, and Symbian.
Setting up Skype is a bit more complicated than setting up some rival services, due to the many options available. To get a full-featured phone setup--one that lets you call out to landlines and mobile phones, and includes a phone number so people can call in to your Skype account from any phone--you'll have to add several separate services. Though you have to pay only for the services you use, multiple inexpensive services can cumulatively cost more than a single-fee service.
In my tests, Skype's call quality was good, but latency on the system was high, with a delay of several seconds between when a caller spoke and when the words reached me.
What it costs: Skype-to-Skype calling, messaging, and video are all free from the computer and the mobile app. Unilmited outbound calling to landlines or to mobile phones in the United States and Canada from Skype start at $3 per month, or you can pay as you go for 2.3 cents per minute plus a connection fee. A phone number for inbound calling costs $18 for three months, or $60 for a full year. Voicemail costs another $2.10 per month.
Bottom line: Skype offers plenty of options for customizing a plan specifically to your business's needs, along with apps for pretty much every platform out there. But the many choices can feel overwhelming if you're just looking for a simple voice line.
Google Voice is a Web-based service originally designed to supplement an existing phone line. It provides one phone number that you can forward to several lines based on who is calling and what time of day it is. Google's voicemail service will also transcribe voicemail as text and email, or text-message the transcript to you.
In 2010, Google branched into VoIP calling by supporting outgoing calls to landlines and mobile phones from Gmail, via a chat add-on that works in Windows, OSX, and Linux. Once you've made a call out from Gmail, you can add Google Chat as a forwarding phone in Google Voice so that incoming calls will ring in the Chat pane of Gmail on your desktop Web browser.
Google Voice is available as a mobile app for Android, BlackBerry, and iOS; and Sprint is now integrating Google Voice into all of its smartphones. Google's mobile app does not call with VoIP, however; instead it goes through your phone connection, which costs you carrier minutes. If your mobile plan offers free calling to favorite numbers, you can add your Google Voice number to your favorites, thereby making any call out through Google Voice free.
To get VoIP calling with Google Voice on a mobile device, you can try connecting it to another VoIP app, such as Groove IP or Sipdroid on Android, or Talkatone or Line 2 on iOS. I successfully placed calls from an Android tablet with Sipdroid, and from an iPad with Google Voice using Line 2.
What it costs: When Google released calling from Gmail, it was free to call out to the United States and Canada for the first year. Later the company decided to extend the free calling period through 2012. Calling internationally starts at 2 cents per minute.
Bottom line: Google Voice offers a lot of useful services at no charge and can save you from needing a texting plan on your smartphone, but either you'll be tied to your computer for VoIP calls or you'll have to add another service to make VoIP calls from your smartphone.
Google Voice is free, making it the lowest-cost option. Making VoIP call from a mobile device over 3G or 4G will require a data plan, and VoIP calls can use up your monthly data allotment quickly. But if you spend most of your time in Wi-Fi range and don't mind the setup work, Google Voice can be an inexpensive choice. For a simple, easy-to-set-up alternative, Line2 offers great call quality, an easy-to-use app, and a coherent price plan.