Monday, August 12, 2013

Getting off the (wired telephony) grid

While considering ways in which to shave dollars off the monthly cash flow needs my wife and I thought about getting rid of our landline which basically only has three purposes:
  1. Receive unwanted solicitations
  2. Receive political phone calls
  3. Place emergency calls
Given that only one of those is desirable (the reader may have different preferences of course) I wanted to know the answer to the question:
If you don't have a landline are wireless services adequate for dialing 911?
I did what any good researcher would do.  I asked my Facebook friends and turned up a treasure trove of good thoughts which I thought I should capture here.

Wireless Service Is "Enough"
Consulting the rules from the FCC and reading about "E-911" (or "enhanced 911") on wikipedia I learned that as of September 11, 2012:
Wireless network operators must provide the latitude and longitude of callers within 300 meters, within six minutes of a request by a PSAP (public safety answering point).
Furthermore, E-911 takes advantage of the GPS radio in most smart phones today.  So, in other words if you call 911 from a mobile phone today phone companies are required to be able to identify your location within 300 meters (or better... GPS has a "worst case" performance of 7.8 meters) in under 6 minutes to emergency services.  Anecdotally a friend reported that they called police about a drunk driver that they were observing and within minutes a police officer was on the spot.

However...  It is not "enough" in cases where a mobile phone is not present (obviously).  For example say your babysitter forgets his or her phone?  What are the options?

Low-fi Backup Mobile Phone
Another friend pointed out in the language in the E-911 legalese:
 All 911 calls must be relayed to a call center, regardless of whether the mobile phone user is a customer of the network being used
In other words ANY MOBILE PHONE, even one that doesn't have active service can dial 911 and the carrier is required to connect the call.  So find yourself an old clunker of a mobile phone (several actually) and leave them around your house as a backup means to make emergency calls.  A helpful suggestion from a friend who formerly worked with 911 was to make sure that any guest knows your street address so that they can confirm it with the 911 operator.  I suggest that you put a big sticker on the spare phone with that information.

Hi-fi Alternative Landline
Yet another friend suggested Ooma a free (excluding hardware and number porting costs) VoIP service that allows you to hook a plain old telephone up so that it can make and receive calls using your existing internet service.  You can even port your existing home number.

The Ooma Telo sells on Amazon for $99. You can then port your home number to Ooma for $39.  Once you have the device plug it into your network (you have to buy a WiFi adapter if you want to do it wireless) and plug your "landline" phone into the Ooma; port your home phone number and voilla you don't ever have to pay a bill for your landline again, and yet you have the ability to make and receive calls (even international calls), dial 9-1-1, etc. from your existing phone number.  In my case the total cost of $138 is paid back in a little over four months (since our landline costs us $30/mo for minimal services) and I don't even have to hassle with updating my phone number on websites, bank accounts, and other places that have my current number listed.

Routing your Existing Home Phone to Google Voice
A related variant, and cool idea from another friend is to move the land line to Google Voice, and set up Google Voice to route calls to that number to your mobile phone(s).  You still have to solve the "how does someone in my house without a mobile phone call 9-1-1" problem but this is also a free and clever way to get off your landline without giving up your existing phone number.


  1. My mom got a new cell phone a few years ago and somehow was able to port the home number she's had since 1993. I don't know how she did it.

  2. If you really want a land line, use Google Voice. You can buy an Obion box and then hook up a normal phone to it. I've been using two Obion 110s (one for me, one for my wife) here in Israel and it works great as a US number. (It also works great because you can reach me at the same number whether I'm in Israel or in the US).

    If you want to port your number with Google Voice, I believe that you have to first port it to a cell phone and then get Google Voice to take it over.

  3. Ooh... Cool I was super excited about the even cheaper OBi and found this *great* tutorial on how to migrate a home number to Google Voice

    However the real kicker is in the fine print... "Important Note: Google Voice cannot be used to place or receive emergency services calls."

    So if I went that route I'd have eliminated my landline, but I'd still have the "how does someone at your house call 911 if they don't have a mobile?" problem.