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  • John Bell

Tech Sense: Phones

This month, I thought it might be nice to look at a technology that is both old and new, the telephone. We all should know that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and publicly demonstrated the new technology in 1876. The basic principles of the "copper wire" telephone have remained the same ever since. What many people do not know is that he also demonstrated a light wave-based form of communication in Washington. DC, years before voice was transmitted over radio, a precursor to today's fiber service. The point is that the telephone is an old, established technology, but it is also a technology that is going through many changes in today's world.


Today, a phone in your home connected by copper wire is known as a landline because it is physically attached to a wire and typically doesn't move around. Of course, you may have a wireless handset that allows you to move around the house and talk on your landline. These are connected to the POTS or "Plain Old Telephone Service" infrastructure. POTS is also known as the "Public Switched Telephone Network" or PSTN. In Beltsville, if you have a POTS line, then you are almost certainly a Verizon customer. Verizon does not want to maintain its copper wire POTS network and is trying to get customers to move to its fiber service known as FIOS. FIOS sends information using light waves sent over optical fiber, a special form of glass. In general, fiber can carry more signal than copper, so in addition to phone you can get Internet service and TV transmissions over the same fiber. Fiber is also less expensive to maintain, but many feel that the attraction to leaving copper for companies like Verizon is many of the laws that govern the traditional telephone service do not apply for phone services delivered over the Internet.

One downside of fiber for the consumer is that copper provides power to the phone and copper lines frequently continue to work when the electric power lines are out. Fiber does not power the phone and requires electricity. If the power is out, your fiber-based phone service is out as well unless you have a source of backup power.


VOIP, the Voice over Internet Protocol, is a technology to capture the analog sounds of the voice, convert them to a digital signal made of 1's and 0's and send the signal over the Internet.

Verizon and Comcast both offer phone service over their respective Internet technologies using VOIP technology. The dirty little secret that these companies would prefer that you didn't know is that if you have Internet you can get your phone service from any phone service provider on the Internet. You can still use your traditional, in-house analog phones, or you can use a computer, cell phone, or tablet, or a special VOIP phone. Many of these alternate phone services cost as little as $5 to $6 per month and will allow you to transfer your current phone number to the service. Google even offers a phone service free! You may have also heard of Vonage. It is more expensive, but everything is preconfigured to just work. Magic Jack is another "turnkey" service. Magic Jack sells a device that plugs into your computer. Your phone is plugged into the Magic Jack device. Magic Jack costs about $35 and gives free phone service for the first year; this includes long distance.

The least expensive services require that you configure the equipment yourself, but they usually provide good instructions for setting things up.

Old Phones on VOIP

Comcast and Verizon allow you to use your old phones and plug into the phone wiring that is already installed in your house. But what if you want to use another provider? To use your old phones, you will need a device called an analog telephone adapter or ATA. Many Internet phone companies will provide you with a device that is preconfigured for their service. If you want to be able to switch companies, ATA's can be purchased on Amazon for under $50. The ATA will need to be configured for your new Internet phone service provider.

Once you have the ATA, it is connected your internet and your home's phone network interface and a power outlet, and it powers your house phones. I have been using an adapter from Obihai ( for several years. It supports many features like call forwarding, three-way calling, and multiple incoming lines for about $6 per month including long-distance and international calls. Of course, you could also replace all of your old phones with VOIP phones.

Internet Phone

Internet phone companies generally act as a bridge between the VOIP and the PSTN worlds. The standard protocol used to connect internet phones is the session initiation protocol or SIP. Most companies allow free SIP-to-SIP calls to anywhere in the world. For connection to the POTS system, you may pay a small, fixed monthly fee or a very small per minute fee to cover the cost to connect to the POTS network. In some countries, there may also be an alternate fee to connect to mobile phones. If you do not need to interconnect to POTS, you can set up a SIP service using a small computer like a Raspberry Pi. Asterisk is popular, free, and open source PBX software with SIP integration used by many businesses that run on the Raspberry Pi and other platforms ( You can use SIP client software to make phone calls.

To receive incoming phone calls from the POTS network, you need a phone number. An incoming phone number used for Direct Inward Dialing is known as a DID. Most Internet phone providers will set you up with either a new DID (phone number) or will let you move your current number to your new service. Remember: do not cancel the old service until the new service is working.

Next Month

Next month, I will continue the discussion of phones and the Internet. If you have any questions you want me to answer from this month's column, please write, and I will try to address them next month.

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