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Rejiggering Personal Voice Communications

As most of you know, Tonya, Tristan, and I moved from Seattle to Ithaca, New York, at the beginning of July. We’re slowly settling into our new home and working through all the logistics required by life in a new location. One of the most interesting – perhaps surprisingly so – has been our telephone system. Most people don’t think too much about telephones, but we’re in the middle of a subtle change in the way we communicate with one another on the phone, and Tonya and I decided to take advantage of the move to rethink how we want to use telephones.

The Old — Five years ago in Seattle, we had had big plans for how we wanted our telephone system set up – something involving multiple phone lines wired into different rooms in the house and ringing differently depending on the number called and the time of day. But like many of our best-laid plans, it was felled by US West (now Qwest), which was unable to provide us with more than a single line for six months. Since we both needed to conduct business on the phone and do all of our Internet tasks via modems (US West took nine months to provide a frame relay line), you can see how a single phone line would be limiting.

When we finally got our lines, we took incoming calls on our main number, because by that time everyone knew it and we couldn’t make any easy distinctions for those who wanted to talk to one or the other of us. We used the second line for outgoing calls, so the main line would remain available for incoming calls, and if the main line was busy or went unanswered, calls were routed to US West voicemail. When Tonya went on her maternity sabbatical, I used the second phone line for incoming and outgoing faxes.

At some point, we realized that the system was being inefficient and tried to fix it. First, we cancelled the seldom-used second line and signed up for a free eFax account to receive faxes (the fax machine could still send faxes on the primary line). Then we bought Tonya a cell phone that she could use for local calls so she didn’t have to worry about tying up the phone line during business hours. Many of her friends called her on the cell phone as well, reducing the number of times I had to run around the house to tell her she had a call on the main line.

(As an aside, the free eFax account has worked extremely well for receiving faxes because not only does it eliminate the need for another phone line or some wacky telephone switching device, it also means that you print only the faxes that need to find their way to paper – all others simply show up as email attachments you can delete after reading. I recommend it highly. For more information, read Hudson Barton’s "Facts about Internet Faxing" in TidBITS-484.)



Slowly we realized that phone numbers, like email addresses, should connect with people, not to locations. When you call someone, you’re generally calling that person, not their location, and only some of the time is reaching another person there of any help. The final dawning of how we wanted to rejigger our systems in Ithaca came when we realized that setting up dinner plans with a couple with whom we were friends could – and often did – entail calling five different telephone numbers (work numbers for both of them, both their cell phones, and their home phone number). That’s just silly.

The New — Along with the realization that we each wanted our own phone number, just as we each have our own email address, we’d also become rather fond of cell phones. Aside from the obvious utility of being able to call people from wherever you are, they’re extremely useful as yuppie walkie talkies for locating friends in large public gatherings. (We’ve even used them to regroup in massively crowded grocery stores: "Where are you?" "I’m over by the peppers in the produce department." "Stay put, I’ll be right there!")

The problem with cell phones is that in the United States, cell phone usage can get pricey fast: you pay for airtime whether or not you initiate the call (unlike Australia and other countries, where you pay only for airtime on calls you place). Costs have dropped over the years, but relying solely on a cell phone is likely to rack up significantly higher bills than using a normal landline. Plus, the cell phone network is far more fragile than the wired telephone network – during Seattle’s earthquake on 28-Feb-01, the cell phone network was jammed within minutes after the shaking stopped. And as far as I know, there’s no way for two people to talk on a cell phone at the same time, as we do with an extension phone when chatting with friends or relatives.

So we needed a landline, and since I spend much more time on the phone than Tonya does, it made sense for that to be my phone number. But since I wanted to give out only one number (and didn’t want to check both landline and cell phone voicemail), I signed up for a Verizon service package that lacks voicemail but does include Forward on No Answer and Forward on Busy options. These options are generally available from phone companies, often at little or no extra charge, but they’re seldom advertised because they can be somewhat confusing for people who don’t understand how they work. Worse, you must call customer service to change the destination number.

Since Tonya doesn’t use the phone that much and tends to be out and about more than I do, it made sense for her phone number to be a cell phone. If she doesn’t answer or has it turned off, messages go to voicemail. If she needs to make a long call, she can just use the landline.

Now, when someone calls my phone number, one of four things can happen.

  • If I’m home and neither of us are using the landline, I’ll take the call normally using one of my normal telephones. (I use a standard desk phone with a wired headset or a GE cordless headset phone that I love – they’re hard to find, but better than normal cordless phones with optional headsets).


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  • If I’m using the landline, I leave the cell phone off (which it is most of the time) so incoming calls are routed directly to the cell phone’s voicemail without either me or the caller hearing the cell phone ring. A call-waiting beep that sounds during my call is my signal that I’ll have voicemail waiting on the cell phone. I generally hate those beeps, but I haven’t yet determined if I can get Verizon to turn it off on the Forward on Busy service.

  • If Tonya is using the landline, the In Use indicator on my desk phone lights, and I know to turn on my cell phone. If a call comes in, it immediately forwards to the cell phone for me to answer. If I forget to turn the cell phone on, the call goes directly to the cell phone’s voicemail.

  • If I’m not home or choose not to answer the landline, the call forwards to my cell phone, where I can either answer it or let it go to voicemail.

Turning the cell phone on and off sounds a bit involved, and although I’ve become accustomed to it, it’s the main remaining annoyance in the system. The problem was that if I didn’t answer the landline or the cell phone, the caller heard ten or more rings before getting to the voicemail prompt. It makes sense if you add up the number of rings necessary before the forwarding services kick in (something only Verizon can change for me), and then the number of rings before the cell phone’s voicemail picks up. A number of people hung up before waiting long enough. If I devote just a bit more effort to making sure the cell phone is generally turned off unless I know that Tonya is on a long call, I can be sure that callers will hear only a reasonable number of rings before landing in voicemail.

Cell Phone Networking — Figuring out ringing quirks wasn’t the only problem we had in setting up the system. Tonya and I both had Samsung SCH-411 cell phones that worked fine in Seattle and other major metropolitan areas, but which didn’t work all that well in Ithaca, where the cellular coverage isn’t as complete. In our house, Tonya’s phone often wouldn’t ring on incoming calls, would drop in-progress calls, and was generally unreliable. And my phone, which still had a no-roaming-fee, no-long-distance service from Verizon in Seattle, often wouldn’t ring and never alerted me to new voicemail. After verifying with friends that Verizon had the best coverage in Ithaca so switching services wasn’t a likely solution, we decided to find someone who knew more about the technology and local infrastructure.

At an Internet picnic sponsored by a local ISP and other technology related companies in Ithaca a month ago, I took the advice of an old acquaintance and made a point of meeting a man named David McKinley, who owns a local business called IthaCom Wireless that sells cell phones and Verizon service. Basically, just as I’m a Mac and Internet geek, David’s a cell phone geek, and within minutes after meeting him, he was explaining the local cellular infrastructure and telling me all about the problems with our Samsung phones that might be causing trouble. Geek heaven…


Now, it’s possible, even likely, that we could have waltzed into any random Verizon store and bought new cell phones and switched to local service plans successfully. But one of the reasons we moved back to Ithaca is that it’s a small town where personal connections are worth a great deal. It’s already paid off – I finally decided against getting one of the still-too-large Palm OS-based phones, so David gave me a Motorola 120c to try, and said that if it didn’t work well, he’d take it back and give me a different one. He also threw in a free car charger and a headset (talking on a cell phone in a car without a hands-free kit will be illegal in New York State as of Nov-01). When we went back to pick up a new phone for Tonya (the Motorola 120c did offer better reception), he gleefully told us about a phone hack he’d figured out, offered to buy our old phones to use as loaners, and gave me a referral credit for Tonya’s account. For someone like me, who loves to know how things work and what’s going on, connecting with David and IthaCom Wireless has turned dealing with our cell phones from working with an annoying and anonymous corporate behemoth to having an enjoyable chat with a kindred spirit.

Our system is all set up and working, and we’re quickly becoming accustomed to it. The most important thing we’ve learned so far is when to ignore our cell phones ringing (vibrating actually, it’s much less obtrusive) when a call finds us out of the house since it can be difficult to evaluate quickly whether or not it’s an appropriate time to take a call. Still, I’d rather exercise that control personally than have it arbitrarily foisted on me by whatever physical location I happen to be in at any given time.

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