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What is a phone for?

As with any technology, I don't represent the typical use-case. My idea of a killer smartphone app is an SSH client. Other than that, I want it to make calls and receive text messages. I had even considered going the "feature phone" or "dumb phone" route. But where I went instead precludes that. So, when it's not specifically necessary, I tend not to check my phone very often. To supplement that I've worked out other ways to just do the calling and texting that I care about.

Ubiquitous Communication

Cross-platform access to speaking and texting functionality has become more and more common these days with the likes of Skype, WhatsApp, Signal and so on. The promise being that whether you be looking at your phone, your tablet or your desktop, you will be able to speak with the same peopel in the same way. I like this concept, but there are three details that I'm not so thrilled about.


Each service requires the messages to be routed via that services infrastructure. In some cases this means a generally secure black-box like Signal's, but in other cases it means sending it to Microsoft, Google or Facebook who are a little less likely to be protective of your privacy. Of course, just by using a phone at all I'm trusting someone else with my data, but I prefer to trust my Canadian service provider who simply make their money off of the fees I pay.


Those other tools are generally utilized via an official client for that service. This is fine, but it means that the ubiquity is limited to the devices and interfaces that the service decides to support. I start at a disadvantage here given that I'm solely a Linux user. Many services have come to support Linux lately, but even then, I'm stuck in the official application. SMS and voice conversations are extremely standardized and so can be intefaced with pretty much any way you like.


Finally, in almost all cases, these are additional services that have no actual connection to your regular phone service. Some can receive calls from landline phones or send messages via SMS, but they generally don't actually do so using your regular mobile number, or you would need to adopt their number as your mobile number.

There's Got To Be Another Way!

I'm an Open Source guy beyond just software. If there is a standard way of implementing a technology, whether or not there is a .deb package for it, that's probably going to be the way I'll go. Luckily, in telephony, there is a standard called VoIP.

However, this isn't your granny's Magic Jack. I don't think that much of this is possible through a prepackaged residentials VoIP solution because they basically provide an opaque service which uses the VoIP protocol on the backend, but the front-end is generally only exposes a subset of what would be possible with that connection. There are, however, many VoIP providers around the internet that will sell you a line and service, but how you access that line is up to you. There are, a sub-set of those providers that will provide SMS services as well and often at no, or low, cost. So, this is not a free solution, but it comes in a lot cheaper than paying for a regular cellphone plan. Because VoIP is completely done over internet traffic any connection will do. Of course in order to use a phone on-the-go a mobile data plan is still necessary, but you can get a few gigabits on a data-only (tablet) plan from certain Canadian carrier. I have 4GB for $20 on a promo plan from Cityfone; a very resonable price by Canadian standards. That, plus the regular service, a couple of extra lines, taxes and small usage fees and I'm in for about $25 per month.

Any Number On Any Device

First I'll explain the extra lines. One of the cool things about VoIP is that it supports registering many numbers very easily. My primary line is a flat-rate (unlimited minutes) number based here in Ottawa that I actually use for all of my calls. All of my outbound calls originate from this line and all of the other numbers forward to this one.

The first extra number is one from back home in the same exchange that most of my relatives are used to seeing. This has no immediate value to me, it costs a bit extra and, but it does allow them to call me without them needing to pay long-distance charges. I call them using that number to limit confusion.

The other number is the toll free number that you will see on the home page of this site. This allows me to keep calls from known callers and unknown callers seperated and prevents easy scraping of my personal number from the internet. It's been my experience that telemarketers are less likely to call other toll-free numbers; that said, I do direct calls for this number directly to voicemail. There are some exceptions to that, of course. I can write rules to redirect specific callers who use that number to my primary number which will then ring.

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