We have reached that dreaded age that every parent must face. The one where your child wants to be able to make their own phone calls and receive calls from friends. My child is young enough that we thought we had at least a couple more years before this became a thing. We were wrong though. This started last year and I got a half-baked solution working. It was a bit too complex for him (my wife would say most thing I architect are a bit too complex). In fairness it wasn’t dumb easy, but he had it. The problem was it didn’t work reliably. It used third party solutions and was ugly. However it did route through a google voice number tied to my son’s email account.
As an aside, my son doesn’t have an email account exactly. It’s an email address we registered when he was born. It was configured as a catch all address for him to use as an identity. It is controlled by my wife and myself, my son has never logged into it. Any web services that could be tied to him we use as his proxy. All email is forwarded to both wife and myself in our personal email addresses. This is to make sure there is never anything inappropriate sent to that account. One day we will turn it over to him, but not anytime soon. Having a Google Voice just for him tied to this account was something that just made sense.
Since my original solution did not work, overtime the Google Voice number was surrendered due to inactivity. This was fine since he did not have it memorized and in theory we could get him a new one at a later date. However, this wasn’t as easy it would seem – but more on that later. Over the last few months my son was more adamant about people being able to call. I use my phone for personal and business use all hours of the day. My wife uses hers for various reasons. We did not want to hand out our numbers to everyone to get calls from other kids at any given time. This left my son without an option.
We did have a landline, but we don’t have a phone plugged into it. We have it down to the bare minimum of services so it costs per minute for any call. The only reason we still have it is that it saves us a couple dollars a month on our total DSL bill. I had nightmares of my son starting to use the phone and running up large bills just talking to grandma. To elevate the service to not be per minute would cost me about $20.00 a month or $240.00 a year. That did not quite make me happy either. It would get worse also. If he called family, all of them are long distance. So I would have to pay long distance fees on top of the other costs. I haven’t paid long distance fees in years thanks to the cell phone. We had to look for other solutions.
Of course the discussion of “maybe he should get a cell phone” came up. I couldn’t justify that cost either. Especially since my wife and I are grandfathered into unlimited data plans and there would no way to get him on one. With his current iPad usage I can only imagine the eventual data overages because he was streaming video from the Reading Rainbow app. This was a no go either just for cost and logistical training I would have to try to teach a boy who thinks things just work and has no concept of data.
Back to the Google Voice solution. A month ago a friend talked to me about this problem. He used an Obi202 which routed through Google Voice. This meant unless he was making international calls that all calls were free. All he had to do was purchase the unit itself. It used a wired ethernet connection, but for $20.00 more he got a wifi adapter that worked with it. This was going to be something to look into. I put this in the back of my mind and eventually after again hearing that my son wanted to make his own calls, I ordered it last week. It was 49.99 with free shipping so it would pay for itself in 3 months over changing the phone service.
The device came and I let it sit for a few days. I eventually got around to try and it work on Friday night. The first thing was getting my son a Google Voice number again. You would think would be a straight forward proposition, it was not. I hooked up a phone to my home phone line and verified it with Google Voice. I then browsed the phone numbers. I found one I thought looked good and selected it. Once I clicked the button, I received the message that would be the bane of my evening “There was an error with your request. Please try again.” I tried again. It was the same result. The service might be busy so I waited awhile and tried again. I still wasn’t having any luck. Then I started searching online.
One of the things that came up was the fact if a phone had been used by Google Voice before it couldn’t be activated in a different account. I have two google voice accounts and this number wasn’t bound to anything. Just in case though, I would need a new number. Since our cell phones were already activated to our respective accounts I could not use that. I downloaded an app for my phone that allowed you to generate burner numbers. These temporary numbers would work for a set amount of time and then disappear. I paid $1.99 to get a number that would work for 14 days. I received the number and verified Google Voice, then chose a new number to add. The problem was I received the same error message.
It seems that something can trigger on Google’s backend that can block the addition or reactivation of a Google Voice account. There was a thread where tehy could reset an account, but they put a notice that they no longer did that. Even if I could move forward on that, it would take days to resolve. I was impatient and there has never been a thing like a Google customer support line. I was on my own and I was going to brute force this scenario.
I removed all phones from my son’s Google Voice account. I then opened a new Gmail account. Using this account I forwarded all email messages to my son’s account – which in theory should have forwarded it to myself and my wife. Then I went to Google Voice and prepared for the worst. I signed up for the account and verified the number to the burner number I got. Then I went to choose a new number – and this time it worked. I then went and configured the Obi device. I called the number from my cell phone and everything worked. I then set the burner phone number to never ring and tested it again. Everything was still working as expected. All text messages, voicemails, and missed call notifications would be forwarded to this email address. Everything should be right.
Now it was time to test. I sent a text message to the new number. It came through to the new email address, but not his existing one. A Gmail filter later and another test it was getting to his real email address. It seems Gmail doesn’t like forwarding messages it already forwarded on another account. This is likely to prevent an accidental loop where email just keeps flowing constantly until an email box is full. Since there are different alerts depending on missed calls, text messages, and voicemails – I had to configure a few filters that forwarded these messages to my son’s account, my wife’s account, and my own. This keeps with the whole vigilant on what is going on in your child’s life.
The phone he is using is a standard home cordless phone. So he won’t be doing text messaging anytime soon. However, he loves it as is. His nickname is even part of the phone number (yes I’m that much of a geek). The last few days as I have been on the road we have been talking on his phone. This gives him just a bit more freedom than he has had – since in theory he can have people call him. Whenever he does get a cell phone, he can configure the service for that and keep the same number through however many iterations of phones he goes through in his life. My wife and I will answer the phone first until he learns about wrong numbers and such. Still it is something more in this world he has for himself.
As for the Obi box. If there are no issues in the next few months I plan on purchasing 1-2 more of them. Then my wife will be able to use her old rotary phone to receive calls. I doubt Google Voice supports pulse dialing, so likely it won’t work for outbound. Just the nostalgia though of having the ability to answer a rotary phone again would be neat. I plan on getting something more comfortable than an iPhone when I have long conference calls. So this would be the reason I would get one for myself. Everything old is new again. Everything is working. It was a frustrating adventure. All my son wanted was to receive calls and make them – and it turned into this.