Taking advantage of a great free resource
August 10, 2012
Google Voice is undoubtedly one of the great tech bargains of our time. For those unfamiliar with the service, Google Voice ("GV") is an online facility that provides users with a wide variety of ways to receive, manage and place personal and business phone calls, all for free (except for international calling, which features very low rates).
Google Voice is also a terrific—but almost certainly underutilized—tool for political phone banking, since it currently allows for unlimited, high-quality calling throughout the US and Canada at zero cost. As long as a reasonably high speed Internet connection is available, all a phone banker needs is a free Google Voice account, a computing device (desktop, laptop, smart phone, tablet, or iPod Touch) that can run the necessary software, and perhaps, depending on the device, some sort of headset.
This robust service offers several compelling advantages over both the cell phone calling that's commonly used in today's neighborhood phone banking events, as well as over similar Internet-based services such as Skype or Vonage. And while Google Voice is ideally suited to individuals and small groups, it can also be scaled up for larger calling operations as well.
The purpose of this article is to discuss how to easily put Google Voice to work for your next phone banking event. To facilitate navigation, you can jump directly to each chapter using the chapter index links below. In the meantime—for the benefit of the impatient—here's the short course to making calls with Google Voice:
1. You must have a separate Google account for each Google Voice number you wish to use. You can either create a standalone Google account and then link services (such as Gmail and Google Voice) to it, or you can start with Gmail, where you can either use an existing account or create a new one. I think that for phone banking purposes—especially if you want to place calls from a laptop or desktop computer—starting with Gmail is probably easier, and therefore, and will be used for illustrative purposes here.
2. Log into Gmail, complete the setup process for new accounts, then click over to Google Voice.
3. During GV registration, select a new GV phone number, then have your cell phone handy in order to set it up as a forwarding phone (you can make changes later). Complete the forwarding phone verification process.
4. Decide what device you'll use to make calls. If it's an Apple or Android device, download the free version of the Talkatone app, install it, open it, then go to Settings—> Accounts and login to your new Google Voice account. If you're using an iPad, iPod Touch or Android tablet, you'll also need a wired or Bluetooth headset (headsets optional for smart phones). Finally, start dialing using the Talkatone keypad.
5. If using a desktop or laptop computer (any recent Windows, Mac or Linux system should work), fire up your favorite browser and log into your new Gmail/GV account. Download the appropriate video and voice chat plug-in from Google. Easiest way is to attempt to place a call within Gmail by clicking on the "Call phone" icon on the left side of the display.
A dialing box should then pop open that will include a link to download the plug-in that's right for your system (if there's no link, you've probably already installed the plug-in). Install the plug-in, click on the "Call phone" icon as noted above, enter a phone number (either manually or via copy/paste) into the popup dialing box, hit [Enter], connect, and then using an analog, USB or Bluetooth headset (optional on most laptops), start talking.
The term "phone banking", when used within the context of modern political campaigns, can encompass a wide range of activities that run from large-scale, professionally-staffed call centers at one end, to individual campaign volunteers making persuasion and recruiting calls from their homes at the other.
It seems, however, that most of today's successful politicians have gravitated towards a voter outreach model that's centered around grass-roots teams of staffers and volunteers who seek to exert influence mostly through personal, neighbor-to-neighbor contact.
Critical to this model are small-scale, team-based phone banking campaigns that have been found to be far more effective in recruiting volunteers and influencing voter choices than the large-scale, robo-calling operations of the past. These campaigns often take the form of "parties" that rotate among the the homes of volunteers, a format that offers a number of social, support and supervisory advantages over individuals making calls on their own.
The technology of choice for placing these calls is usually the personal cell phone, a device that nearly every adult in America now probably owns. The cell phone is great for ad-hoc, decentralized telephone campaigns but also carries with it a few issues.
Volunteers can be reluctant to "burn" their own calling minutes, which are often expensive. Some are likewise concerned about possible unwanted call backs or text messages that might result from transmitting their private cell numbers to strangers via Caller ID (note that while it's possible on some cellular systems to block the outbound Caller ID from being transmitted, it's usually not a good idea with phone banking, since most call recipients these days are likely to reject calls from "Private" or "Blocked" numbers.). And finally, cell signal strength can be a problem at phone banking parties, especially in rural areas where coverage might be limited.
Over the past few years, another technology has evolved that can address many of the cell phone's problems when used for phone banking. Internet-based, Voice over IP (VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol) is a telecommunications protocol that's now in widespread use in both commercial and consumer applications.
Most Americans are probably familiar with two popular services that have been with us for many years, Skype and Vonage. Likewise, most local Internet broadband providers (such as cable TV companies) now routinely bundle VoIP telephony services into their monthly offerings and you're probably using some form of VoIP on your office phone system.
One VoIP service, however, that is probably less well-known is Google Voice, a mostly free, Internet-based facility that can either replace or supplement cell phones for use in political phone banking campaigns. Google Voice offers a number of compelling advantages over most current alternatives (aside from its zero cost for outbound calling to the US and Canada) that will be discussed below.
A Brief History
Google Voice began life with a company called Grand Central Communications which, soon after its founding in 2005, released a free telecommunications service to provide users with innovative new ways to manage inbound business and personal phone calls. In mid-2007, Google acquired Grand Central, then put the software into the labs for almost two years. In March of 2009, the overhauled service was re-released as "Google Voice", but remained primarily an inbound call processing facility.
In August of 2010, Google introduced the ability to place outbound calls through Google Voice to the US and Canada (free) and to other international destinations (at very low rates) within their email service "Gmail". To make such calls, a user needed only to download the Google video and voice plug-in for their browser of choice, attach a headset, then dial the desired number using a web-based popup box within Gmail.
Over the past two years, new ways to make outbound calls through Google Voice have been introduced. The Gmail-based browser interface is still available for Windows, Mac and Linux desktops and laptops, but there are now apps for iPhone and Android smart phones, iPad's, most Android tablets, and even Apple's iPod Touch handheld that allow users to route high quality calls over Google Voice.
Likewise, companies such as Obihai have introduced inexpensive ATA's (analog telephone adapters) and home network routers that allow regular analog phones (corded or cordless) to be used with Google Voice. These products are, in fact, creating something of a revolution as people have begun to realize that for a one-time outlay of about $40, they can replace their existing landline service and enjoy domestic inbound and outbound calling for free (at least through the end of 2012, but more about this later).
While the inbound call processing capabilities of Google Voice can be incredibly useful, the real focus of this article is to discuss GV's outbound calling chops, particularly as they relate to political phone banking.
Legal Review and Personal Disclaimers
Google's Terms of Service
The Google Voice service is currently governed by three sets of terms and conditions:
1. The umbrella Google Terms of Service, which covers all of Google's software and service offerings.
2. Google's Additional Terms of Service for Google Voice, which covers matters such as emergency calls and recording telephone conversations.
3. The Google Voice Program Policies, which covers mostly prohibited activities when using the Google Voice service.
All of these policies are written in a straightforward manner and are easy to understand. From my perspective, the only provision that might be of particular interest to political phone bankers is the first restriction noted in the third document, the Google Voice Program Policies which says that users may not:
"Generate or facilitate unsolicited commercial telemarketing activities. Such activity includes, but is not limited to: placing calls in violation of laws prohibiting unsolicited marketing calls ("do-not-call laws")..."
Since placing phone calls in connection political campaigns was carved out as an exception under the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act of 2003 (and was unaffected by the Do-Not-Call Improvement Act of 2007), phone banking using the Google Voice service appears to be entirely acceptable under Google's current policies.
Google Voice Pricing
As noted elsewhere, all Google Voice services, except for non-Canadian international calling and phone number porting are currently free. The future of GV's pricing, however, remains uncertain as of this article's date of publication.
When outbound calling capabilities were first added to Google Voice in 2010, the company announced that calls to the US and Canada would be free for that year, but that it would begin charging in 2011. In late 2010, however, Google reversed that decision and announced an extension of free calling through 2011. The same thing happened again in late 2011, when in an official blog post, Google continued free US and Canada calling through the end of 2012.
For phone bankers focused exclusively on the 2012 election, that's just fine. For the rest of us who use Google Voice in our everyday lives, we're all wondering what will happen in 2013 and beyond. The answer, of course, is that nobody outside (and perhaps even inside) of Google knows yet. If history is any indication, we may have to wait until December to find out.
Jim's Personal Disclaimers
Before proceeding, I should note that I do not claim to be a telecommunications expert, but rather, am simply someone who is handy with computers and feels strongly about politics. This article is intended primarily to make political campaign staffers and volunteers aware of a terrific free resource that Google has chosen to make available in the hopes that it can help further stimulate political discourse, mostly at the local level.
I am likewise not an employee of, nor contractor to, Google, Inc. and in fact, have no association whatever (past or present) with the company except as a user of Google's software and services. The same goes for any other company (such as Talkatone, or Obihai) whose products or services are mentioned herein.
I will also note that this article, while containing a fair bit of technical "how-to", is meant mostly to point readers in the right direction when using Google Voice for outbound calling. Accordingly, it cannot possibly cover every hardware and software configuration that readers might like to try.
If you get stuck, please don't contact me directly. I'd love to help, but I just don't have the bandwidth to get into detailed technical problems. Instead, I'd encourage you to fire up your favorite search engine since your issue has probably already been discussed somewhere on the Internet (Google and Bing truly are your friends).
Alternatively, please feel free to post your question on this site's Feedback forum, since another reader may already have the answer you're seeking. I do expect to review forum postings fairly often and will likely weigh in from time to time.
On the flip side, if I've gotten something wrong in this article, please do contact me directly and I will make the necessary changes.
Step 1: Gmail Account
As noted in the "Short Course" above, you must have a separate Google account for each Google Voice number you wish to use. You can either create a standalone Google account, and then link services (such as Gmail and Google Voice) to it, or you can start with Gmail, where you can either use an existing account or create a new one.
For phone banking purposes, I think starting with Gmail is probably easier—especially if you want to place calls from a laptop or desktop computer—and therefore, will be used for illustrative purposes here. Note that phone bankers don't actually have to use this Gmail account for sending and receiving email, but instead, can continue to rely upon their existing email service(s).
Alternatively, if a neighborhood campaign team wants to create a pool of Google Voice numbers that can be temporarily assigned to volunteers at phone banking events, another option is to create Gmail accounts within "Google Apps".
Google Apps is an extensive suite of low-cost, cloud-based services targeted primarily at business and educational institutions, but which is also available to groups of up to 10 users for free. The primary advantage of creating virtual Google Voice phone lines under Google Apps is that a team administrator can complete the setup process for each account, thereby simplifying the process for users. Another plus is that the same password can easily be set by the admin for each of these pool accounts.
In order to set up a new Google Apps organization, it's necessary to attach an Internet domain name to the account. A Google Apps system administrator can either use an existing domain name registered elsewhere, or can register a new name through Google for $8 per year. You can quickly create a free Google Apps account for your team here.
Step 2: Google Voice Account
Once a Gmail account has been created, the user needs to login, complete the setup process, and then click over to the Google Voice registration page, a process that's probably best accomplished using a device with a decent amount of display real estate (desktop, laptop, or tablet). You can also reach Google Voice from within Gmail using the current interface's links at the top of the page: More—> Even more—> Home & Office, Voice.
Shortly after the Google Voice account setup begins, the user will be prompted to either select a new phone number, or to port an existing mobile number to the account. For almost all phone banking purposes, you'll want to use a new number with, if possible, the same area code as the voters you'll be calling. The good news is that the pool of phone numbers currently available through Google Voice appears to be quite expansive, so the chances are probably good that you'll be able to secure a phone number with the area code that you want.
An aside regarding the porting of existing phone numbers to GV: For for the moment at least, Google will port only existing mobile, and not landline, numbers to Google Voice and likewise requires the payment of a one-time $20 fee for the service. This restriction is largely irrelevant for phone banking purposes, but if you really wanted to port a landline number, you could first transfer the number (usually at no cost) to an inexpensive, prepaid cell phone, and then complete a second port from the cell phone to Google Voice.
a Forwarding Phone
To complete the process, you'll need to enter the number and type of at least one, real forwarding phone that will be verified by a system call to that phone (and no, you can't use another Google Voice number as a forwarding phone; it has to be a physical phone that you control, at least through the verification process).
After the verification call is placed, answer it on your forwarding phone, then enter the 2-digit code that appears on your computer's setup screen. When the verification process is complete, you'll be ready to begin using your new Google Voice account for inbound and outbound calls.
I will point out, however that under the "Phones" tab, you'll notice that in addition to the forwarding phone number you added, there's an option for forwarding calls to "Google Chat". You'll want to make sure this option is selected if you want to receive inbound calls on your laptop or desktop computer.
Phone Tips and Tricks
For individuals, leaving a forwarding number attached to a GV account, therefore, won't generally be a problem. In fact, who knows, the user might even want to start using Google Voice as his or her public phone number (as I do) and take advantage of some of the great inbound call processing capabilities.
If you're a Google Apps administrator setting up multiple accounts to be used exclusively for outbound phone bank calling, however, you probably won't want to keep real forwarding phones attached to new accounts, since you'd need one real verified phone number for each GV account you create.
Luckily, there's currently a way to delete a real forwarding phone by "hijacking" it into another GV account. Doing so will allow the same real phone number to be reused (at least a few times) when setting up multiple user accounts.
To hijack a forwarding number from one GV account to another, just log into the second account, select "Add another phone" from the Settings—> Phones menu, and enter the phone number you wish to hijack. You'll then be notified that the desired number is already associated with an existing GV account, but that you can claim the number through the 2-digit phone verification process described above. If successful, the forwarding phone will be deleted from GV account #1 and added to GV account #2. Now GV account #1's forwarding options will include only Google Chat.
I'll note here that Google has apparently already caught on to this trick and will allow a single phone to be hijacked from one GV account to another only a few times. After about the 3rd or 4th transfer, you'll see a notice that simply says that the number is attached to another GV account, without providing for an option to transfer. Accordingly, that number will now appear to be "stuck" in that last account to which it was transferred.
Luckily again, there's one more trick to get it "unstuck". Just add a second real forwarding number to the account, which will now allow you to now directly delete the stuck number. If the second number hasn't been used for too many hijackings, you can now hijack the second number out of the account. When setting up multiple accounts, however, the last account in the chain will need to retain a real forwarding number.
Step 3: Making Calls
The manner in which outbound calls are placed depends on the platform being used. Devices currently supported include most desktop and laptop computers running Windows (XP Service Pack 3 or later), Intel Mac OS X (10.5 or later) and most popular Linux distros. Also OK are most Apple and Android smart phones, iPads, most Android tablets, and even Apple's iPod Touch (2nd through 4th generations). The two primary classes of platforms are discussed separately below
Smart Phones, Tablets and Other Mobile Devices
Talkatone running on an iPod Touch (2nd Gen) with an
I like Talkatone because it's simple to configure and use and seems to be stable on both operating systems. It's also currently one of the most highly rated apps on both the Apple App Store and on Google Play and doesn't require setting up a separate account or securing another phone number on a Google Voice gateway service (more on this below).
"... Talkatone relies on iOS 4 VoIP backgrounding in order to receive messages and calls while Talkatone runs in background, so you need to have a multitasking-capable device. At this moment the following devices support multitasking: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod Touch 3rd generation, iPod Touch 4th generation, iPad..."
From my own experience, I can also say that other Apple devices that can run iOS 4, but which don't fully support multitasking (such as the iPod Touch 2nd generation) also work fine for outbound calling.
Northern Virginia team phone banking with
"...we do have version for Android devices available. Marketplace version supports armv7 and x86 devices only. If you have older devices, you can install on your own risk side loading version."
Per the current Google Play app page, the Android version requires OS version 2.2 and up and should run fine on most recent Android smart phones and tablets. Some older or prepaid Android phones, however, might not be compatible if they have limited RAM or CPU horsepower even if running Android 2.2 or later.
I have personally tested Talkatone (v 0.7.5) on only a single Android device, a Motorola Droid 4 running Android 2.3.6 (Gingerbread) and it seemed to work fine.
Calls with Talkatone
Regarding headsets, I should mention that during the course of my limited experimentation, the two Bluetooth headsets I tested with an iPhone 4s, a third generation iPad and two generations (2nd and 4th) of iPod Touches all seemed to be well supported by Talkatone. Likewise, three different wired headsets that use these mobile devices' 3.5mm audio jacks worked fine as well.
Hardware and Software Possibilities
The problem with many of these newer mobile calling apps is that they either connect only to proprietary service providers (such as Vonage Mobile) that offer limited calling functionality, or they rely upon the standards-based Session Initiation Protocol ("SIP").
In the first example, both the caller and recipient must be either be Vonage customers or be simultaneously running the Vonage Mobile app for US domestic calling to work. In the second, Apple programs such as the Sipgate iPhone app require the use of gateway SIP servers to connect to Google Voice (Google does not officially support SIP directly). Because many of these independent SIP gateway providers don't seem to have figured a way to make money, they appear to be in decline at the moment.
The Google Voice App
The Google Voice App is, of course, also available for Android devices and while great for managing inbound messaging, does not, like its Apple cousin, allow for placing VoIP calls over the Internet. All calls initiated using the Google Voice App on both platforms are instead routed over your cellular carrier's network. Nonetheless, if you use Google Voice for day-to-day calling, routing your cellular calls through Google Voice can still be useful since your GV number, rather than your cell phone's actual number, will be transmitted as the Caller ID (probably desirable if you use GV as your public phone number).
Basic outbound Skype calls also don't transmit Caller ID data which means that voters receiving Skype calls will see a "Private Caller", "Blocked" or similar Caller ID message when their phones ring. As noted above, most folks today will summarily reject these kinds of restricted calls, which is bad for phone bankers. In order to add a Caller ID phone number to an outbound Skype call, the user must also sign up for an "Online Phone Number" (aka a "Skype Number") that currently costs $18 for three months or $60 for one year.
Blackberry and Windows Phones
Desktop and Laptop Computers
Currently, the only way to place outbound Google Voice calls with a desktop or laptop computer is through Gmail using a supported web browser (which actually includes most all of them; see details here). I use the somewhat pejorative word "only", because dialing from a web browser is a little less elegant—at least in its current implementation—than using something like the Talkatone app for mobile platforms discussed above. But it does work, and in fact, the approach has some advantages that are discussed below. Nonetheless, a dedicated GV app for desktops and laptops would be nice to see (are you listening Talkatone?).
In addition to a compliant operating system and web browser, you'll also need to download the appropriate video and voice chat plug-in from Google. Perhaps the easiest way to find the right plug-in is to fire up Gmail on your system of choice and attempt to place a call by clicking on the "Call phone" icon on the left side of the Gmail display. A dialing dialog should then pop open that will include a link to download the plug-in that's appropriate for your system (if there's no link, you've probably already installed the plug-in).
Aside from the browser plug-in, you'll also probably want to use some type of headset with your computer. While most laptops now include built-in microphones and speakers, for both privacy and voice quality reasons, you'll probably find some sort of headset to be desirable. And likewise, headsets are probably mandatory for most desktops.
compact laptop (Windows, Mac, or Linux) equipped with an inexpensive
shown is a wireless keypad (described below)
Headsets can be of the analog (bearing two separate 3.5mm plugs, one for the the earphones and one for the microphone), USB, or Bluetooth varieties, with prices beginning as low as $2 or $3 on eBay. You're likely to see retail store pricing more in the $10 to $20 range for analog and perhaps a bit more for USB or Bluetooth. If you opt for Bluetooth, just make sure your system is properly provisioned with a Bluetooth radio (either built-in or USB), though I confess I've had better luck with wired headsets—at least running the GV plug-in on Win7 and Firefox—than I have with Bluetooth. You'll also probably find that even the least expensive models will deliver adequate performance for voice calls, though as always, a great place to find real world product feedback is through Amazon's user reviews.
To make sure that your headset is enabled within the browser plug-in and ready to work for making Google Voice calls you can perform a quick check. Within Gmail, go to Settings—> Chat—> Voice and video chat to confirm that the correct system device is selected. You can even expand the option "Verify your settings" to test your hardware.
Desktop and Laptop Tips and Tricks
Alternatively, you can plug a separate, full-sized USB keyboard that includes its own numeric key pad into your laptop. A further option is either a wired or wireless laptop keypad available from a variety of sources.
For the past several weeks, I've been used the excellent Logitech N305 wireless programmable keypad with my laptop, which, although is a bit pricey (I paid $34 on Amazon) and is apparently also now discontinued, works very well. Wired laptop keypads can currently be had for as little as $5 or so (including shipping) on eBay.
To enable keyboard shortcuts within Gmail, go to Settings—> General—> Keyboard shortcuts (on). Next, select Settings—> Labs—> Custom keyboard shortcuts (Enable). Finally, select Settings—> Keyboard shortcuts and reassign the "-" [minus sign] shortcut by deleting from the "Mark as important" command, then adding it to the "Make a phone call" command. Also remember, of course, to "Save Changes" before exiting.
While this process may sound a bit complicated, it actually only takes a few moments to set up. When complete, this shortcut will allow you to initiate a new call simply by hitting the [minus sign] key on your keypad to bring up the dialer. You can then type in the phone number and hit [Enter] to start the call. Clicking on "End" or hitting [Escape] will end the call, and Clicking on "X" or hitting [Escape] again will close the call result dialog box.
Or said another way, on your numeric keypad, [minus sign] to bring up the dialing box, type in the number, then hit [Enter] to start the call. To end the call [Escape] [Escape] and you're ready to call the next voter.
I'd invite you to experiment with other keyboard shortcuts; please let me know if you come up with something better.
To make switching back and forth between open applications easier when copy and pasting, it's helpful to keep two windows open on your desktop. In one window is the open PDF file or database; in the other, your Gmail web page (perhaps in a second instance of your browser) reduced to a size just large enough to accommodate the GV dialer. You can see an example in the screen shot below.
source on the left in a Chrome window,
So far, I've only found one way to accomplish this trick: using Google's Chrome browser along with the Google Voice extension. And to be fair, even this process requires a minimum of three mouse clicks per call.
I should also mention that there's currently a plug-in for Firefox called "Phone Number Lookup 2.0" that, when configured properly, gets close to click-to-call goodness, but unfortunately, it can't route calls back through a computer. Instead, it uses a ring-back technique that requires the use of a real phone. It is helpful nonetheless in parsing phone numbers from web pages for copy and paste purposes.
Anyway, if you'd like to try Jim's "three-clicks-to-call":
1. Download and install the Google Chrome browser onto your desktop or laptop system.
2. Fire up Chrome and log into either your Gmail or Google Voice account.
3. Within Chrome, go to Settings—> Extensions—> Get more extensions and search for the Google Voice extension. When it's found, click on the "Add to Chrome" button and follow the installation instructions. Note that if the Google account in question was created within Google Apps (rather than as a standalone, individual user account), the Google Apps admin may have to turn on access to the Chrome Web Store through the GA control panel.
4. Once the extension is installed, it's a good idea to make sure that the "Clickable Numbers" feature is enabled. To do so from within Chrome, select Settings—> Extensions—> Google Voice (by Google)—> Options.
When browsing any website that contains phone numbers (such a voter database or virtual phone bank), Chrome will now turn these numbers into click-to-call links. When the desired phone number is clicked upon, a Google Voice popup box will appear asking you to select which "Phone to call with". Assuming you want to place the call through your computer, select "Google Talk" from the drop-down list. Note too that if the Google Voice account has been stripped of all "real" forwarding phones, as discussed above, "Google Talk" will be displayed as the only option available.
screenshot from a Google search for "Washington DC pizza"
Google Voice will then call your computer and you'll answer within Gmail. Once you answer, you should hear the the system ringing the target phone number.
Once again, this process works best if your data source is display in one browser window (Chrome) and Gmail is displayed in a second, reduced-size browser window adjacent to the first on the desktop as shown above. The Gmail window, by the way, can be any browser that supports Gmail and the Google Voice plug-in (Firefox, for example).
Hosting a BYOD Phone Banking Party
A campaign staffer or volunteer who wishes to host a Google Voice-enabled phone banking party will probably want to start with a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) affair unless he or she is particularly well-stocked with extra computers and/or mobile devices.
If your phone bankers have never used Google Voice, it might also be worth doing a little prep work in advance of the event in order to minimize downtime once calling actually begins.
To start, I'd suggest contacting your team prior to the party, either by telephone or by email, to explain what Google Voice is and why it's so great for phone banking. The folks I've worked with recently have all been very receptive to the idea of participating in my science projects and were only to happy to try an alternative to cellular calling. Nonetheless, you'll still want your volunteers to show up with their cell phones as backups in case your first Google Voice session doesn't go quite as planned.
Next, unless you want to set up all of the Gmail and Google Voice accounts yourself to serve as team pool accounts (created either separately through Gmail or within Google Apps as a systems administrator), you might want to provide some instructions on how your phone bankers can create their own accounts.
My guess is that, especially after having tried using Google Voice on their mobile devices the first time, most users will get excited about GV and want to control their own accounts rather than using pool accounts created by someone else. Even so, it's not a bad idea for the host to set up a couple of extra accounts to have available for newcomers.
For your convenience, I've drafted a brief "Getting Started" document that a host might find useful when presenting the idea of phone banking with Google Voice to first-timers. It's in Microsoft Word format (97-2003 compatible) so it can be easily modified to suit your needs. You can find the document here.
Most systems found in American homes today that are installed and managed by ISP's (Internet service providers) such as Time-Warner, Verizon, Cox, Comcast (Xfinity), Charter, AT&T and many others should work fine for small-scale (say, 2-15 simultaneous users) phone banking operations. Almost all of these companies offer multiple tiers of Internet speeds, but even the lowest of these tiers should be able to support several users. Note that a more in-depth discussion of network bandwidth appears below.
If you're using a router supplied by your ISP, Wi-Fi capabilities are probably already built in. Most routers installed over the past two or three years probably employ the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard, which is about the best home users can enjoy at the moment (802.11ac is coming, but it's not quite here yet). If your router is a bit older, it's probably using the slower 802.11g standard, and if it's really old, or if you installed it yourself, it may not even be Wi-Fi enabled.
An in-depth discussion of Wi-Fi and home network configuration is beyond the scope of this article, so if you have questions about your current capabilities or are interested in upgrading your system, I'd suggest you turn to the Internet where there are plenty of available resources.
I will note, however, that even if you're using a router that's not Wi-Fi enabled, or if your existing router employs an older, slower Wi-Fi protocol (like 802.11b for example), you can easily fix the problem. If your router is ISP-supplied, call your service provider and ask for a free upgrade. If it's not, you can purchase a new, Wi-Fi enabled router these days for as low as $25 or so.
What's your Wi-Fi network's name, and is that name being broadcast?
Experts used to recommend (and some still do) that you turn off SSID broadcast to make hacker break-ins more difficult. The problem is that today's hackers use much more sophisticated "sniffing" software that can now easily detect your SSID.
My advice is to keep SSID broadcast turned on since it makes it easier for your phone bankers to connect. By default, most ISP-supplied Wi-Fi routers do broadcast SSID's, so unless you've changed that setting, you're probably OK.
And finally, assuming your Wi-Fi network's SSID is being broadcast, you'll need to know its name. If you're located anywhere near your neighbors, chances are there will be multiple Wi-Fi networks from which your phone bankers can choose, so you'll need to point them to the right one. Remember too that it's easy to change your network SSID by logging into your router with a browser and editing the appropriate entry.
screenshot above shows an example of a D-Link router page that can
A cautionary note: Though editing your router's settings is generally easy to do by simply logging in to the device with a web browser (here's how), be aware that changing the wrong parameter could disable your Wi-Fi network or even your entire Internet connection.
If the worst should happen, you'll probably need to reset the device and reprogram its settings. Most routers today allow you to save its settings into a local configuration file that can then be reloaded in the case of a meltdown. If you decide to make router changes, it's always a good idea to create one of theses local config files for backup.
Note too that many ISP-supplied routers manage more than just your Internet service. For example, the Actiontec MI424WR, used for for many Verizon FiOS installations, is a fiber optic router that also distributes TV signals and program data to multiple devices in the home over coaxial cable. These kinds of devices are more complex than your average consumer-grade Internet routers, and therefore, can be more challenging to reprogram. The good news is that they can also be remotely managed, so your cable provider can step in if necessary. If you'd like to make changes to your network (such as changing its Wi-Fi name), but are uncertain about your router programming skills, give a quick call to your ISP's tech support folks. They'll probably be happy to make the changes for you.
What kind of Wi-Fi security do you use?
The earliest protocol, known as WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is still in limited use, but can be so easily broken these days that it's hardly worth turning on.
Instead, you're probably using either WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) or WPA2 (version 2 of WPA). If it's an option for your router, you'll want to use WPA2, which employs the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) for security. Note that AES is approved for use by the US government to protect top secret data and has proven extremely difficult for hackers to crack.
You may or may not actually need to know what kind of encryption is being used on your Wi-Fi network. If your phone bankers are trying to connect with most recent Apple or Android devices, those devices will probably be able to automatically figure out what form of encryption is being used and respond appropriately. For others, such as some older laptops, it may be necessary to specify the Wi-Fi encryption protocol when logging in.
What's your Wi-Fi password?
So the advice is simple, before hosting a phone banking party, make sure you know your Wi-Fi password. If you're nervous about your guests having access to that password, log into your router and change it to something temporary. You can then change it back to the original when the party's over. Some routers even support the creation of temporary guest passwords that automatically expire after a set period of time.
Remember too that if you have other devices on your Wi-Fi network, such as IP-based security cameras, those devices may become confused when you change your Wi-Fi login password. After resetting the password back to the original following the event, it may be necessary to reboot those devices.
Else Can Go Wrong?
Maybe. If you're using an ISP-supplied router and you've never changed any of its default settings, the answer is probably yes.
If you're more tech-oriented, however, it's possible that you might have modified some router settings that could create problems. The most likely suspects include:
1. You've turned on MAC address filtering. Great for security, since only devices with pre-approved MAC (Media Access Control) addresses are allowed to connect. Bad, however, for phone banking, since pre-approving the MAC address of every device that will connect to your network during a party is generally impractical. You'll therefore need to turn off MAC address filtering, at least temporarily.
2. Your DHCP server is either disabled or not properly configured. For any device to connect to your network, it must first have an IP address that's either manually set or is assigned by a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server. You'll know this is a problem if, after entering the correct Wi-Fi password, a user is able to connect to your network, but still can't access the Internet.
Most mobile devices allow you to verify whether or not you have a valid IP address. On Apple devices, for example, check Settings—> Wi-Fi, then click on the small blue button next to the selected Wi-Fi network. If no IP address has been assigned, the DHCP data will be blank. As another example, on Windows computers you can use the "ipconfig" utility from a command prompt to view your IP address status.
iPod Touch network screens show that this device
If you've disabled DHCP, perhaps for security reasons (which is fine if all of your standard client devices have been assigned fixed IP addresses), then you'll need to turn it back on, at least temporarily, for your phone bankers.
It's also possible that even if the DHCP server is turned on, the range of addresses in its assignment pool is too small. It may be large enough for your own normal home use, but it might need to be expanded to accommodate your guests.
And finally, you'll also want to keep your DHCP lease times reasonably short. Some home users have been known to set lease times to very large values (including infinity) if they normally use only a few connected devices. Setting lease times too high effectively removes used IP addresses from the assignment pool, making them unavailable for re-use by others. For phone banking purposes, I'd suggest keeping lease times down to a day or two.
3. Firewall Issues. If your guests can connect to your network, gain access to the Internet, but still can't communicate with Google Voice, there's an outside chance there's a configuration problem with a local firewall or proxy. This problem is likely to be rare since Google Voice uses pretty standard TCP and UDP ports, but nonetheless, you might want to check out this Google support page if you suspect a firewall problem.
A Few Notes About Bandwidth
A question likely to occur to anyone thinking about hosting a phone banking party is "How many simultaneous Google Voice users will my router and broadband connection support?"
The real answer: "It's difficult to say".
The digital data generated by humans talking on phones is quite different from activities such as streaming Netflix movies. With phone calls, the bandwidth requirements will vary widely from instant to instant. When a phone banker is speaking, bandwidth usage goes up; during pauses or other silent moments, bandwidth usage goes down.
Furthermore, bandwidth requirements and call quality are affected by your router (for example, does it support QoS or "Quality of Service", which gives VoIP traffic priority over other traffic?) as well as the devices being used to make calls. Hardware differences, compression ratio's, codec (compression/decompression) types, and a huge number of other very technical factors will influence bandwidth usage. Telecommunications engineers will sometimes use what are known as VoIP bandwidth calculators to make estimates, but for most home users, these calculators are pretty much useless.
So I offer this guideline: My research suggests that a worse-case bandwidth factor for an average, high-quality VoIP call is probably about 100 kilobits per second. This factor is for a bi-directional channel, which means that you'd need 100kbs in both the up and down directions to support the call.
Almost all home broadband connections these days are asymmetrical, where download speeds are usually much higher than upload speeds, often by a factor of 10 times or more.
Since VoIP channel bandwidth requirements are bi-directional, then the variable that determines VoIP capacity will almost certainly be your upload speed, rather than your download speed.
My Internet service is provided by Cox Communications and I subscribe to their "Preferred" plan which advertises download speed of 18mbs (megabits per second) and which, despite the name, is actually one of Cox's slower packages. The upload speed is not guaranteed, but per my testing, it typically runs around 1.5 megabits per second.
Accordingly, if I'm not consuming bandwidth with other applications, my service should theoretically support up to 15 simultaneous phone bankers (1.5mbs divided by 100kbs per channel) if everyone were talking at the same time. In reality, however, even with my not-very-special Internet service, I could probably handle 20 or more since the chances that they'd all be chatting at any given instant is almost certainly zero.
I also use a new OBi202 router (described below) with a separate, fairly new WAP (wireless access point), both of which need to handle all of these data flows. So far, I've only been able to test the system with 10 or so callers, but to date, there have been no router-related problems.
Should your callers begin to complain about poor voice quality or connection issues, then you've probably discovered your limit. If you encounter these kinds of problems, your guests can always fall back to calling with their cell phones.
Likewise, if you're curious about your broadband speed, there are plenty of websites that will measure it for you. You might try Speedtest.net or Speakeasy.net, both of which test upload as well as download speeds using servers located as close as possible to you for the most accurate measurement.
And finally, if you're hosting a phone banking party, you'll want to reserve all of your available bandwidth for calls. Therefore, no Netflix streaming or music downloads for others in your household during calling hours (a little light web surfing or tweeting is probably OK).
Hosting Made Even Simpler
The "Bring Your Own Device" option for phone banking parties is a great, free way to get started with Google Voice outbound calling. The downside, however, is that the technique requires a fair bit of user involvement in the setup and configuration process.
If you're willing to spend a little money for the cause, and if you're OK with likely serving as your neighborhood team's phone banking base camp, there's another option you might like to know about. It requires phone bankers only to walk in your door, pick up one of the several cordless pool phones, and start dialing. This approach is also ideal for small to medium-sized campaign offices that need a low-cost landline alternative to traditional phone service.
It's all possible because of the "magic boxes" now being produced by a Silicon Valley startup called Obihai Technology, Inc. In October, 2010, the company released its first ATA (analog telephone adapter), the OBi110, that became provisioned soon thereafter with support for Google Voice.
The OBi110 is an unassuming little box that can plug into your home network to provide a persistent connection to any Google Voice account. The box also includes an analog phone port into which you can plug any standard corded or cordless telephone or even a connection to your home telephone wiring to provide free GV service throughout your house.
The OBi110, which currently sells for $50 on Amazon, also provides a second analog port to bridge to an existing POTS (plain old telephone service) line. Because this bridge feature was probably not all that useful to most customers, the company released an even cheaper model, the OBi100 (currently about $40) in early 2012 that eliminated the second analog port.
In April, 2012, the company announced the OBi202, which supports two physical phone lines and also includes a sophisticated router that can replace your existing router hardware, at least in some applications.
The unit can likewise be installed in non-router mode, peacefully coexisting with other identical boxes on the same network. At a current price of only $75, the OBi202 is, in my opinion, an amazing engineering achievement. The configuration options seem to go on forever, allowing the user the fine-tune the device to his or her needs. On the other hand, its default values all seem to work well, so initial setup can be quite simple.
OBi202 supports two analog phone lines
I replaced my Vonage home phone service in May of this year with a pair of free Google Voice lines and an OBi202 and am happy to report that everything's worked exceptionally well. I also continue to be astonished at the voice quality, which is probably better than any other phone service I've ever used. If you read the Amazon user reviews for the OBi boxes, it's apparent that the experiences of most other users has been as favorable as mine.
As noted in the "A Brief History" section above, I think the combination of the Google Voice service and these OBi devices are creating something of a revolution as people have begun to realize that for a one-time outlay of about $40, they can replace their existing landline service.
About the only issue is that Google Voice currently doesn't support 911 dialing. There are workarounds, however, since most emergency services also have a local, direct dial phone number that can serve as a 911 substitute and which can be programmed for speed dial use on most modern home phone systems. But I digress, so back to phone banking.
Actual Bank of Phones
Jim's OBi Phone Bank (+)
I haven't actually tried something like this yet, but because (as discussed above) most home broadband networks should easily accommodate 10 virtual phone lines, and because the DECT 6.0 technology built into today's cordless phones should eliminate cross-phone interference, and because the OBi boxes are designed to be stacked in multiples on the same network, I see no reason why it wouldn't work. After the election is over, you could sell the extra gear on eBay, recouping most of your investment, though you'll probably want to keep at least one OBi box for your own continuing use.
Copyright © 2012 James E. Wood. All Rights Reserved.