Our nonprofit Storychasers has hired a part-time administrative assistant, and we’re hunting for options now to replace the Skype online phone number we’ve used in the past which has forwarded to my phone. A Skype Out number costs $18 per month or $60 per year currently. Ever since Apple pulled the plug on all Google Voice applications for the iPhone last summer, I’ve wondered what product AT&T (via Apple) was going to try and steer potential customers to as an alternative to Google Voice. Today in researching phone options for Storychasers I learned one possible answer to this question: AT&T Virtual Receptionist.
The service looks pretty good. It provides a toll-free (888) number for your organization, and like Google Voice it functions as an intermediary service for phone calls. When you want to dial using your virtual number, like Google Voice you dial from within the application and you are called BACK by the system. Then your call goes through. People you call see your “AT&T Virtual Receptionist” phone number on their caller ID instead of your personal iPhone number. Also like Google Voice, you can list multiple phone numbers that you want your “virtual number” to forward to. You can list up to three numbers. You can access your virtual voicemail online, but unlike Google Voice I don’t think this AT&T service provides voicemail transcription to text. When you receive a call, a recorded message from your “AT&T Virtual Receptionist” plays and asks if you want to take the call, send to voicemail, etc. This way you (or any designee who receives a phone call to your number) knows up front they are receiving an official organizational phone call, and not a personal call.
Of course the big kicker here is price. Google Voice is free to use, but it requires that you jailbreak your iPhone to use it. AT&T Virtual Receptionist can provide you with 60 “free minutes” per month, but there is not a “per minute” overage charge if you exceed 60 minutes. If you exceed 60 minutes, you have to go on “a plan” which starts at $5 for 100 minutes. The next step up is $14.99 per month for 500 minutes. Those fine print details are addressed in the service’s online FAQs.
With both Google Voice and AT&T Virtual Receptionist, every minute you talk counts as cell minutes on your existing phone data plan. AT&T is sort of double billing here with this service: You’ll be charged for cell minutes used on your data plan when you make a call using the “AT&T Virtual Receptionist” service, AND your AT&T Virtual Receptionist account will be charged minutes. So you end up paying more. With Google Voice, you’re just charged for cell phone minutes you use with your provider on your existing plan, there is not an “extra” charge for using Google Voice. Google Voice can provide you with a local phone number for most dialing areas, but unlike “AT&T Virtual Receptionist” it can’t (at present as far as I know) provide you with a toll-free number.
The main benefits I see to the AT&T Virtual Receptionist service over Google Voice is that you don’t need to jailbeak your phone to use it, and it provides a toll-free number for others to use who call. Even with the release of Black Rain as an alternative to the iPhone Dev Team’s jailbreak software, which Sarah Perez highlighted in October 2009 for Read Write Web, the iPhone jailbreaking process is reportedly still tricky and not for the faint of heart. That’s precisely what AT&T continues to bank on, I’d wager, in allegedly forcing Apple’s hand to keep Google Voice applications out of iTunes and off the formally sanctioned / approved iPhone applications list.
I’m not positive what we’re going to do with our available phone options for Storychasers, but it seems likely we may go with the AT&T Virtual Receptionist service. According to Yappler the iPhone app for AT&T Virtual Receptionist become available in October 2009.
I wish Apple was able to permit / allow Google Voice in iTunes for the iPhone. If it was available without a jailbreak, I’m sure we’d go with Google Voice instead based on the cost savings and transcription to text features which it provides.
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