We have recently moved our phones from TelstraClear to 2talk using Voice Over IP (VOIP). Our phones now run over the Internet and in the process I’ve learn’t a lot about VOIP.
- It’s fun
- It’s flexible
- And you might even save some money (but don’t count on it)
Before the switch we had two land lines from TelstraClear – one for home and one for the business – plus a fax number that was a distinctive ring service on the business line with faxes answered by a fax modem and routed to our email system. We also had a cable Internet connection but no cable TV (we ditched that for Freeview a while back, that’s another story).
We (Dowse Murray Chartered Accountants) have grown a quite a bit over the last few years and we really needed more business phone lines (more than one) – it’s very easy to tie up a single line talking to IRD. We also needed to put a phone line into our second office and have DDI’s and be able to transfer calls – i.e we needed a PABX with at least three lines.
I also thought it would be cool to be able to use my iPhone as an extension on our phone system. As we have a reasonable cable Internet connection I figured that if we implemented a VOIP solution we could ditch our phone lines completely and as long as we could use our iPhones as handsets over 3G then if the Internet went down we would still have phones.
So what we needed to make it all work was a VOIP provider, some VOIP phones for home and office, a fax service, a VOIP client for the iPhones and to be able to keep our existing 04 phone numbers. With a bit of help from Mr Google we got all this – read on…
www.2talk.co.nz. 2talk are a New Zealand Internet Telephony company that sell VOIP services, from what I can see they are no 1 in this space in NZ. You can sign up for a plan with them or pay as you go.
I started with the free plan which gives you as many 028 numbers as you want (calls to 028 numbers are charged at mobile rates) and 15 minutes free calling to landlines in NZ per month. After that it’s 3c a minute local, national and most international destinations and 24c a minute to NZ mobiles. Local numbers (e.g. 04 for Wellington) can be added for $7 per month each. All prices inc GST, auto-topup from your credit card.
I used the free plan for a few days while I tested out the functionality 2Talk offered. It’s very functional, you can pretty well do anything with it that a full function PABX can do and all from their website. I spent many hours playing with it – too many – we had phones ringing all over the office night and day while I worked out the best set-up for us. Very annoying for everyone around me but I had lots of fun.
The features I liked the most (in no particular order) were:
- Voicemail can be received via email
- Incoming faxes can go to email
- Self provisioning – you can add/remove lines and change your plan online – btw you only see a few plans on the 2talk sign up page but once logged on if you take the option to change your plan you can see all the available plans
- The locate me service – you can configure a number to automatically ring other numbers (2talk or non 2talk) after a configurable delay
- The one number service – you can have multiple phones logged onto the one 2talk number
- Whitepages reverse lookup – incoming calls display the name of the caller as listed in the whitepages
- You can set the callerid per line to any of the numbers on your 2talk account, and also to verified non 2talk numbers
The monthly plan we now have gives us three local (04) numbers with 6000 local minutes (although it doesn’t seem to be metered so is unlimited), 2000 international minutes and 100 mobiles minutes for $45. If we use up these then it’s 3c a minute local, national and most international destinations and 24c a minute to NZ mobiles. We added a fourth 04 number to use as a DDI for an additional $7 per month.
By using a combination of locate me, one number, 04 and 028 numbers with the callerid set to be the main business number we have no limits on the concurrent number of incoming and outgoing calls – we are only limited by the number of humans there are to answer our phones.
For VOIP phones I found www.nicegear.co.nz who specialised in VOIP solutions. Hadley from Nicegear recommended a Siemens Gigaset A580IP cordless VOIP phone which I duly purchased with a second handset and then duly returned a week or two later. Nice guys there – no problem sending it back minus the restocking fee.
The problem with the Siemens wasn’t functionality – it worked well – it’s just nobody here liked the handsets. Unergonomic, sound very average and very light and plastically feeling. We have always used reasonable quality Panasonic DCET phones and the Siemens was a very poor alternative. At Hadley’s suggestion I did register one of the Panasonic handsets we have with the Siemens base and it worked after a fashion. However there was no dial tone (possibly because the Panasonic was a couple of years old and didn’t do the DCET generic access protocol thing too well) and no voice message indicator so I gave up on that idea.
In the end I purchased a Linksys SPA2102 from Nicegear – this is an analog phone to VOIP adapter and has two phone/fax ports. I configured it as per the guide from the 2talk support page, plugged in our existing Panasonic DCET and it just worked. As with most Cisco products these SPA’s have a huge amount of configuration options so the 2talk guide was really useful. The call quality was comparable to our land lines but there were a few differences in dial tone and handset volume. After a bit of trial and error and lots of ringing of phones I fine tuned the configuration – you can download a copy of our version of the 2talk configuration document here.
Incoming faxes were easy – I just configured the service to send them to an email address as PDF’s – pretty much what our old system was doing. However outgoing faxes were a bit harder. I couldn’t get the 2talk email a PDF to a fax number working reliably, I think part of the problem was the service didn’t like the PDF’s our PDF creator was generating.
As we don’t send a lot of faxes anyway these days and when we do it easier to just put them through a fax machine I decided I’d configure the second port of the SPA as a fax port, plug the fax into it and send through there. I just couldn’t get it working reliably, one or two pages seemed to be the limit regardless of how I configured the SPA. The 2talk forums seemed to indicate that the faxing was marginal at best and I was on the point of giving up when I came across a post that mentioned the SPA’s shipped with quite old versions of firmware. I upgraded the firmware and problem fixed!
iPhone VOIP Client
The ideal iPhone VOIP client works over WIFI and 3G, is integrated with the iPhone contacts, supports multiple SIP accounts and will run in the background to accept incoming calls.
2talk have a free SIP client which is fine for testing but it doesn’t run in the background or support multiple accounts. I tried all the free SIP clients I could find in the App Store but none of them were much better than the 2talk app. Of the paid for apps Acrobits Softphone and Bria got good reviews. Acrobits had been around a while and supported push notification, Bria was very new and didn’t.
I bought Acrobits and it worked but not as well as I had hoped, some quality problems and big delays connecting so you missed the first few words of whoever answered the phone plus the dial tones weren’t right. $10.99 wasted. There is another client from Acrobits called Groundwire that I haven’t tried.
Bria had only been out a week or two and was on special for $5.99 so I bought it. A fantastic client, it seems to work perfectly with 2talk. No delays, good quality over WIFI and 3G, nice interface and although the first version didn’t work in background mode or support multiple accounts a new version is out now that does. The only problem is that when in background mode it eats battery life – about 5% per hour as it has to keep listening for UDP connections. It’s the same with Skype (but not necessarily Acrobits as it can use notifications).
What I have now is Bria configured to logon to our work number (one number handset), our home phone (one number handset) and my 028 number. When I’m in the office I start Bria and my iPhone becomes another phone off our main number that will ring when a call comes in. I use the 028 number (callerid set to the main work number) for outgoing calls so don’t tie up the main number. It works well over WIFI and as long as there is good reception, calls over 3G are just as good.
Porting Numbers to 2talk
I was a bit wary about porting our three phone numbers (home, work, fax) so I ported the home phone first.
It’s all done via the 2talk website, you request a port and it comes back a few days later with the date it will happen. The port was scheduled for about a week after I requested it and that morning I got an email telling me the number had been provisioned ahead of time so I could set it up before the cutover happened. I had the SPA ready to go so it was just a matter of putting in the number and password and it was working for outgoing calls. At this stage incoming calls were still coming into the land line. I set up voice mail and then wandered off and later that day the new phone rang. Incoming call, someone in Queensland trying to sell me a holiday.
It took a day for all calls to some in on the new phone and then a couple of days later TelstraClear cut off the old line. I left it a week to make sure we were all happy with it then ported the work phone and fax across. As far as I can tell there was no downtime.
A Month Later
Two things I would do differently:
- Get an 04 number before testing calls to 2talk. I ended up making quite a few calls to the 028 number at mobile charges.
- Switch the monitored alarm system to a wireless system before cutting off the land line it used.
Generally quality is as good as a land line (using the G711 codec) but one or two callers get an echo on the line.
Capital cost – we spent about $600 on three SPA’s and some new DCET phones, plus another $500 switching our alarm to run over VHF. Ongoing costs have reduced by maybe $50 per month even after increasing our Internet plan to 50GB a month (calls run at about 120MB/hour), more phone “lines”, and paying extra for the VHF alarm monitoring.
I don’t think we would have done this over ADSL as 1) we would have had to keep one phone line so less savings and 2) latency is higher on ADSL so call quality may not have been as good.
* One more thing to avoid – testing the home phone at 1am with the other extension next to the bed where Baubre is asleep.
Three Months Later
One more gotcha – our directory listing disappeared from the white and yellow pages after porting our numbers to 2talk. We found this out when the new phone books arrived. A call to yellow pages on their 0800 number has reinstated us in the online directory but we have missed out being in the printed copy this year.