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My Home Office Phone System – Part 1

December 23rd, 2012 1 comment

I have been fortunate because for most of my career I have been able to work from home whenever necessary to make my life easier. But along with this benefit comes the need to maintain decent connectivity. This includes not only Internet, but also telephone. The Internet part is easy – my Verizon FiOS connection handles that well, along with my home network. But the phone part proved to be a problem. Here’s how I solved it.

The Options

For many people this isn’t a problem at all. Most people working at home do one of two things and then move on with their lives: they either use their cellphone (usually provided by work) or they use their own home phone.

Neither of these options was acceptable for me for reasons I discuss below. So I started looking around for other choices. Here are the criteria by which I evaluated my options.

  1. Must give high-quality voice. No dropped calls, garbled speech, or background noise.
  2. Must have a good quality speakerphone option.
  3. Should be able to handle domestic and international calls.
  4. Should be cheap … i.e. no incremental cost more than ~$10/month.
  5. Should easily accept inbound calls.
  6. Must not interfere with my normal home phone service.
  7. Must allow me to keep my work and personal lives separate.
  8. Should allow the use of a headset/hands-free device if possible.

I realize that these criteria are a mix of hardware and service parameters, but, in the world of phone services, the hardware and service are often tightly intertwined.

Using my list as a guide, I explored these options, more or less in the following order:

  1. Using my work cellphone (an iPhone 3GS)
  2. Using Google Voice on my personal cell phone.
  3. Using Skype
  4. Adding an additional line to my FiOS Digital Voice service.
  5. Other VOIP alternatives.

To cut to the chase, I ultimately settled on building a really robust system based on a 2-line business phone along with VOIP service from VIOP.ms. Here’s how I got there. In later parts I’ll go into detail about how I built what I built.

Early Successes & Failures

Work Cellphone

My work phone is an iPhone 3GS running on AT&T. Don’t tell me I should upgrade it. I despise the iPhone and everything about it and the new 5 isn’t any better in my mind. So I tolerate this thing and use it mostly as a phone. When I want a real smartphone I use my HTC Amaze 4G running Android. The problem with using my work cellphone isn’t the hardware – it’s the service. AT&T has a terrible signal at my house. It works acceptably well if I stay anywhere on the west side of my house or on most of the second floor. But if I try to move around it drops calls way too frequently, and even on a good day I only get 2 bars. So very quickly I ruled out using my cellphone as a reliable source of communication.

This option failed to deliver criterion #1, and so I deemed it unacceptable.

Google Voice on my Personal Cellphone

For a while this worked fine. I gave people my Google Voice number and they could call me on either my personal cell when I was mobile or I could have Google Voice ring through to my home phone when I was working from home. The problem of course is that this completely violated my criterion #7. Basically – I was getting work calls on a number that I also used for personal reasons, and that was unacceptable. So I ditched this method quickly.

Skype

Ahhh Skype. This was very close to a perfect solution. With the right combination of services, and the right hardware, this would have been perfect. I ended up using Skype as a solution for well over a year and it was 99% there.

A basic Skype account, with the addition of a Skype number and an unlimited US & Canada subscription was all I needed to get started. I put the Skype client on my computer, grabbed a headset, and things worked well. I could call people and they could call me. The phone number was separate from anything I used for personal use, so most of my needs were satisfied. The drawback was my work computer. I used a late 2008 vintage 13″ MacBook as a work laptop and even with 4GB of RAM in it, it just didn’t have the horsepower to handle Skype calls while running applications. There were times when calls would be choppy – and I could correlate them to computer use. Not necessarily Internet use, in case you are thinking this was a network issue – but use of the hard drive and other processor functions. It was clearly a computer issue. Just in case it was a network issue, I investigated QoS settings on my router for Skype and discovered that the Skype protocol is notorously difficult to deal with. So QoS by TCP/UDP port numbers is difficult. But – if I could offload the Skype duties to an appliance … then I might be able to fix the problem.

For reasons that I won’t get into, I chose to try a dedicated Skype phone – specifically, the Belkin  F1PP010EN-SK Desktop Phone for Skype. This thing worked great – for me anyway. I don’t think Belkin ever sold that many of them and there were a bunch of complaints online, but I found it really reliable and of good quality. It provided me with three key features:

  1. It used its own dedicated, wired, 10/100 port.
  2. It had a great speakerphone.
  3. It had its own MAC address so I could assign this device to the highest priority queue on my router for great QoS.
I used this phone for about 2 years and I really don’t have too many major complaints. About the only one of my criteria that it didn’t meet was #8 – the wireless/hands-free device, though as I said the speakerphone was good enough. For most people in my situation, this would be my recommendation. Get yourself a Skype appliance and a Skype number and you have a really cheap office phone. Unfortunately for me, I’m not most people.

Additional FiOS Line

One of the things that began to bother me after a while is that I had two phones on my desk. Our normal landline (don’t ask me why I don’t get rid of it – my wife insists we keep it) and a second Skype phone. I found that a pain. And that’s because I’m nuts. The landline was nothing more than a cordless handset that took up no room at all so this is mostly me being an idiot. So I wondered if I could simply add a second line to our normal FiOS service and get a two-line phone for my office and be done with it.

The short answer is yes, you can kind-of add a second number to a FiOS line. Verizon calls it a Virtual Telephone Number. The problem is that it is inbound only. When you call out, your original number (in my case my home number) appears. This is an issue. In today’s world, lots of people I call same my number to their cellphones or whatever and then just hit my name to call me back. In this case they’d be calling my regular home number; a violation of criteria #5 and #7. And it would also disrupt normal service because if I were talking on the phone it wouldn’t be available for others in the house. On many days when I work from home so does my wife, and she needs a working phone too, hence my need for a truly independent second line. So the virtual telephone number was a non-starter. Verizon offers a true second phone line for an additional $9.99 per month, but this requires a truck roll and is not self installable. This isn’t the biggest pain, but still, it seemed like a hassle. So I gave up on that option too.

The Best Solution: VOIP

Obi 100 & Obi 110

Obi100 (left) and Obi110 (right)

In the world of things I could install myself, dedicated VOIP service seemed like the best route. Adding VOIP to your computer via a soft phone seems to me to be much less processor intensive than Skype, because standard SIP-based VOIP services are less resource intensive and the software seems less processor intensive as well. But a softphone wasn’t really what I wanted – I wanted a decent piece of hardware. To make that happen, one typically needs an Analog Telephone Adapter or ATA. These are common enough in the business phone world, but not easy to obtain cheaply in the residential world. Until recently that is. Many people are familiar with Vonage as a VOIP provider and I tried their service years ago. They provided an ATA in the form of a Linksys PAP2 device. This was a great piece of hardware actually made by a company named Sipura which was bought by Cisco. The problem is, companies like Vonage don’t want normal people to know how easy it really is to provide VOIP service and how cheap it could be. You see Vonage is only cheap in comparison to the shakedown that traditional phone companies give you. But there are other VOIP providers out there that, as you will shortly see, are much cheaper still. So companies like Vonage want to lock you into their service and they therefore added firmware to the PAP2 device that prevents it from ever being used on a competitor’s service. I don’t really have a problem with this – if that’s how Vonage wants to do business. What I do have a serious problem with is when two companies, in this case Vonage and Cisco conspire to eliminate consumer choice by joining forces. You see, originally you could buy a locked PAP2 from Vonage or an unlocked one from Sipura/Linksys. And with an unlocked one you could use whatever VOIP provider you wanted. Buy then Cisco bought Sipura/Linksys and they quietly stopped providing unlocked devices to the market. And that really pissed me off, because they made VOIP unreachable for many people until companies like MagicJack finally came along with their own new hardware.

Apparently this also pissed off the original founders of Sipura who left Cisco (a second time actually – they sold two separate ATA manufacturers to Cisco over the years) and founded a company called Obihai Technologies. And Obihai makes a really great set of inexpensive VOIP ATA devices.

What Did I Build

So, what did I ultimately build for myself? Here’s my current system:

 VOIP Service

There are a number of VOIP providers. Common residential/small business ones include CallCentric, Voipo, and Voip.ms. I scoured the forums and ratings at DSLReports.com. After considering the options, I decided on Voip.ms for their combination of features and their “pay-for-what-you-use” billing. This latter point was the clincher for me. In the Voip.ms world, there is no monthly fee (unless you want to maintain a dedicated number, which costs me $0.99 a month). After that you pay for only the minutes you use. Current domestic rates? $0.0125/minute inbound & outbound. That’s a penny and a quarter a minute. How much cheaper is this than a $9.99 additional line? My call records show that for September – November of this year I made 180 calls totaling more than 27 hours of use (27:34:38 to be exact). My usage charges: $11.20. That’s right: $11.20 for three months of phone use. Add the $0.99 for my number and I’m at a whopping $14.20 for three months of home office phone service. And the system satisfies all my criteria. Another killer feature: VOIP works with multiple devices, including softphones on PCs and mobile devices. So now I can take or make business calls from my laptop or my smartphone. Cool.

Hardware

RCA Visys & Cordless Handset

A brief description of my hardware: the Obi100 plugs into a wired Ethernet jack on my desk. It’s analog output becomes “line 1″ of my two-line phone. My normal landline service is plugged into “line 2.” The cordless handset pairs without trouble to the base. The VOIP service provides free voicemail for my business line, along with a bunch of other features like programmable call routing rules and auto-attendant scripts. I can use a real over the ear headset with both the desktop phone and the cordless handset so I have freedom to move around. In fact I have roamed around my yard and walked for 90 minutes straight on nice days during conference calls, just strolling around my property.

One additional feature of the Obi devices – they connect to Google Voice. So if you are a Google Voice user you can access your account and make calls without having to dial your own number or originate them from the web. For me, I pick up line 1 on my phone, dial “**2″ and dial the number normally. Google voice places the call. And, if I have voicemail on my Google number, my phone blinks it’s message waiting indicator as well.

The Visys gives me great features that would be lacking in my home phone, if I tried to use that, including a good full-duplex speaker phone, a headphone jack with a button to activate it or switch back to the main handset, two lines with independent message indicators, plenty of speed-dial memories, do-not-disturb functions, and more.

Final Word

I’ve been using this setup for about 6 months now and I couldn’t be happier. It does everything I want for almost no cost. The phone sounds as good as anything I’ve ever had in an office, it is totally flexible and reliable, and I have a dedicated business number with working inbound and outbound caller ID. I can even set it up to forward to my office line so that if someone saved my home office number to their speed-dial, they will get me no matter where I am. For me, having one comprehensive device on my desk that does whatever I need is the key. No matter what phone rings, I can answer it, and if my wife and I are home at the same time, I can spend hours on the phone without disturbing her work at all.

For home workers who spend a lot of time on the phone, I recommend this setup.

In future articles I will delve into the details of setup, but for now, happy phoning.

Google Voice – Integrating it Into Daily Life

October 3rd, 2009 No comments
This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Google Voice

voice_logoI finally broke down after waiting four weeks for my Google Voice invitation and bought one on EBay. So after salivating for a month with two separate e-mail addresses on the waiting list, I dropped a whopping $3.29 on a “buy it now” Google Voice invite from the seller with the highest feedback on the first page of listings. And I got my invite and had my account set up less than 20 minutes after hitting the pay button on Pay Pal. It was worth every penny – because I really hate to wait for things.

Now the question is, what the hell do I do with it?

My Phone Habits

The first thing I realized is that no one calls me — which is the result of a carefully crafted strategy of hiding from people for close to a decade. Seriously – T-Mobile must hate me because on any given monthly bill at least 90% of my cell minutes used are 3 of the 5 numbers in my My Faves plan. And two of those numbers are my wife! On average, looking at the last 6 months worth if bills, I made or received 4 non-Faves calls a month. And even then several were dentist and doctor appointment reminders.

As for my home phone — well, I’m rarely there and even when I am I don’t answer it for anyone except my wife and a select few friends. And they usually want to talk to my wife anyway.

So now what?

Google Voice promised to solve one of the problems I have: integrating my work life and personal life in the same equipment, for a low (read nearly free) cost. And if I actually needed my phone much for work, Google Voice should make this integration easy.

Work/Life Balance

I work for a rather progressive (at least in the IT sense) healthcare organization. And I also commute 1.5 hours each way to work, usually by train. My employer would be more than happy to provide me with a company laptop and cellphone or Blackberry or Smartphone (heck, even an iPhone), but I have chosen to use my own equipment instead. Why? (Most of my friends think I’m nuts BTW.) Because for at least 3 hours a day I don’t want to feel guilty when I do my own personal stuff using my laptop. And because, as progressive as they are, I can keep my own laptop on the cutting edge installing whatever productivity software I want. A company laptop would be open for me to install things, but they are still building them with Windows XP and Office 2003. Office 2003, 6 years after it was released! That’s just not acceptable for me. As for the cellphone, you can see by my Dash 3G posts I love to tinker with my own phones. And I don’t want to be the über-geek carrying two phones everywhere. So I decided to use my own Windows Mobile phone for corporate e-mail since linking through Outlook Web Access is so easy.

But how to deal with the cost of phone calls (in either minutes or dollars) when I’m away from the office? Like when I’m working from home since my job allows me great flexibility to do that when needed. I could just give people my home number since I have an unlimited digital phone plan through my cable provider — but who wants all kinds of people calling your home number.

Skype to the Rescue

So I turned to Skype. With a cheap (currently costing me ~ $4/month for a SkypeIn number) subscription and SkypeIn number, I have a real telephone number that isn’t my home number for people to use. To get clear calls in my home office, I bought a Belkin F1PP010EN-SK Desktop Internet Phone for Skype, and assigned its MAC address to the highest priority queue on my internet router. And no one has ever suspected it wasn’t a regular landline.

For my mobile phone, I can use the Skype client, at least when a Wi-Fi or 3G connection is good. But on a mobile, the call quality deteriorates very rapidly as the signal changes.

The Problems

Thus my problem. I needed a solution that would allow me to give a “mobile” number to work contacts which would ring my Skype line when I was home in my office or my cellphone (via a regular cell call) when I was out. It would also be nice if I could prioritize co-workers from other work calls. Google Voice seems to fit the bill nicely. It’s routing functions allow me to direct calls to different phones at different times, and I can set my Google Voice number as one of my Faves so the calls don’t take up minutes. Perfect! Now I can use my cell phone like a cell phone for work calls without eating up my personal minutes, and also direct those calls to my home Skype line when I’m working at home (because my cell phone signal inside my house is sketchy, that’s why — otherwise I wouldn’t need Skype at all).

And that’s the way it’s currently set. Now I just need to get my Google Voice number into circulation so I can see how it works.

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