ISP-In-A-Box: Mastering Internet Telephony – One SIP At A Time

X-Ten LiteWe're interrupting our summer break to tell you about what we've been playing with these past few weeks. So today we resume our coverage of IP Telephony with the second in a series of articles on the subject. We'll be exploring SIP-based telephony solutions. These are hardware, software, and service offerings that implement the industry-standard Session Initiation Protocol (RFC 3372) for delivery of telephony services. What cell phones did to the pay phone business is happening in spades with home and business phone and long distance services thanks to VoIP telephony. Cisco had the right idea. They just got too greedy. We previously covered using Skype with your Mac mini or other Mac running Tiger or Panther. The two major drawbacks of the Skype service are Skype's utilization of a proprietrary communications protocol and being tied to your Mac or PC to make and receive phone calls. Once you upgrade to Tiger, however, you can at least get 30 feet away from your Mac using a bluetooth headset such as the Plantronics M3000.

There are some other options that are worthy of a careful look before you jump on the Skype bandwagon. And there's nothing to prevent you from using more than one voice over IP service. You could use a half dozen and still save money compared to what you're paying a Baby Bell for home and especially business phone and long distance services. The only real prerequisite for acceptable IP telephony service is a broadband Internet connection but that, too, is changing. The quality of the calls is now virtually identical to what the Baby Bells provide. Look at it this way: cancelling your residential or business phone service will almost pay for your monthly high-speed Internet service. The only time this isn't an option is in markets where DSL is your only broadband choice. Most of the Baby Bells still tie DSL service to the existence of a regular phone line at your home or office. So much for the Sherman Act's tying prohibition, but that's another story. Finally, a word of caution: VoIP telephony is still in its infancy so don't expect absolute perfection. Many of us endured snowy televisions for years, and VoIP is way past that already. But, if being able to make a 911 call in the middle of the night from your home phone is the most important criteria to you for home phone service, then by all means stick with the Baby Bells. They appreciate your 50 bucks every month for local phone service.

Unlimited "Call (almost) Anywhere" Phone Service. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a drop-in replacement for your home phone service and exhorbitant long distance fees (i.e. per minute rates for U.S. calls in excess of 4¢ per minute), then look no further than BroadVoice. Yes, once in a while, we get a whopping $20 if someone signs up for BroadVoice service using our account number, but we haven't bought our dream home with the proceeds yet. In fact, a good night on the town is still a pipe dream. Some of you may remember the late Victor Kiam commercial for Remington razors: "I liked 'em so much ... I bought the company." That's kinda the way we feel about BroadVoice although we're still awaiting the deluge of $20 checks before making the company purchase. Here's our BroadVoice phone number just in case you want to help: (4O4) 795-2227.

What distinguishes BroadVoice from the rest of the pack are several things: the breadth of their hardware and software offerings and the flexibility they provide in letting you switch plans, switch hardware, or bring your own devices for use with their service. And BroadVoice doesn't cripple the devices they sell to preclude your using their hardware with another IP telephony provider's service down the road. Imagine Sony selling you a television that could only receive Fox News. George Bush might buy one, but ...

The other major distinction with BroadVoice residential service is what $20 a month buys: unlimited calls to anywhere in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Vatican City, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Chile, Singapore, Taiwan, and China. Another five bucks a month buys you free calling to fourteen more countries. As with most IP telephony providers' plans, calls to other BroadVoice users in any country are always free. And nothing precludes your having an Atlanta phone number on your BroadVoice phone in Holland so grandma in Atlanta can call you toll-free using her big black Ma Bell phone from 1952. But, suppose you just want to experiment with IP telephony before making the leap. Keep reading!

What initially separated Vonage from the rest was the feature set that accompanied their IP telephony service. BroadVoice not only has matched Vonage feature for feature, but they've added almost a dozen more at no cost. The free voice mail service is nothing short of incredible. You can retrieve your messages using any phone or a web browser. Better yet you can have either your messages or just the caller ID information emailed to you in real time. You also can have calls to your BroadVoice number ring simultaneously on up to seven additional phone numbers including your cell phone. Other features include Anonymous Call Rejection, Call Waiting, Call Forwarding Always, Call Forwarding Busy, Call Forwarding No Answer, Distinctive Ring, Do Not Disturb, Last Number Redial, Call Hold, Speed Dial 8, Speed Dial 100, Caller ID with Name, Three-Way Calling, Call Notify, *69 Call Return, Voice Mail Aliases, Call Transfer, and Voice Mail Distribution Lists. If that isn't enough features to keep your fingers busy, you can add additional phone numbers in different area codes including toll free and United Kingdom numbers of your choice for less than $2 more a month. And Microsoft Windows Messenger Soft Phone support is available for $3 a month. Many other features are also on the drawing board. Last, but not least, you can manage all of these features using your favorite web browser.

The one feature we wish BroadVoice would hurry up and implement is the ability to use multiple phones in different locations with the same account. Since BroadVoice could charge for multiple simultaneous calls from the same account, we really don't see any business impediment to such a feature. And it would facilitate movement from place to place by business travelers who might want a terminal adapter in their home but would prefer a WiFi phone or softphone while on the road. Right now you would have to disable your home terminal adapter before switching to another device, or BroadVoice would suspend your service when multiple devices appeared on their radar.


VoIP Telephony Hardware. If Skype has an Achilles Heel, it would have to be the quality of hardware offerings available for use with the Skype service. Once you get used to high quality telephone instruments, it's hard to go back to a $15 plastic headset to make and receive telephone calls. You won't find that problem with BroadVoice. In fact, if you already have broadband service, you can add a terminal adapter with or without a router and use your existing cordless phones with ease. All you pay is the $40 set up fee, and the device is yours to use for free. Any of the 5.8GHz cordless phone sets are almost perfect for use with the BroadVoice router. Our personal favorites are Uniden's new two-line model (see inset above) which is expandable to 10 units or the single-line vTech i5871 which has about the same feature set as a high-end cell phone (see inset below).


Using A Wi-Fi Phone. Another option which finally began shipping again last week is a WiFi-enabled IP phone. BroadVoice offers this new phone for $99 when you sign up for their service. Or you can purchase one later for $140 from Hello Direct to use with your BroadVoice service. The claimed advantage of the WiFi phone is that you can take it with you and use it from virtually any Wi-Fi HotSpot or from any home or office equipped with wireless Internet service. We ordered the phone from Hello Direct, the marketing arm for BroadVoice hardware now. BroadVoice actually shipped the new phone, a UTStarcom F1000, not the WiSIP phone previously sold by BroadVoice. Unlike the WiSIP phone, this phone does not yet have a web interface (either incoming or outgoing). This means you cannot configure it through a web browser and can't connect to WiFi HotSpots that require some sort of terms of use acknowledgment before you can use their service. So the phone is all but worthless at Wi-Fi hot spots but does work reliably with home and office networks using nothing more secure than WEP encryption. WPA is promised as a future enhancement.


The only way to configure the phone for use with BroadVoice is to have BroadVoice customer service select this phone as your only type of device (i.e. you lose your BYOD status) and then download the configuration using TFTP. Once you switch to this phone, BroadVoice customer service claims there's no way to revert back to another type of device without calling BroadVoice support again since the phone is so new that it's not in their list of supported BYO devices yet. BroadVoice support swears that you'll be able to have 2 separate devices (for a modest fee) within a month so I guess we'll see what happens. The other drawback with this particular phone is that there appeared to be no way to adjust the speaker volume. BroadVoice support wasn't much help on this either. We were told there was a button "somewhere probably on the side of the phone." Well, gee, why didn't we think to look there before calling. There, of course, is no button on the side of the phone nor anywhere else to adjust the volume. Nor is it supported in the menus which are fairly intuitive. UTStarcom's Forum happened to answer the question: press the right arrow key during a conversation to increase the volume or the left arrow to decrease it. Using the Up and Down arrows would have been too intuitive, I suppose. It turns out that the volume already was set to 4 of 5 steps, and increasing it to 5 made very little difference. You really couldn't use this phone in a noisy restaurant or airport setting based upon our testing. There's also a problem obtaining the device unlock code from BroadVoice support. At least two BroadVoice agents couldn't find the answer. You need this code to force a power-on password and to enter (or discover) your SIP password. Let me save you some time on the forums. For the benefit of all the hard-working BroadVoice agents, the default password is 888888 which then can be changed. And finally this footnote: despite what BroadVoice Customer Service says about not being able to change devices without their help, once you discover your SIP password using the device unlock code above, it actually is a simple matter to reconfigure the X-Ten Lite softphone to work when you are not using your WiFi phone. Just change the X-Ten Lite SIP password to match that of your WiFi phone, and it works swimmingly. Sipura terminal adapters also work fine. Just don't use two devices at once (for the time being anyway), or the BroadVoice switch will lock your account.

After successful use of the phone at home using a 128-bit WEP password, we went to test it at one of our neighborhood restaurants which has free Wi-Fi access. The phone didn't work there because (like most WiFi Hot Spots) there is a web acknowledgment screen to consent to terms of use before you can gain access to the Internet. Since the phone has no web browser, there's no way to get connected. Interestingly, some other store or home near the restaurant apparently had an open Wi-Fi router which the phone connected to with no problems after giving up on the Wi-Fi Hot Spot connection inside the restaurant. Considering that a prosecutor in St. Petersburg, Russia Florida just indicted a person for "theft of computer services" for using his computer on a public street beside a person's house with an open WiFi router, this may not be the smartest use or design of technology until a few courts speak on the legality of using open WiFi connections in public areas. In this particular case, the phone made the connection with no user intervention. We only noticed what happened because it initially paused on the Wi-Fi Hot Spot connection, and we then began watching the screen to see what would happen next. What the phone did was start scanning for other access points. Incidentally, you can store six separate WiFi locations with separate passwords in this particular phone model which is a significant improvement over the older WiSIP phone. Assuming the courts confirm the lunacy of charging individuals with theft of services for using open, unprotected WiFi access points (we'll let you be the judge of who the real dummies are in this scenario), all this phone really needs now is a simple web browser to navigate through HotSpot log in screens, and it will be a pretty terrific, first generation product. The phone is the same length and a bit more than half the width and a third the weight of Palm's Treo 650. As for the "look and feel" of the phone, we'd rate it as pretty much the equivalent of most $100-$150 cell phones.

Using A Softphone With Your Mac or PC. If you are hell-bent on using your VoIP phone service directly with your Mac or PC, X-Ten Lite (see inset) is as good a product as you could ask for. It can be configured to work with BroadVoice service easily, and it can be downloaded for free from here. We use it, and it works great!

We've barely scratched the surface of SIP-compatible devices which can be used with BroadVoice. Here's a list of configuration tutorials for the major devices that BroadVoice supports. But many other SIP-compatible devices will work as well. Visit The VoIP Connection web site to get an idea of the breadth of choices which are out there. Our only advice would be not to purchase a SIP device unless a configuration for that device exists to use with your provider. The very best Wizard for configuring numerous SIP devices for use with dozens of VoIP providers can be found at Voxilla.com. Our rule of thumb goes like this: if it's not on the Voxilla Wizard's device list or BroadVoice's supported device list, don't buy it unless you enjoy water torture.

Pay-As-You-Go Internet Phone Service. If "all-you-can-eat" isn't your favorite meal ticket, there now are a couple great SIP alternatives to Skype. As you might have guessed, BroadVoice has a BYOD-Lite plan for $8.45 a month that includes a regular phone number in your choice of area codes, all the same features outlined above, and 100 outgoing minutes to anywhere in the U.S., free incoming calls, and free calls to other BroadVoice users. Additional U.S. minutes are about 4¢ (maybe cheaper if some BroadVoice folks read the rest of this paragraph). That's about the same per minute rate that many traditional long distance carriers have been charging for U.S. calls during the last five years. And some are even cheaper. If the objective is to encourage switching or at least experimentation with VoIP services which the $8.45 pricing scheme certainly suggests, then the pot could stand a little more sweetening insofar as the per minute costs are concerned. And, yes, we make money if you sign up with this carrier, too. Agent 5185 at your service. Ain't America great!

Another VoIP provider option is SIPphone. As with BroadVoice, it is not proprietary and is also SIP-compatible meaning it uses open standards-based SIP technology. And, just as with Skype and BroadVoice, calls between users of the service are free. For calls to plain-old-telephones (POTS) in the United States, the cost is 2¢ a minute. Calling rates to other countries are available here. And, if you'd like a "regular" phone number in your favorite area code for free incoming calls from any other phone of any flavor, the cost is about $6 a month with 100 free outgoing call minutes which makes it virtually identical to BroadVoice's BYOD-Lite plan except for the per minute charges. The other good news with the SIPphone service is that most of the same hardware that works with BroadVoice will also work with SIPphone. So, if you get tired of BroadVoice for any or no reason, you can switch to SIPphone and take your hardware with you. That includes terminal adapters and routers with SIP service compatibility, the WiSIP Wi-Fi phone, and softphone clients such as the free Gizmo and X-Ten Lite clients which work with Macs, Windows PCs, and soon Linux desktop machines. Unfortunately, we haven't found the SIPphone service to be nearly as reliable as BroadVoice's. Check out their Getting Started forum before you make the leap.

Build-Your-Own PBX. For all the supernerds still reading, you also can add your own PBX to your Mac or PC and use either BroadVoice or SIPphone to place and receive calls. Known as Asterisk®, the software for your Mac can be downloaded from our experimental WebDAV server or from this Asterisk web site. You can map a network drive to our WebDAV server by connecting to http://windswept.dyndns.org:82 with a username of bozo and a password of forlife. Then you can drag and drop the Asterisk file folder on your desktop. Don't forget to eject the drive when you are finished. For more info on WebDAV and Web Folders, start here.

Our personal preference at the moment is to build an Asterisk PBX using any old, low-end Windows machine with the Blue Lava VOip PBX In A Box software. We have lots of scrapped Windows machines that are no longer permitted to access email or a web browser because of Microsoft's self-inflicted security mess. The cost of Blue Lava is only $49 and will save you weeks of headaches. Incidentally, the Blue Lava developers are the same fine folks that developed the WiSIP Wi-Fi phone discussed above. And the Asterisk software is preconfigured for use with BroadVoice and SIPphone among others.

Everything Else You Wanted to Know About BroadVoice. No single article can do justice to the breadth of features and functions available with a new BroadVoice account. Here's another article worth a look. Finally we'll send you to the same place we go when there's something new to be learned, the Voxilla Forum. As mentioned before, VoIP in general and BroadVoice in particular are not without their problems. BroadVoice, for example, had a serious meltdown several months ago after a dispute with one of their providers who had everything to gain by shutting down the likes of BroadVoice. Such are the growing pains of a new, incredible technology. Just explore it with your eyes wide open and take precautions to avoid having all of your communications eggs in one basket.

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5 Responses to “ISP-In-A-Box: Mastering Internet Telephony – One SIP At A Time”

  1. Georg Fritscher says:

    Congratulations to your posting about VoIP / SIP! Finally someone who does understand to use and not to expect miracles of these new features.

    I use X-Ten and BroadVoice + other providers since begin of this year; followed BroadVoice also with their “journey to hell and back” in May without complaining or demanding at all. It’s also my opinion that BroadVoice is one of the best services on the market, I love their hard work to get back up and running again like before the “meltdown”.
    Whenever there occurred any problems in their network I received best help and good manners … so, I do not understand all these complaints about BroadVoice and their lack of service; possibly lack of attitude of the complainers?

  2. alexp says:

    I would use caution when signing for BV. They have had many issues.

    http://www.dslreports.com reviews is a solid place to look, as is http://www.voxilla.com

    [WM: I, too, would use caution, and I wouldn't limit it to BroadVoice. As I said in the article, VoIP is a new technology. And, as the old saying goes, "You can spot the pioneers by the arrows in their backs."]

  3. Kevin says:

    Anyone know if these work with fax machines? (via the term adapters?)

    [WM: That's a big maybe. Check the forums if you want to use a fax. You'll also need to run install-pdf from the command prompt. Good luck.]

  4. Ned says:

    Thanks for the informative article, which has answered many of my questions. Does anybody know if ordering BV via Hello Direct still allows the customer to get a $50 rebate after 3 months? Nobody at BV or HD seems to know how this would work — they each refer you to the other to answer this question. And can the WiFi phone really be unlocked if I decide one day to use it with SunRocket or some other service instead?

    [WM: Don't know about the rebate. If Hello Direct doesn't know, I'd say the answer is probably no. As for the WiFi phone, once it's configured for BroadVoice, you're stuck. I did replace my first one (which was pure crapola). The newer ones have a much later version of the firmware which actually seems to work. People at the other end actually hear most of what you're saying. The way the process works is that BroadVoice preconfigures an account for you, you get the phone, and then connect to BroadVoice and tell it to replace your BYOD service with the WiFi phone. At this point, you're stuck. If you set up your BYOD account in advance, order the phone from Hello Direct, and configure it yourself when you receive it (to use Asterisk, for example), then the phone is unlocked, works, and stays that way. Once you provision it through BroadVoice, you're stuck.]

  5. Vera Sinha says:

    BroadVoice shouldn’t be in that business, if they can’t make money by offering an “UNLIMITED CALLING PLANS”. They are running a real SCHEME, going month(s) back and charging the user excessively.

    I honestly, wouln’t recommend BroadVoice to anyone. I have stated: they are running a “SCHEME” of business. “Cheap”, at the end will cost you more.

    [WM: You'll note that we recommended ONLY their BYOD calling plan, not an unlimited calling plan.]

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