If you’re one of the 75,000+ Broadband Reports VoIP Forum subscribers who took advantage of the Staples/Vonage million dollar giveaway of easily unlocked Linksys PAP2 terminal adapters this past week and now you’d like to do more with VoIP than just make phone calls, welcome! For the rest of us including those that have been following our Asterisk articles these past few months, you already know that the hardest part of using Asterisk@Home or any other flavor Asterisk PBX is finding reliable, cost-effective VoIP providers that support home users of Asterisk. For business users, the prospects are even more bleak! With pay-as-you-go service, most providers don’t care what you connect with including Asterisk, and our experience suggests that Voxee.com (1¢ – 2¢ for most of the world with six second billing increments for U.S. calls) remains the best and most economical alternative, but it’s for outgoing calls only. And, yes, we love GoIAX.com with their free outbound calls within the U.S., and we love IPkall and Stanaphone for free incoming calls as long as you don’t mind a Washington state or New York City phone number. But, if there is one thing you can count on in the VoIP world, it’s this: free calling in or out probably won’t last forever. You do the math! Footnote: Matthew Simpson, who started the GoIAX service, promises us he’ll keep it going "forever" provided the cost of stamping out abusers doesn’t start outweighing the benefits of keeping the free service operational. We obviously wish him all the luck in the world and hereby donate this terrific, new (and free) firewall to assist in his efforts. He’s probably going to need it.
More problematic is finding a provider in the United States that supports Asterisk with an unlimited residential calling plan and a local phone number at a decent price. While BroadVoice advertises incredibly cheap international calling plans as unlimited with local phone numbers in most U.S. area codes, their fine print and the number of complaints of backbilling and other financial shenanigans posted on the Voxilla forum suggest that you’d better be extremely careful if you elect to use one of BroadVoice’s so-called Unlimited* Calling Plans with much of any call volume. As your Mama used to say, "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is." For our review of international calling plans, go here. Last week we reviewed Yahoo’s dialpad service, but the voice quality of the calls just wasn’t satisfactory at least for our purposes, and there was no support for incoming calls with a local phone number. We personally liked Teliax, but they charged 2¢ a minute (rounded to whole minutes) for outgoing and incoming calls plus $5 a month for a local number (DID). And, when something comes unglued at their end, good luck getting it fixed. We had a DID that worked reliably and then all of a sudden you got a fast busy when folks called the number. In short, the calls never made it to our Asterisk server at all, and we showed them our logs to prove it. Unfortunately, explaining the situation to the Teliax support folks was a bit like talking to a toddler. They heard the words, but … Suffice it to say, the line remained dead in the water for almost a week before magically coming back to life. So we’re kissing Teliax goodbye for breaking Telecom Rule #1: When someone calls, our phone needs to ring! Then we looked at VoicePulse Connect with free incoming calls and a local number of your choice, but it’s $11 a month, and you then have to pay 4¢ a minute for outgoing U.S. calls. Yes, VoicePulse has all-you-can-eat plans, but they won’t support Asterisk. They will let you purchase a second line for Asterisk and pay 4¢ a minute for U.S. calls. We can do about as well with a WalMart phone card. So where does that leave us? Exhausted but persevering…
Just when we thought the Asterisk landscape was looking pretty bleak in the U.S. all-you-can-eat department, we stumbled upon a VoIP provider that loves and actually uses Asterisk, has state-of-the-art servers and a network backbone to match, demonstrates incredible depth of experience in the VoIP market, doesn’t play mind games with unconscionable terms of service (i.e. unlimited long distance calling means unlimited long distance calling), and has dirt cheap all-you-can-eat U.S. residential calling plans with local phone numbers for incoming calls. How much? $14.95 a month with no hidden "recovery" fees. For business users, you won’t find a better collection of business offerings on the planet. There are cradle-to-grave plans, or you can do-it-yourself for $40 per trunk with $1 DID’s and unlimited U.S. local and long distance calling. Even with its $100 monthly minimum, the latter is a great deal on PSTN origination and termination service for almost any size business. If you’re a small business and these plans don’t quite meet your needs, send them an email, and I’m pretty sure they’ll work out some cost-effective arrangement that meets your needs. Having tried dozens of VoIP providers over the past few months, suffice it to say, we’ve learned to spot the duds, the con artists, and the crappy providers just about as quickly as you can sign up for service. What you won’t get with this provider is a splashy web site with flashing signs promising you the moon … only to learn (later) that your free trip was just one way. Nor will there be a lot of hand-holding support although we received a return support call from the founder of the company in less than 30 minutes, and he didn’t know us from Adam. If you want handholding, then Vonage with a locked PAP2 phone adapter and no Asterisk server may be your best ticket to experience VoIP. Or here’s a cheaper alternative. BellSouth will sell you residential CallerID in Atlanta for only $8 a month … no phone line, no free calls to anywhere, no dial tone, no phone, just CallerID. And they wonder why their customers are leaving in droves.
So, where were we? If you’re comfortable with Asterisk and just looking for rock-solid reliable calls and an unlimited U.S. calling plan where you can actually hear the person at the other end of the line, then we’ve found a provider for you at a very reasonable price. Have we dragged this out long enough? The winner is VoipXpress aka TelaSIP. Congratulations to Jacob Brassington, who correctly guessed the winner in a posted comment following last week’s column. We didn’t publish the wrong guesses to protect the innocent. Our recommendation is that you try the $14.95 VoipXpress Premium plan for yourself. And, yes, the company founder, Gene Willingham, will give you your money back if you’re not satisfied. Or, if you just don’t trust anybody without a little personal testing, sign up for the VoipXpress Basic plan which is free with 4¢ per minute pay-as-you-go domestic calls.
Full Disclosure & Freebies. Like most other VoIP providers, VoipXpress helps a bit to defray the costs of the bandwidth for this blog if you sign up using the link we’ve provided. Sorry, but we’re addicted to referral credits, and you, too, can get them once you sign up for service. Anyway, it costs you nothing and helps us a little. But, if the referral stuff bothers you, just delete the PARTNER portion of the link to VoipXpress once you arrive on their web site. We like their service with or without referral credits. You will get a freebie, however, if you use our link. During October, VoipXpress will give you a second DID number in your choice of area code at no additional charge. Their DID’s are normally $1.95 a month, the best residential DID bargain around for those that need or want numbers in multiple places. Just mention Nerd Vittles when you sign up during October to get your second DID in almost any area code at no cost.
Configuring Asterisk@Home for VoipXpress. Now let’s get VoipXpress working with your Asterisk@Home system. The VoipXpress servers are actually maintained by their parent company, TelaSIP. We need to add a simple context to process incoming calls and then add a new trunk in our Asterisk@Home system. Finally we’ll reconfigure the outbound dialing routes to take advantage of the VoipXpress unlimited calling plan. Here’s how.
Point your web browser to your Asterisk@Home server’s IP address and choose AMP->Maintenance->Config Edit and choose extensions_custom.conf. We’re assuming you heeded our advice in our Securing Asterisk column and have already added a [from-external-custom] context to your extensions_custom file. If not, do that first! Now scroll to the bottom of the file and add the following new context substituting your Telasip assigned phone number for 4561234567. If you received two DIDs from TelaSIP, add three additional exten lines with your second number. Then click the Update button to save your changes.
exten => 4561234567,1,NoOp(Incoming call from TelaSIP #4561234567)
exten => 4561234567,2,Goto(from-external-custom,s,1)
exten => 4561234567,3,Hangup
Now let’s add a trunk for TelaSIP. Choose AMP->Setup->Trunks. Then click Add SIP Trunk. Why SIP and not IAX? The simple answer is there’s less call overhead between you and the provider. With SIP, only signalling information is passed to your provider while the data for the call itself (i.e. the heavy lifting) is strictly between you and the person you’re calling. Now where were we? For your Outbound Caller ID, fill in the local phone number provided by Telasip. For Maximum Channels, enter 2. That means that, unlike most providers of unlimited service, your account can handle two simultaneous calls in or out of your house with TelaSIP. For Dial Rules, enter the following substituting your local area code for 404:
In the Outgoing Settings section, name your trunk telasip-gw and then enter the following PEER details using your TelaSIP-assigned username and password:
Leave the Incoming Settings User Context and User Details blank. For your Registration string, enter the following: yourusername:email@example.com using your actual username and password assigned by TelaSIP. Click Submit Changes and then the red bar to restart Asterisk.
Adjusting Your Dialplans To Support VoipXpress/TelaSIP. If you’re using the Outbound Dialplans that we’ve built in the last few episodes, then it’s a simple matter to move SIP/telasip-gw up this list of priorities. Using AMP->Setup, click the Outbound Routing tab and then select each of the following routes: Local, Tollfree, and US. For each route, add a new Trunk Sequence by clicking the Add button and choosing SIP/telasip-gw. Then move it to the top of your Trunk Sequence list for each route to make it your first outbound dialing priority. Save your changes and restart Asterisk.
Making a Test Call Using TelaSIP. To be sure everything is working swimmingly, start up Asterisk in interactive mode using the Command Line Interface (CLI) so that you can actually watch what’s happening when calls are placed and received. This works best if you connect to your Asterisk server through SSH from a Mac or PC. SSH comes with every Mac and the syntax is simple: ssh root@AsteriskIPaddress. If you’re still chained to Microsoft, download Putty from the Mother Country, and you can do the same thing using a Windows machine. Once you’re logged in as root, issue the following command: asterisk -r. Quit ends your Asterisk CLI session, and exit logs you out of your SSH session. Now issue the command: set verbose 10 to get maximum information. Then place a U.S. long distance call and watch what happens. You should see something similar to the following which shows that the call was placed using the new telasip-gw trunk:
-- Called telasip-gw/8435551212
-- SIP/telasip-gw-2cbf is ringing
Coming Attractions. Next week, we still have Digium®’s IAXy device to configure so that you can take a phone with you on the road and connect back to your Asterisk® server to make calls. And with the IAXy 2 (now shipping), you can even use MD5 encryption for your passwords to further protect your Asterisk system. We’ll show you how. Then we’ll turn our attention to faxing and show you how to reconfigure Asterisk@Home to perform double-duty as not only a versatile PBX but also a sophisticated fax machine. You won’t need any special fax detection hardware to make this work, and Asterisk@Home will automatically detect and capture incoming faxes using your VoIP line. No dedicated fax line required! Then Asterisk@Home will convert the faxes into PDF documents and forward them to any email address you choose. This works great with your SIP line from TelaSIP by the way and works rarely with VoIP service from BroadVoice … yet another reason to put on your traveling shoes.
For those on the West Coast, don’t forget that next week is the big Asterisk convention in Anaheim: Astricon 2005. It’s not too late to register. And all your favorite nerds will be there, except us unfortunately. It should be a great time to learn all about Asterisk and to hear and see what’s on the drawing boards.
Last but not least, we previously walked you through adding entries to extensions_custom.conf to blacklist your "favorite" callers. But, in a coming article, we’ll show you how to do the same thing automatically at the touch of a button on your phone. In addition, there are some easy tools to manually add and remove blacklisted callers from Asterisk’s internal database, and we’ll show you how to access them from your phone. As the holiday and election seasons approach, you’ll be glad you’ve mastered blacklisting. Have a great weekend.
Other Tutorials. There are numerous additional articles in this Asterisk HOW-TO series to keep you busy. You can read all of them by clicking here and scrolling down the page. We recommend reading at least the first four or five articles from the bottom up so that the learning curve is less painful. Finally, if you just want to brush up on your phone etiquette, don’t miss Lily Tomlin’s "This Is A Recording" (See inset of "Ernestine" pictured with a vintage tip-and-ring switchboard). There is no finer tutorial on the planet: "We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company."