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magicJack: Could It Be the Asterisk Killer?

"Well, of course, not!" You’re probably like us. Anything with Magic in the name and Free in the advertising usually makes us start scurrying toward the nearest fire exit. Well, not so fast, Tonto. magicJack is a brilliant idea: a $20 USB dongle that plugs into any Windows XP PC. Then for $20 a year, you plug in any garden-variety telephone, and you get unlimited, free calls to any phone in the U.S. and Canada. That’s not quite free, but it’s close enough in our book. Released in April at the TED conference, the device design has just about everything right. And it’s all done with VoIP technology. You get a real telephone number in your favorite area code. You use a real telephone to make calls. And incoming calls can ring on both your regular phone (plugged into the magicJack) AND your cellphone… soon.

The only prerequisite is that you have to have at least your main phone connected through the magicJack to a working Windows XP machine. Vista support is now available but we didn’t test it. With cordless phone systems supporting a dozen extensions, the Windows machine requirement with an attached phone is not much of a drawback for most folks. Let’s just tick off who qualifies as the perfect audience for a device like this. Grandma and grandpa, traveling sales people, teenage girls, schools, nursing homes, summer camps, bars, resort hotels, restaurants, college dorms, rental apartments, those with a second (or third) home, people that travel or live outside the U.S. and Canada that need to make calls back to North America at no cost. Remember, this works anywhere with an XP machine, a phone, and a broadband Internet connection. You can even dispense with the phone and use the included softphone if you desire. And the PC doesn’t have to be a Dell behemoth. It could be a tiny PC about the size of a stack of four CDs. The magicJack itself functions much like a Sipura SPA-1001 analog VoIP adapter with similar call quality except for the attached PC requirement. So now you’ve got the theory down. Let’s unbox the device and put it through some basic tests.

Installation and Setup. The hardest part of installation is getting the magicJack out of its packaging. If you love all those shrink-wrapped toys that cut your hands open when you try to pry them loose from the package, then you’ll really love the magicJack. It’s got two layers of the stuff. But, once you finally free the magicJack from its packaging, you’ll be up and running in under 2 minutes. Plug the cord of a regular telephone into the magicJack. Then plug the magicJack into a USB port on your (functioning) XP machine. It’ll automatically install itself in under a minute. Now reboot your machine. Once your PC comes back to life, unplug the magicJack and then plug it back in again (Bug #1). When prompted, you’ll need to authorize the magicJack to access the Internet through your firewall obviously. Then you’ll be prompted to enter your email address and set up a password. Once completed, you’re good to go. Well, sorta… The PC software, which is always running, is a combination of a softphone, a user interface to the magicJack, and a billboard where magicJack someday plans to host advertising. Now you can appreciate the main reason for the PC requirement. A terminal adapter doesn’t have a screen to display advertising. Of course, you can minimize this one so it’s not much of a distraction unless that functionality should change in coming months.

One Minute of Patience For A Lifetime of Savings. Great motto, but… it’s going to take more than a minute of patience once you get the software installed. We work with all sorts of phones and PBXs for a living so let us sum up the current state of affairs with magicJack: B-U-G-G-Y. The theory and design of the product are right on the money, but the software is just not yet reliable or even stable. We experienced frequent software crashes and glitches both at their end and at ours. Crashes on the Windows desktop require you to remove and reinsert the device. There’s really no other way to restart the device since it runs all the time when your PC is on. One call always seemed to work great in either direction. And the call quality was excellent with no echo. But then it was downhill from there. A surefire way to kill incoming calls was to dial your new number from the phone connected to the magicJack. You’re instructed to do this to reset your voicemail password. But once we did it, no incoming calls arrived until the PC was rebooted. All the calls went directly to voicemail. And that was hit and miss as well. You’d get a typical unavailable message, but then the system would abruptly hang up. And a dozen attempts to call the voicemail system from the device to reset the password all failed with three beeps and then nothing. It took us a while to figure out that this is what was killing inbound calls. This is a little puzzling since it appears they’re using a standard Asterisk® server at least for voicemail. Here was the From address on the email delivery of the voicemail message: Magicjack <voicemail@asterisk>. Another quick way to kill the system was to leave the PC idle for an hour, even without a screensaver. After that, nothing worked. No dialtone. No incoming calls. No softphone functionality.

The interaction between the PC softphone display and the POTS phone also was quirky. Sometimes the softphone would lose track of whether a call had been answered, and this typically killed the ability to receive any further calls. So you’ll want to stay close to your PC because walking around with a cordless phone would give you no clue whether a call had been properly disconnected. And, whatever you do, don’t try the Advanced User option to restart the software. That crashed and trashed just about everything necessitating (yet another) system reboot. If you loved Windows 3.1, then you’ll feel right at home wrestling with this software.

Bottom Line. We actually got the device from a friend with about as many cellphone stores as AT&T. My advice to him went something like this. Let’s give the developers another three months to get the kinks out. Then we’ll test it again before Christmas and see if things have improved. Our bottom line with telephone service is quite simple. When someone calls, the phone had better ring. And, when no one answers, the voicemail had better work. For pioneers, this is a terrific product for experimentation, but we wouldn’t choose it yet if reliable phone service matters. So our current comparison of the magicJack to our Asterisk system would be a no-brainer. We reboot our Asterisk system about once every six months. We rebooted the magicJack about a dozen times in the first hour, and all we were doing was placing less than a handful of test calls. You can click on the screenshot above to visit their web site. Stay tuned!

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  1. It is strange you had to reboot so many times. I have not had to reboot once andmy magicJack has never crashed. I have been up for over a week too. The WPA (wife approval factor) is better than any other phone service, even pots due to the high voice quality. Did you do some debugging to see what was causing it to crash?

    [WM: Glad it works for somebody.]

  2. Besides the requirement for this to be used with a computer running Windows – something that would make me avoid this product like the plague anyway – there’s the matter of whether this company can be financially viable. Remember, we just had a major player in the VoIP space (SunRocket) go belly-up and they were charging at least $99 a year, depending on which plan you were on. This company is only going to charge about $40 in the first year and $20 each year thereafter and still make money, even though they (like every other VoIP company) have to pay terminating charges when they complete calls using the PSTN? Ever heard the old saying that begins with, "If it seems too good to be true…"?

    No one will ever accuse this of being a "green" product, if you have to have a computer running 24 hours a day just to support it (and even then it will only work so long as it, or the computer, hasn’t crashed or hung). Why couldn’t they offer to let customers use a standalone ATA as an option (should be possible if they are really using Asterisk)? People will think they are getting a great deal with this but only if they do not factor in the cost of electricity and (perhaps) the missed opportunities when calls do not come in because the computer is hung, or in the process of being rebooted, or some such thing.

  3. Hi Ward. If the advertisement and buggy software turn you off you can achieve the same result using Skype with a usb phone adapter such as the Dlink DPH-50U (around $60), Skype’s unlimited call plan ($30/year), and a skype-in number ($60/year).

  4. The reason it does not use an ATA is because they are going to be putting ads on the left-hand banner of the software to make money. You can minimize the software though by dragging it off the screen. That is why it is so cheap.

    [WM: We said that already… but ditto.]

  5. This may not be it, but have you checked out Callbutler? Since (for the sake of comparison) a PC is required for majicJack, a PC is required for Callbutler I used it on XP Pro.

    It is a very slick SIP server that works. The outlook integration is slick and I was able to use softphones and a Polycom handset with a Vitelity trunk for in and out.

    I think on a laptop it could be a travel PBX. Use the PC Slot for aux wireless and something like a Linksys WIP330 and your set.

    I still prefer Asterisk/FreePBX but Callbutler is really slick.

  6. Ward, have you seen the stick phone from Firefly? It’s not $20 but around $AUD80. It’s a USB drive with a sound card, a cell phone like earphone / mic, and the firefly softphone. The good thing is that with the old Firefly 3rd party softphone you can connect via IAX to you asterisk server and bypass the Firefly network. Works a treat.

  7. It will be interesting to see how long it will take someone to make this interface with other softphones. As far as I can tell you’ve got a USB to regular phoneline interface with all the actual softphone stuff being handled by the software. Use different software and it can be connected to any VOIP provider including your own asterisk box.

    [WM: Funny you’d mention this. Tom Keating and I were discussing this very thing yesterday.]

  8. It’s always interesting reading techie articles. I got lost throughout your article on MJ, amd am thus confused as to why your computer kept crashing. I’ve been using MJ a couple of months now (I was a beta tester, guess that’s why they picked me, I am terrible with computers). Anyway, the only time it didn’t work was the other day. I merely unplugged the MJ and replugged it in and it worked perfectly once again. I guess your target audience isn’t me, though, an illiterate person when it comes to computers. I think MJ was made for people who don’t know how to fiddle with computers! I have a used Dell with XP. Anyway, I’m thrilled so far (AT&T is WAY too expensive) but will wait to see how well it does when there are many many more users flooding their servers. Also, compared to Skype . . . you can’t compare them. Skype is terrible terrible terrible in comparison.

  9. I’m not having any issues with the magicJack softphone. So far I have 3 computers all running a magicJack with great results! magicJack is better than cell phones and better than the crappy AT&T land lines in my area. Now only if magicJack will offer 502 area code with a Louisville, KY prefix…;)

  10. i use trixbox for my business and after reading your artical i went ahead and bought my mj. it did take about 2 min to install, got my number and made few calls with no problems. I’ve installed MJ on my 2 other computers without any problems at all. Will conti. to test it since it looks like a nice product to have… Thanks for your review.

  11. I suppose they need a PC running to generate them advertising dollars..otherwise it would be wicked if the MagicJac could run on Linux…. I’ve already got an Asterisk server running 24×7… this could’ve been a very cheap trunk on it!!!..with no FXO cards to worry about.

    [WM: Yeah, that woulda been nice.]

  12. Ward – I have an MJ I have not gotten around to testing it. I wanted to run an RJ11 crossover cable from MJ into an FXO port on a Trixbox server, and use it to emulate a POTS line. Have you tried this?

    [WM: Great idea. Let us know how it goes.]

  13. By the way I cancelled Vonage and got like 5 incentives to stay with them. In addition, they ask me if I wanted to get a deal with AT&T to give me DSL by itself since I told them the reason I was cancelling was because I was cancelling comcast. 😉

  14. My friend gave me one he had b/c he have not use it for a while… actually he doesn’t remember the password he used and I have been not able to use it… Do someone know how to reset the password of the registration?

  15. i got a MJ a month before and though it seems an awesome piece it relly sucks. I am not able to call on that ever. Though the voice quality is great but I think its not yet mature enough. They have a very poor customer service as well. Their moto is great but its just plain GLOSSY and nothing else.
    I am very disappointed with it so far and regret cancelling Vonage and Skype for MJ.

  16. Magic Jack is a great deal. Clear voice and clear reception. You won’t be able to tell a land line phone from someone using a Magic Jack calling across the country though a XP computer.

    The phone you use is most important. Use a Digital Phone much much better than any analog phone. When you throw your analog phone away you can forget using ATT.
    Uniden TRU9380 digital works great with MagicJack found another user that recommended it on another website.
    You can even use a bluetooth dongle and a cell phone bluetooth ear piece.

  17. I’ve had my MJ for about a month. (1-1-08). Call quality is OK. Not great. It varies. Seems much worse when I am using my mouse at my PC.
    Overall, considering the price, I am happy with it. Their tech help is very novice and needs more training. (Nice people, just not up to speed yet.) I would buy it again.

  18. Regarding the Magicjack, I have to agree it’s cheap and seems to work OK.

    I live in Idaho and after I received the unit I found my area code is not available for the Magicjack.

    Also, there is absolutely no way to communicate with the manufacturer or even whoever sold it to me over the Internet. If I choose to return it during the 30-day trial period, I have no address to which to send it.

    While it’s not a bad product, it certainly has it’s shortcomings. Even at $20 a year, it’s not much of a bargain if my neighbors have to call a long-distance number to talk to me.

    Worst of all, in my opinion, is the fact there is no means of communicating with the seller or manufacturer. This does seem to be a trend with many of the on-line retailers. They want your money and hope you’ll go away and have no interest in your problems.

    Bob Kratt

  19. magicjack is a piece of S**t, hands down, it sucks.

    There is no quality to the piece of plastic that is sent to you. My magicjack made phone calls to and from the softphone with no problem, but didnt work with a regular phone from day one. Tech Support told me to try another phone, i tried 4 different phones, each did not work, but Tech Support still blamed my phone.

    Customer serivce and tech support is horrible at magicjack, outsourced to the philippenes and other 3rd world countries that can even "Chat" in english.

    I am still waiting for RMA instructions, however I’ve yet to see them in my e-mail inbox, if nothing by wednesday im going to initiate a chargeback with my bank.

    BUYER BEWARE, MagicJack sucks

    JML – Illinois

  20. I think alot of people miss the point, and if they want a perfect product, they should make one, who’s the rich guy in all this?? Even if the magicjack lasted for one month, it was worth the cost.

    I have run the jack on my Vista laptop and XP machines with no crashes, dropped calls, or any other problems. How can anyone compare there problems with each others with only a bizillion different PC configurations out there.

  21. I bought one for my technically illiterate friend in the UK to basically use when traveling. The price was so good, that I bought a second one as a toy and to loan out to family members leaving the country. $100 got me five years worth of service. I am not sure if the company will last that long, but it is looking good at the moment.

    What I discovered, however, is that the unit uses the Tiger chipset and works well with Eyebeam and Xlite software as well. Just rename the autorun file to stop magicjack from launching.

    I don’t recommend this as a landline substitute but as a another tool in a road warriors case, I think it is a pretty good screwdriver.

  22. I received my MJ up here in the Leaf Nation (another playoff year missed :o( ) and it installed on an XP SP2 machine in about one minute. It even upgraded during the install process. Ingress and egress calls have been working wonderfully with no "chirps", "crackle" or annoying delay (actually the delay is so short it is not really noticed). It exceeded my expectations, and the voice message system works as well or better than many corporate systems. Voice messages are also emailed to me which is really sweat. Only once did outbound calls stop. I kept getting "three beeps" … I think that is some sort of connection error. Anyway, I reset my router and it hasn’t happened since. My experience has been excellent. I have made wonderful uninterrupted connections to friends across this great continent and border. My sound quality is better than mobile, and sometimes as good as a land line. I expect the product and/or service to simply improve over time. I hope my good experience continues.

  23. I also had issues right from the get go. Could not get the MJ to ring for inbound calls. Spent 4 hours with tech support. Tried 4 different types of phones both hardwire and wireless, zero result.
    Fedex’ed back for refund. Also they hide their software so, to undelete it, you really have to dig. My opinion: great idea but performance sucks.

  24. My experience with Magic Jack is horrible. I got the device through signing up on their site for a free 30-day trial. It came quickly, I hooked it up and it re-directed me to their promotions page. I tried to register through it and could not. I tried to log in to their on-line my.magicjack.com page and was informed my e-mail and password that they sent to me are not valid.
    I contacted customer support and "chatted" with five different people in a two-hour period. None of them would/could help. They had me install the software six times total and finally one of them told me that they are having problems with engineering and my problem would be fixed in 30 to 60 minutes. Obviously, it wasn’t. I asked for a phone number to talk to a person and was told there are no phones, only online chats.
    This company and product was a frustrating nightmare for several hours and I am returning the product. Maybe I could have worked out the bugs if I could have gone into my account, but no one could seem to understand that I could not log into the account. They all wanted to run through the set-up steps. I even spoke to a level two tech.
    One of the techs said I was not in the company’s database. Another one said I was in the database and he informed me that according to his records I have received my MagicJack in the mail.
    Receiving it was not the problem, I explained, using it was the issue. Trying to communicate with the techs was interesting and would have been funny if I wasn’t getting steamed.
    So, without being able to register, I couldn’t get a phone number, set up anything etc. If I can’t even get it set up on my account, I am sure any other support will be nonexistent.
    I’m returning it and will block any attempt they make to charge my credit card.
    I also informed the company that I am a newspaper reporter who fully intends to write about my experiences.

  25. I’ve had MJ for 30days now. It works on my winXP desktop and works on my Vista laptop. I had no installation problems, nor issues with current firewall or antivirus software. My only complaints: (1) occasionally people say they can’t hear me &/or there is an echo (a reboot of computer fixes both problems). (2) no setting to disable pop-up window during use. (3) Once I had to unplug & reset modem/router (may have been an ISP issue). (4) No support for faxing. BOTTOMLINE: great little device – I’m a happy camper.

  26. I have had mj for 3 months now, all of a sudden on april 11th i am unable to make phone calls to 4 of the towns nearest me, including the town i live in, but i can make phone calls to other towns and out of state. everyone can call me, no problem, i just cannot call them, i hear the phone ringing but when i go see these people, they say their phone never rang or registered on caller id or anything. i have chatted 5 times with the company, and the problem has been escalated to engineering 4 of the 5 times with the response that i will get an email w/in 24-48 hours, I have never received a response. Finally today I got the phone number off of the BBB website and left a voicemail for that contact. Waiting to see what happens, I was so happy with this product before this random problem started on the 11th, I hate to give it up and pay for monthly phone service again. hth someone

  27. I bought a MagicJack and experienced problem after problem with it since. First, it arrived 30 day later and never worked properly. Moreover, I have lost about 20 hours total chatting with them without any results. Secondly, they refused to replace it, even though they admit it is defective. Thirdly, they refuse to give me back my money.

    If I can recommend 1 thing to everybody that reads this, it is to stay away from that company and its products.

  28. Magic Jack SSUUCCKKSS – BIG TIME – I have to uninstall my Internet Security Software, Music Match JukeBox and Skype. The piece of CRAP still did not work. Plugged this into another PC, different USB Ports. Unplug/Replug, download updates, recovery tools – 2 hours of tech support – no replacement – just an RMA – I still pay shipping. DO NOT BUY inspite of good reviews

  29. I messed up the voicemail system right after the first hour I got the Jack. Voicemail is not picking up initially, then after a few MagicFix and upgrades, I cannot set up the voicemail. Calls from the connected phones / softPhone gets forwarded. So the voicemail serves as a calling card when automatic call forwarding is not enabled, prompting me to enter a number. Then call will be directed to that number, but that did not ring, only the voicemail of that number pick up – A calling card function. When I enabled the call forwarding function, the calls are forwarded without errors.

    I bought the Jack for only two reasons. To make calls and to forward the incoming calls to my cell phone. Don’t even think about 3-way calling, and most of the other features. Vonage does BETTER.

    I do want to try the FREE calling to the States from overseas. That’s another (3rd) reason I want to try.

  30. i want to thank everyone for posting on here. although there have been a few good reports, most are bad or mediocre at best, and i don’t need another mediocre product that takes me hours to get set up.
    i make $45 per hour, and if i’m screwing around with this thing for 5 or 6 hours, i might as well pay for a landline.
    btw, cricket cell phones also suck. same problems as most of the above commenter’s.

  31. I’ve had the magicjack for 4 days now, And to this point I’d give it a mixed review. It was simple to install and use. The phone clarity is real good. My main issue is that the software does really suck. This thing does not cohabitate with any of my media programs – napster, iTunes, Media Center – it crashes them all. Literally every time. I may keep it anyway, and just plug it in when I want to use it to make a long distance call or send a fax, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be reliable as a primary line

  32. The comparison doesnt make sense to me. It assumes asterisk and the magicjack have the same target audience. I think it’s apples and oranges.

    Asterisk is a "phone system" or Private Branch eXchange, more correctly. It doesnt provide voip service at all, but rather acts as your own mini phone company. You take lines from "the street", be they analog, VoIP (SIP, IAX, h323, even Skype), ISDN, and/or t1, and you interface those with your "internal lines", be they analog phones, sip phones, h323, skinny, etc

    This helps business because they can assign routing like: inbound calls ring here. outbound calls use this service, unless its full or unavailable, or 911, in which case it uses this or that "channel".

    Try this: plug the analog end of the magic jack into your Asterisk PBX, and you just added a "line". See, they not only coexist, they compliment eachother, in a dirty hackish sort of way:

    Remote Phone < -analog_or_digital-> phone company < -digital-> magic jack < -analog-> asterisk < -digital_or_analog-> Local Phone

    Considering you are dealing with 8khz x 8-bit mono signal at best (assuming remote end isnt on cell phone) this is probably not gonna sound pretty.

    Its entirely possible that if anyone cared enough someone would write a linux module for it, and you wouldnt even need the "jack". Just peer your server with "the jack’s" and call away. That would be 100% digital, and is how it should work. You would have a chan_magicjack and make/take calls like you normally would with asterisk.

    Asterisk is pretty clearly a Phone System, intended for business use, while the magicjack is a niche VoIP service provider.

  33. I have had the mj for 3 months and have set it up to use my existing home phone line as well as have installed a program to stop the mj software from popping up. it’s called magicblock and I downloaded it from download.com. the product hasn’t giving me a problem at all works fine and worth the money.
    my only complaint was the software pops up with ever incoming and outgoing call. thanks to the free software that stops that it’s now great. there are many sites that are devoted to hacking this product and making it more user friendly. do a google search to find them allot of good advice can be found on them.

  34. oh forgot to add that I love the fact it emails you a copy of your voice messages. I have the iphone and can hear my messages on it. great product and great features for below the average cost of of one months service to a lane line or other voip service.

  35. I got Magicjack last July, and I’ve never had any problems with it. It’s better than my cell phone which has an echo and drops calls all the time–NOT so with Magicjack! There’s an offer on my popup that says I can buy 5 years of service for $59–I’m going to do that. This offer can’t be beat, and I would recommend it to anyone! I’ll take joe d’s advice and install the popup blocker software (it’s a little bit annoying). But NO complaints here–no computer crashes, no problems, just an almost-free phone service.

  36. I wanted to add that since I got the magicjack, I haven’t received one telemarketing call, or weird calls like I used to get all the time even though I was on the "do not call" registry. This is a big plus for me.

  37. I have had the MJ for about 4-5 months. I love the price, who doesn’t? At first I raved about it because it was so clean sounding and simple. But nowadays, I get so much jitter I am about to smash this piece of shite. I have had 2-3 times where I was unable to call toll free numbers. WTF? I chatted with tech support. After dicking around for a long time they finally suggested I do the update. I did the update, no change. Finally they said engineering is working on it, it’s a known problem. Thanks for sharing. It happened again last week. I join a lot of con calls so I have to be able to dial TF. But by far is the jitter, way too much. Even if no one is actively surfing the web or doing anything on the pc, it happens. I have optimized my pc but it doesn’t seem to matter. Next day, it might work fine. This thing is not ready for prime time. I have to order a cheap land line if there is such a thing.

  38. Hello
    Magicjack is good or Ok,but it could be great,if the computer did not have to be on all the time to have magicjack work and even better the magicjack startup pop up ad’s would be done away with.now you have a great product simply solutions a greater receptive audience Plesae make it happen Thank you

  39. I am just waiting for my new FXO card to show up so I can have both my landline and magicjack connected to my pbx. As soon as I get it hooked up i’ll let everyone know how its working.

  40. Well I got my A400P with two FXO cards in it. Took me about 10 minutes to configure and adjust my dialplan to send long distance calls out the MagicJack port and it works. The dial delay is a bit longer than normal but at least I can now use it though my PBX.

    I haven’t tried any inbound calls from the MagicJack to the PBX. I have both my landline and the MagicJack forwarded to my VoicePulse account so I really don’t have a need for the MagicJack to ring aginst the PBX at this time.

  41. MJ uses a standard SIP protocol. There are some links out there that will allow you to get the proxy, username and password you need to set up MJ as a SIP trunk in Asterisk. I’ve tested it and it works great!

  42. Go to my website and read my story. The web is full of MagicJack horror stories, and the most important thing is that they don’t care about their customers. It is a waste of time and a waste of money.

  43. 2010-04-21
    MJ works great. I wasn’t expecting the bonus voice mail to email feature. Only problem was automatic software installation didn’t work, so I ran the file manually.

  44. If your willing to work around it’s quirks, MagicJack is a great deal. We save $25 a month on our by dropping long distance service. We have our MagicJack connected to a dedicated low-end low power antequated PC that I use terminal services to manage. Three quirks: 1. On cold boot Magicjack doesnt always connect. Unplug for 30 seconds and plugging back always allows us to reconnect. 2. There is a slight delay in transmitting/converting voice to the other end. When first using MJ there’s a tendancy to jump on on top of others conversation. This is no proplem once you learn proper phone etiquette and patience. 3. Periodically we are unable to connect to people using small town mom/pop switchboards. No solution here. Just keep trying periodically. All in all, I’ve got to give MJ a thumbs up as it pays for itself every month. If your call are all IP to IP or to people using the major telecommunication companies you should have few problems.

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