It’s been a while since we last looked at the VoIP Providers that make Internet telephony hum with Asterisk® systems. So today we wanted to share our experiences with the best of the best over the past six months. For those just making the plunge, our most important rule of thumb remains the same: DON’T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET. Particularly in the Internet Telephony Service Provider (ITSP) business, there are some excellent small providers that tend to be one-man bands. And, without casting a spell on anyone, you certainly need to be aware that these small companies depend upon the good health of their fearless leaders to survive. As Forrest Gump would say, "Stuff happens."
Another important reason for diversifying your VoIP connections has to do with reliability. It’s still the Wild West in Internet Telephony Land, and things do go wrong for minutes or hours. And, in the case of some providers, downtime can stretch into days if not weeks. One final word of advice also remains the same: DON’T STAKE YOUR ENTIRE BUSINESS ON VoIP JUST YET. That’s not to suggest that businesses can’t reap enormous financial benefits by moving much of their outbound telephone traffic to VoIP. But, if your livelihood depends upon the phone to always ring when a customer calls, don’t trust your inbound traffic to VoIP, period.
We’re not going to spend much energy discussing Vonage, Packet8, Comcast, Time Warner, and some of the Baby Bell VoIP offerings for a couple of reasons. First, they are expensive. And, more importantly, none of them encourage (and most actively discourage or outright prohibit) use of a PBX such as Asterisk with their services. While it is feasible to use these services with an Asterisk or TrixBox system, you’re typically limited to using their connections in much the same way you would use a traditional PSTN connection (aka landline) from "the phone company" in your area. This entails connection of an ATA device such as an SPA-3000 to manage calls to and from the line. Here’s how.
All-You-Can-Eat Plans. Types of VoIP offerings fall into several categories. So called "all-you-can-eat" plans in theory provide unlimited incoming and outgoing U.S. calls for a fixed monthly fee. Some include Canada as well. These usually are limited to residential use, and they almost always are limited to a single call at a time. Most of the complaints you hear from users and providers center around abuse of these plans. When monthly calling volume on an all-you-can-eat plan regularly exceeds 2,000 minutes a month, you can expect problems. Why? Because your provider is paying some upstream provider by the minute for your calls, and the unlimited deal is no longer profitable for the provider. Nothing personal, but they really don’t care about you once you become a liability on their spreadsheet. BroadVoice, for example, has turned Terms of Service into an art form… to the point that it would make many lawyers blush. Abuse of their services (based solely upon what they secretly define as abuse) can result in retroactive, recalculated billing based upon per minute fees back to the time you signed up for their service. And, you agree to this in advance. While BroadVoice VoIP service remains acceptable, their terms of service and customer service are a nightmare with backbilling always lurking around the next corner. Those that attempt to protect themselves from these business practices by using single-use credit cards now are subjected to a $500 "fee" plus in-house attorney collection fees billed at $300 an hour. For most folks, the financial risks far outweigh any actual or perceived cost savings so our recommendation remains: JUST SAY NO to BroadVoice.
Our old favorite, TelaSIP, has gotten out of the all-you-can-eat business because of increased costs from their providers. Our new favorite in the all-you-can-eat department is AxVoice where $18.99 a month buys you unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada. For $4 more a month, you can add all or parts of 20 other countries. That’s almost identical to the BroadVoice offering once they’ve tacked on their hidden fees. And you don’t have the obnoxious terms of service to worry about. AxVoice plans also include free 911 service and free local number portability unlike many other providers.
Unlimited Incoming Call Plans. Closely related to the all-you-can-eat plans are the free incoming call plans. These typically are bundled with a phone number (DID) in your local area to receive incoming calls usually one at a time. Some of these plans remain the best bargain in the VoIP industry. They also provide needed redundancy in your Asterisk system while spreading out the usage minutes between providers. This, in turn, reduces your risk of having a problem with your provider on an all-you-can-eat plan. We have two favorites in the free incoming plan with DID category depending upon your circumstances. If you only need one inbound phone number, then les.net is the best deal on the planet at $3.99 a month. They even provide two simultaneous channels with your local number. If you need multiple inbound numbers or if you want several DIDs in different area codes, then AxVoice is a good option as well. You get 3 DIDs for $8.99 a month with free 911 support on all the numbers plus free number portability if you want to kiss Ma Bell goodbye. Be aware that, unlike TelaSIP and les.net, AxVoice does not provide a method for your Asterisk system to determine which DID is ringing. For business-class service, we recommend VoIP Street which has DIDs in most cities with flat-rate unlimited inbound calling (with support for two simultaneous calls) for $9.95 a month.
Unlimited Incoming Hybrid Plans. A new hybrid category has sprung up recently. With these plans, you typically get a DID with unlimited incoming calls as well as a fixed number of minutes for outbound calls to the U.S. and Canada. Our favorite is TelaSIP which offers two channels with unlimited incoming calls and 500 minutes of outbound calls to US48 and Canada for $14.95 a month. You can add another 1,000 minutes of outbound calls for $10 more a month. In addition to impeccable service, TelaSIP offers complete control over your outbound CallerID upon request. While federal law requires that your CallerID accurately identify who you are, the flexibile CallerID is especially helpful to professionals that wish to display their office phone number even when making calls from home. It’s also useful in households with teenagers so that each one can display a number that coincides with individually-assigned inbound DIDs.
Pay-As-You-Go Providers. Once you have your local phone number with incoming calls covered, our recommendation for the balance of your outbound long distance calls is to pay as you go unless you use an enormous number of minutes. And, even if you rack up loads of outbound call minutes, be aware of the risks if you choose an all-you-can-eat provider. For pay-as-you-go outbound calling, there really is no reason with Asterisk not to use multiple providers. Most require only a small deposit and a credit card to open an account, and most don’t care how many simultaneous calls you are making. After all, you’re paying for them by the minute. The real beauty of most of these providers is that, if you don’t make any calls, you don’t pay anything. Our favorite and least-cost (sometimes) outbound provider is VoicePulse. We added "sometimes" because their rates fluctuate daily and sometimes hourly. However, they’re usually a bargain. For example, at 10 a.m. Eastern time yesterday, you could place an outbound call to anywhere in the U.S. for 1¢ or less. A large portion of the destinations were half of that! They have a unique offering for Asterisk that lets you configure your system to actually check their rate table before selecting them to terminate the call. Their web site explains how to set it up. And there’s a freePBX and TrixBox module that makes everything plug-and-play. You can get a $2 sign-up credit to try out their plan at no cost by using this link. Our other top pay-as-you-go providers are Vitelity at 1.39¢ a minute to U.S. and Canada and les.net at 1.5¢ a minute to U.S. and Canada. With Asterisk and especially TrixBox or freePBX, it’s incredibly easy to structure your dialplan so that outbound calls are automatically routed to the next available provider in the event an individual provider’s service is down.
Toll-Free Plans. For those that need or want a toll-free number in the U.S., the hands-down winner is Vitelity. For 50¢ a month and 1.9¢ a minute, you get a toll-free number of your choice for a one-time setup fee of $10. Numbers are activated almost instantly, and the voice quality of the calls is top-notch.
Other Plans of Interest. For Asterisk experimenters, there are some other interesting deals out there. For unlimited free incoming calls with a New York DID, you can’t beat Stanaphone. Their per minute calling rates aren’t too bad either. And, if you don’t mind checking the new calling rules regularly, you can make 300 minutes of calls every 7 days (this week!) to several dozen countries for three months for $15 with voipdiscount.com. Just be aware that their fine print (and rates) change almost daily.
Provider Setup Instructions for Asterisk. Configuration of the various providers’ services has already been covered in previous articles. Just review the configuration tips on our Projects Page for detailed instructions.
Quick Reference Guide. Every article deserves a chart for the learning impaired like us. We’ve condensed this article into such a beast on our soon-to-be Best of Nerd Vittles site for those that need a quick reference. We’ve also included some free samples and tips and tricks below for those that don’t want to wade through all of last year’s Nerd Vittles articles.
Free Samples. Everybody loves free samples. Not sure about TelaSIP, you say. Well, take it for a test drive. Just call our Charleston number (shown in the inset) and wait for the fast busy to hang up. There’s no charge for the call because you’re never "connected." Within 15 seconds you’ll get a return call allowing you to make a FREE 10-minute phone call to almost anywhere in the U.S. All you have to do is key in the password you’re provided when you answer the return call. Keep in mind a few things. You have to call from a phone with CallerID so that the system knows where to call you back. Both legs of the call (to you and to the person you call) use GSM compression so you’re seeing TelaSIP at its most efficient but not necessarily with the best voice quality. You can set it differently on your own system if you like.
Nerd Vittles Demo Hot Line. You now can take a number of Nerd Vittles projects for a test drive while checking out the quality of les.net! The current demos include (1) MailCall for Asterisk with password 1111 (retrieve your email by phone), (2) NewsClips for Asterisk (latest news headlines in dozens of categories), (3) Weather Forecasts by U.S. Airport Code, and (4) Weather Forecasts by U.S. ZIP Code. You’re not prompted for #4 yet, but it does work! Just call our number (shown in the left margin) and take any or all of them for a spin. The sound quality may not be perfect due to performance limitations of our ancient Intel 386 demo machine. But the price is right.
Free Directory Assistance Service. For those in the U.S. that just can’t live without Directory Assistance, write these numbers down and add at least one of them to your Asterisk dialplan for free directory assistance calls in the United States: 1-800-411-METRO and 1-800-FREE-411. We’ve had much better success with the second number lately. Both are free VoIP calls with the providers listed below once you set up an accounts with them. You can read our reviews of these providers here. Assuming you have an account, just add ONE of the following sets to the [from-internal-custom] or pfrom-internal-trixbox] context in extensions_custom.conf:
exten => 411,1,Dial(IAX2/goiax/18003733411) ; GoIAX Free Call
exten => _1NXX5551212,1,Dial(IAX2/goiax/18003733411)
exten => _NXX5551212,1,Dial(IAX2/goiax/18003733411)
exten => 411,1,Dial(IAX2/fwd/*18003733411) ; FWD Free Call
exten => _1NXX5551212,1,Dial(IAX2/fwd/*18003733411)
exten => _NXX5551212,1,Dial(IAX2/fwd/*18003733411)
exten => 411,1,Dial(IAX2/teliax/18003733411) ; Teliax Free Call
exten => _1NXX5551212,1,Dial(IAX2/teliax/18003733411)
exten => _NXX5551212,1,Dial(IAX2/teliax/18003733411)
Free Directory Assistance Listing. Now that you have free directory assistance, you may be asking yourself, "How Do I Get My VoIP Number Listed With Directory Assistance Services?" Well, there’s finally a way. Just visit List Yourself! and sign up. Then you can verify that all went well in a few days. If we could only get Google to use the same listings in their Google Phonebook, the world would be almost perfect.
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