Think About Before Ordering VoIP...
VoIP' Tech Bulletin
THE WORST WAY YOU CAN GET SCREWED?
Your VoIP phone line provider goes belly up:
- In January of 2009,
Verizon Voicewing, the VoIP provider division of
Verizon, told their customers they have 90 days to find
new service - they're just shutting it down on March
31st, 2009. Hey, you're just a stinkin' customer. Their
attitude is simply "Screw you and the camel you rode in
- In July of 2008,
AT&T Callvantage, the VoIP provider division of
AT&T, stopped taking new customers. In April of 2009,
they announced they're discontinuing the service some
time in 2009. They don't say when. In the mean time,
they say they will let a Callvantage subscriber transfer
their number to any AT&T service: Land lines, cell
phones, U-Verse (VoIP if you live in one of the limited
number of U-Verse neighborhoods). I would hope they'd
let any customer port their number to anybody?
I imagine most of their customers are looking for a new
provider, not waiting for the last moment. This is the
most notice any VoIP phone company that's gone out of
business has provided its customers to-date. Pretty
classy compared to how other phone companies have closed
their doors, but still amazing when you consider it's a
part of a real phone company turning off their service.
They don't seem to understand that by screwing their
subscribers now, they're screwing themselves and the
whole telecommunications business over in the future.
They know it's not like closing a restaurant or gas
station, but they don't care.
- In July of
2007, Sunrocket, a VoIP provider with around
200,000 subscribers, permanently closed their doors and
turned off their system. This left everybody with a
Sunrocket phone number, or a number that was ported
to Sunrocket from a real phone company, with
NO PHONE SERVICE. (fast busy when you call it, and
you can't dial out).
- In July of 2004, Norvergence, a VoIP provider
that preyed on around 10,000 businesses (no home phone
service), permanently closed their doors and turned off
their system. This
left everybody with a Norvergence phone number
(which also included Internet access and cell phones),
or a number that was ported to Norvergence from a
real phone company, with NO PHONE SERVICE.
- In July of 2007,
Google bought a VoIP phone service called Grand
Central, who advertised that you get a "phone
number for life" (they don't advertise that any
more). Google almost immediately stopped signing up new
customers. Some of the customers who had a "phone number
for life" must have been murdered, since it turns out
that Grand Central wasn't really able to deliver
on the claim that the phone number would work for a
lifetime (I don't know if the customer or the phone
number went dead first).
In March of 2009, Google announced they are
starting a new free VoIP phone service,
called Google Voice. You can only get one line
and you have to use a headset on your PC sound card to
make calls, so it's not an option for business phone
service. They do have some interesting features that a
"One Number Service" charges for, like ringing multiple
phones at one time to find you when someone calls the
number Google gave you. As of April 2009, they still
haven't turned it on. Like with their Grand Central
before it they may never actually turn Google Voice
on, and like Grand Central they may turn off
Google Voice whenever they want... leaving
subscribers high and dry.
- In March of 2009,
Skype announced a new beta trial SIP telephone
service for businesses (their regular service primarily
works from computer to computer). They are only signing
up a limited number of companies to try the service,
which is just a test, so if you apply and they let you
into the beta - your service could stop if they decide
Skype for business isn't worth messing with.
Skype for SIP (for businesses) allows "computer
to phone" calls to businesses, for free, from any
computer in the world with a broadband connection, to a
business equipped to handle SIP VoIP trunks on their
phone system. Skype says that if the trial works out,
they may offer the service later in 2009. A trial is
obviously not a guarantee of service (nothing is
guaranteed by any VoIP phone company, since there's no
government regulation of them), so you shouldn't count
on it continuing after the trial.
There are expensive boxes out there that convert
Skype to POTS lines, so they can be used on regular
trunks on a phone system. If Skype actually deploys
Skype for SIP, it will probably hurt the companies
making those expensive boxes (which won't be needed any
The most terrifying VoIP story ever? On
April 2, 2009 the FBI had a search warrant for a data
center, where they suspected the owners of fraud. A data
center is where lots of companies either rent servers,
or co-locate their own servers. A data center is like an
apartment building for computer servers. They have
multiple fast connections to the Internet, probably from
different companies so there is no one source of
failure. They have heavy duty air-conditioning, battery
backups for all the servers, a generator and high
security. Unfortunately, the security wasn't enough for
about 50 customers of the data center who the FBI put
out of business, at least temporarily.
Some companies have servers running in two data centers,
just in case something really bad happens at one of
them. There's some chance that it would be the same
owner at both data centers, which happened in this case.
The FBI backed up trucks and took everything
including backup tapes that could have helped the data
center customers get a server setup at another data
It's pretty obvious after the fact that the FBI and
judge who signed the search warrant had absolutely no
knowledge of what a data center is. The FBI guy or judge
probably had no clue that they would be shutting off
many innocent company's web sites, their mother's
church's web site, credit card processing, on-line
ordering and tracking, and VoIP phone calls (they just
go through a regular computer server).
Considering the stink the government makes about 911
calls from VoIP lines, it's interesting that all the
telephone customers of the VoIP service(s) in those data
centers couldn't make any phone calls,
including to 911, after the FBI (government) threw all
the equipment, maybe 200 servers where each server could
be shared by multiple companies, into trucks.
I've done a lot of big telecom and IT projects. Nothing
bothers me because I just do everything in a methodical
manner, all planned out. I've never had a cutover
go badly. The thought of trying to sort out the pile of
servers and get all those companies back up in a timely
manner is totally overwhelming to me, no matter how many
technicians I had available.
It's unlikely that if the FBI was instigating the owners
of a shopping mall, they would get a search warrant for
the mall management office, as well as every store in
the mall... and then empty every store in the shopping
center into trucks in case the items in each store were
somehow related to the case against the shopping mall
This could easily happen to
any VoIP provider. The only place it
probably couldn't happen is at a real phone company
(utility). Every other CLEC, VoIP provider or otherwise
fake phone company can go away just like this (just like
all the rest of the companies and churches in the US).
If the data center was in another country? Ha!
You can read a Wired article about it HERE.
these examples were the only phone service a business had,
they'd be in big trouble!
They would have to get new phone service, and hope
they can port the number they had with their old VoIP
provider to the new service - which would probably take a
few days or more. If the VoIP company went belly up
overnight with no notice, and their business depended on
incoming calls, they'll lose quite a bit of business
(outgoing isn't a big deal since we can all use our cell
A little farther
down in this Tech Bulletin, I mention more details of
the Norvergence disaster.
Why can VoIP service just go away like that?
Because it costs very little to get into the VoIP provider
business. You can start your own VoIP service for very
- Just get a few servers for the calls and the billing
(buy them used on ebay, or rent them from an ISP/Data
- Connect the servers to the Internet (just rent some
rack space very cheaply at an ISP/Data Center - a third
world country would be fine).
- Get some backend software to run the business.
- Contract with one of many companies selling VoIP
call terminations by the minute (their business is to
connect local phone lines to the Internet at various
points around the country and the world).
- Find a computer geek to help you setup and maintain
- Rent local phone numbers from one of
the national companies that "rents" phone numbers to
VoIP phone companies, very cheaply.
- Rent a 911 call center service from a
third world country, where they will manually transfer
one of your customers who dials 911 to the local police
- Hire a third world Indian company (in the country of
India) to answer the phone, to make your customers think
they are getting support (the Indian support person
simply emails your computer geek about a problem... At
best "Robert" can try to read English from a script you
- Alternatively, don't offer any phone
support. Just put a form on your web page to contact
support (which you never even look at). As long as you
call yourself a "Phone Company," your customers won't
have any question in their mind that they'll get the
same support they get from the real phone company in
their area (which is often just as bad as when it's
coming from a third world country).
- Start rolling around on the floor in all the money
you collect. You're a "Phone Company!"
- Stop paying the Data Center bills, the VoIP call
termination bills, the rented local phone number bills,
the computer geek, the third world Indian phone bank
company, and pocket all the money you save until the
business folds, leaving your customer's businesses
without telephone service.
- There are no regulators, no regulations, and only
civil courts to deal with. The customers aren't going to
sue you when their service stops. Oh, and by the way, if
the ISP or the VoIP termination company goes belly up,
your service is down whether you like it or not - to say
nothing of what happens if the computer geek gets sick,
dies, or even goes to jail.
not telling you this to scare you away from using VoIP
It's here to give
you a sense of the current reality of the phone business.
Make your decisions so you have a Plan B. Don't put all your
eggs in one basket. Like I say numerous times in this
Tech Bulletin, just because someone calls themselves a
Phone Company, doesn't mean they will always be here like a
local Phone Company (even if they have Verizon or AT&T in
their name) - who are utilities that essentially can't go
out of business (they just keep wasting money, and raising
rates to make up for it!).
A VoIP Provider
is NOT a real phone company. If you know that
going in, you should be able to successfully implement VoIP
at your company... Because you'll have
You don't have to
use VoIP phone lines with most VoIP phone systems.
You can keep your regular analog phone lines for the real
phone company, or use a real voice T1 (not a Data T1)
if your phone system has that option. A voice T1 is also
known as a channelized T1 (or PRI - Primary Rate ISDN line),
where the line is separated into 24 voice channels.
Getting a Data T1,
where you share the T1 with Internet access and VoIP phone
lines, is pretty dangerous if all of your incoming phone
lines are on that Data T1. There is the same probability
that the company you bought that T1 from is going to go
belly up as there is from a pure VoIP phone line company. If
you keep some regular analog POTS lines for incoming calls,
the shared Data T1 can be a pretty good deal, and it won't
be the end of the world when the company providing the Data
T1 goes belly up.
bottom line is that it's perfectly safe and can really save
money using VoIP for outbound calls, since if it
goes down you can use your cell phone, your home phone, or
even go to a bus station, airport or the local jail to use
their pay phone (probably the only places left with pay
phones). It's not safe to have all your
incoming calls coming in via VoIP or on a Data T1, no matter
what anybody tells you (especially the guy trying to sell it
One more word of
warning: You know you have to be very careful ordering
anything on the Internet, but here's an example of what I
saw when I tried to order a couple of VoIP ATAs to
replace the Sunrocket ATA we used for testing before
they went belly up:
magically becomes $132.85 when you go to checkout:
turns out that Technical Support and a 1 year guarantee is
automatically added to the checkout (for over
$50!), with no apparent way to remove it. As you can guess,
I didn't order these from this company. In this busy world,
it's easy for a company to use "bait and switch" like this.
They almost got me.
buying anything on the Internet. Even with 'more or less
honest' companies who will actually ship you what you
ordered, the #1 way of ripping you off is tacking on $5 or
$50 for warranty, support, extended download, or whatever.
These crooked (or 'more or less honest'?) companies
automatically mark the box for you to pay this extra $5 or
$50. You have to uncheck the box manually to
remove the bullshit charges before you buy the thing.
Keep that in
mind as you travel the Internet!
way, when I called the company to mention their price
discrepancies, they said "Their customers prefer it that
way." I forgot to take my Stupid Pills that day, or I
would have believed him.
So here's the VoIP Research Tech
If you're thinking of
getting VoIP to save money, do a little research before
ordering it. It could save you several bottles of Tums, some
hard cash, and some lost business.
If you're thinking of
getting VoIP because your business has multiple locations,
that's where VoIP really shines today - but you still have
to do your homework. Like any business with multiple
locations using a central PBX or Centrex, you have to be
very careful in dealing with 911. If you screw up and 911
doesn't work correctly from one of the locations and someone
dies, your job and your whole business are at stake.
Because our company sells all kinds of gizmos to fix strange
telephone problems, we hear about an incredible number of
problems implementing VoIP, T1 and even POTS lines from
CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier, or "fake
phone companies") every week. We also hear lots of problems
with POTS lines from real Phone Companies, but they're
easier to solve. VoIP can save money and/or help your
business run better, but you should dip your toe in first to
see what it's like!
BEFORE You Dive Into VoIP!
People who buy phone equipment today assume that the stuff
is dependable, mainly because phones and phone service has
been pretty dependable in the past.
People who get phone lines from a company who says
they're a Phone Company assume that the phone lines they're
ordering will work as well as the ones they've gotten from
their local Phone Company.
Just because someone is selling you a telephone device or
telephone service doesn't mean it will actually work,
especially when it's connected to a particular piece of
In the old days, all
telephone equipment was essentially compatible. These days,
there's some chance that it just won't work in your
application - and you don't find out until after
you've spent a lot of money on new equipment that won't work
right, or you can't make or receive phone calls... and
you're losing business.
At companies who decide
to have their IT guys make decisions about and install the
telephone equipment, there's an even bigger danger since
their time is split between many projects, and they often
don't have experience dealing with telephone equipment (so
they don't know the pitfalls to watch for).
VoIP lines generally
don't work with alarm equipment, modems, credit card
authorization terminals, or satellite/cable set-top boxes
(VoIP telephone audio is compressed so it won't take up
much bandwidth, which makes everything other than plain
voice a crap-shoot).
Faxes often don't work
well on a VoIP line.
VoIP stuff and T1s
generally don't work when the power goes out (a UPS will
help until it runs down).
installing and servicing VoIP equipment and T1s for
businesses are sometimes clueless, and may not even be able
to communicate while on-site with the company who's actually
providing the VoIP/T1 line (sometimes they're forced to
call a third-world country for support themselves, or they
have to email support with the problem - a bad thing if you
have no working phone lines).
If a technician
can't fix your phone system or phone line,
and needs to email someone to get support themselves, you
know you screwed up buying that system or phone line!
Since you didn't purchase
the VoIP phone service from your phone system vendor, and
probably didn't even call them to see if they thought it
would work on your system before you ordered it, they can't
help you much when the old phone lines go down and your new
service isn't working.
You should seriously
consider talking to your phone system vendor before making
any decision, which is a good way to learn from others'
mistakes. They've probably seen it all by now.
Blaming your old phone
equipment for your new VoIP phone lines not working right is
stupid. You're likely to pay T&M for a lot of
troubleshooting, and in some instances the VoIP stuff is
junk, so it will never work no matter what your phone system
When the Chinese or third
world country designs the VoIP hardware, they don't do much
testing... they're going for the "low hanging fruit" where
it goes in and works at maybe 75% of the places it's
installed right away. They don't care about the other 25%,
since it's not profitable to care.
When you order a VoIP
line from the salesman who's telling you how much money you
can save, there's usually nobody to tell you the things to
check for - you find out after you install it and it doesn't
work. After that, tech support from some third world country
is useless. All of these things can cause some pretty big
problems if you get rid of your regular phone lines
before doing your homework.
There's no reason you
can't order the new lines and see if you're happy with them
before you drop the old ones. Knowing that there's a
reasonable chance that the new lines won't work as expected
makes it easy to just get rid of them and try a new vendor.
That's part of the process with VoIP that you didn't
have to worry about with the real Phone Company.
Be realistic in your
expectations, and a switch to VoIP will be a lot less
GET A BUSINESS PHONE NUMBER
FROM A VoIP PROVIDER!
The phone numbers that
most VoIP providers will give you are a special breed of
number. They won't belong to you, and you can't keep them if
you switch VoIP providers or go back to the Phone Company
for real phone lines. The numbers don't even belong to the
VoIP providers needed a
way to get local phone numbers throughout the country
quickly, so they could become a "national" phone company.
Most actually "rent" these phone numbers from companies who
are in the business of renting out blocks of phone
The local phone number
"rental" business started up in the mid 90's with the
popularity of the Internet. The ISPs (Internet Service
Providers) that offered dial-up service needed a
local phone number just about everywhere, since nobody
wanted to pay big bucks to the phone company for a toll call
to surf the Web for hours. Just at the time that broadband
was killing the dial-up ISPs a few years ago (fewer local
phone numbers were needed to dial into the Internet), VoIP
companies came along needing phone numbers in virtually
every city in America. They went ahead and rented blocks of
these numbers everywhere, and became overnight "national"
Imagine the surprise
you'll get if you publish the VoIP phone number you get, and
later decide you could get a better deal somewhere else, or
try to go back to a real Phone Company because of quality
issues. You'll never be able to use that number with another
phone company, and if that VoIP provider goes out of
business, you may not be able to get that number from any
other VoIP company (they may deal with a different phone
number rental company). If you need a new phone number and
you really want to use VoIP service, get a line installed
from the Phone Company, and then get it ported
to the VoIP provider (and disconnect the Phone Company
line). If you have multiple lines that hunt, you really only
need to port over the main number that you
If the VoIP provider
promises you that the phone number will be yours to keep
forever, they're not telling the truth. If the company
they're renting the phone number from gets out of the
business, or goes out of business, and the number can't be
ported, you'll lose the number forever. It's
impossible for anybody except the real phone company to
promise you that you'll have the number forever, and even
then you could lose the phone number in rare cases.
Once you port a number
away from the Phone Company, you may no longer be listed in
the White Pages or Information, and you may have a problem
getting into the local Phone Company's Yellow Pages?
I personally would never
port our incoming local numbers, since our company would be
out of business without them. We don't use 800 numbers at
our company because it's possible to have the number
hijacked by an 800 service provider. While this doesn't
happen often, it's possible that the 800 number you've used
for many years could be taken away from you and given to
another company. You don't own an 800 number, and many of
the 800 service providers have been through bankruptcies.
While a real Phone
Company (a Public Utility) won't disappear into the night, a
VoIP provider or CLEC could close their doors leaving you
high and dry. The most publicized case was Norvergence
(besides Sunrocket, mentioned earlier), who offered
customers local and long distance, 800 service, Internet,
and cell phones on one low monthly bill - until everything
stopped working one day because Norvergence didn't pay their
vendors (look up the sad story on Google). That left over
10,000 businesses with no way to communicate, scrambling to
get back into business. I should have bought stock in Tums
Let me stress this
GET A BUSINESS PHONE NUMBER
FROM A VoIP PROVIDER!
If your dial tone is
coming from some kind of box (instead of a line from the
Phone Company), and you're using something other than an old
fashioned single line phone to make and receive calls, you
may have problems that you didn't have when you were using
POTS lines (Plain Old Telephone Service) from the Phone
VoIP phone lines were originally used to make outgoing
calls cheaply - mainly from home with a regular
single line phone or using a headset attached to a computer.
While the quality wasn't as good as the real Phone Company,
the savings, particularly on International calls, were
substantial enough to put up with the quality issues. The
savings on outbound International calls was even more
significant for business.
Because VoIP worked well for outgoing calls, companies
started to use it for incoming calls - which was the start
of the problems. Some of the VoIP phone companies started
offering unique features on incoming calls like inexpensive
800 service, foreign exchange (phone numbers from multiple
cities ringing in to a single VoIP device), and external
call transfer. These features make it very attractive to
just go ahead and switch to VoIP, but just
because a VoIP provider says their features work doesn't
mean they'll work in your application. If you
don't do your homework, I'd start buying those Tums at the
Companies start using
VoIP lines for incoming calls, and find that it doesn't work
with their particular phones or phone system (but it works
OK with a standard single line telephone).
The reason that most
companies consider switching to VoIP is simply to save
money. You can get almost all of the features that VoIP
service offers, but it will cost you a lot more from a real
Phone Company. I hear the craziest stuff from companies who
have switched to VoIP without doing their homework, and are
in deep stuff - looking for a solution to get them out of
the hole they dug for themselves.
Most VoIP phone
systems come with licensing fees. In the past, primarily the
larger legacy phone system manufacturers charged licensing
fees on a per feature basis. It was usually one time fee
when the system was purchased.
With legacy phone systems
you bought a cabinet that was big enough to hold enough the
station and CO line cards needed to run your company when
you bought the system. If you needed more stations or
trunks, you bought more cards, and then maybe an expansion
cabinet or migrated to the next size up system cabinet. You
bought as many proprietary phones as you needed, as you
VoIP phone systems
generally don't have station or trunk ports. One box that
fits in a 19" rack could run hundreds or thousands of phones
and lines. Some will work with any cheap Chinese VoIP phone.
If there were no licensing fees, a guy with 10 phones would
spend the same thing as the guy with 200 phones for the
phone system. The VoIP phone system manufacturer would never
be able to make money, because every system would have to
sell for the same thing that a 10 phone system would cost.
I don't know that there's
a better way to handle VoIP phone system pricing than
licensing fees, but if you're a legacy phone system owner
who's never had to pay licensing fees, this might be tough
to handle. If you have multiple offices or just want to
allow workers to answer the phone from home, the benefits of
a VoIP phone system can make the licensing fees seem cheap.
If you will never
need the features that only come on a VoIP phone system
(like off-premise workers), it's stupid to pay the licensing
fees. There are plenty of perfectly good new and used legacy
systems that don't require licensing fees. Some legacy phone
system manufacturers have add-on VoIP features to
their legacy phone systems, which may be the best of both
worlds and save money on licensing fees.
There are now many
companies offering a "hosted PBX." You don't buy a PBX ,
just industry standard VoIP phones (that they normally sell
to use with the PBX). It's a cheap way to get a phone
system, especially when you have workers spread out
throughout the local area, the country, or the world.
The inexpensive VoIP
"phone system" acting as the "hosted PBX" can be connected
to the Internet just about anywhere in the country, and it's
shared by as many subscribers as they can get. Like having
your own VoIP phone system in your office, the bandwidth to
the Internet of the "hosted PBX," both up and down, is
As with any VoIP
solution, the calls won't all sound wonderful since the
packets with the voice are traveling over the public
Internet. The phones won't be as friendly to use or have as
many features as a 25 year old legacy phone system, but this
can be a reasonable solution if you make sure there's enough
bandwidth for the calls on each Internet connection (and
local network) that has a VoIP phone working off that
"hosted PBX"... Which is the real secret of making
VoIP calls sound good in general.
Keep in mind that that
all companies advertising a "hosted PBX" aren't alike. Some
will be operating out of a garage where they keep the pizza
that was just delivered warm with the PC running Asterisk
(the free VoIP phone system), and some will be trying to
provide good service and support. There will be a difference
in quality based on whether the company has the "hosted PBX"
server in their office, or in a rack located at a real data
center somewhere, with batteries, a generator, climate
control and a big pipe to the Internet. You will never get
the voice quality or dependability of having your own phone
system, but in some cases you might never be able to afford
to start and run an innovative company without using a
"hosted PBX", at least in the beginning.
Like with any
VoIP solution, try it before you jump in!
We've used AT&T's Callvantage (which
is going out of business, and isn't taking any new customers
as of 3/09) for outgoing calls for a few years at our
company. When we finally settled on Callvantage years ago,
we had gone through almost all of the VoIP providers out
there. The difference in quality was incredible.
I've called AT&T numerous times to ask them
why the quality of their service is so much better than
everybody else's, but I could never get an answer. I
couldn't even talk to someone who would admit knowing
anything about Callvantage, or who ran it within AT&T. I
also tried to reach Centillium, the company that made the
ATAs for Callvantage which worked unbelievably well, but
they didn't respond to my requests for information.
I definitely have a question about why
Callvantage's calls are better? The Centillium ATA is
locked down, so I can't look at the programming. Is it the
ATA itself, the codec used, some other magic? We may never
know why it's so much better than the rest. AT&T (SW Bell)
sure as heck doesn't want to tell anybody how to make VoIP
On the other hand, I suppose it's possible
that the Linksys SPA and PAP2 series is total garbage (we
have half a dozen here that all sound the same), but I did
try some of the VoIP providers on a couple of Cisco
7960 phones (setup for SIP) as a comparison. They sounded
like garbage on that phone, as well as on the ATAs.
Callvantage was setup by the "old" AT&T,
before Southwest Bell bought them. Being a real phone
company (which AT&T was not before SW Bell bought
them), it's apparent that SW Bell decided that it wasn't
good idea to own Callvantage, a VoIP company that was going
to eat SW Bell's children (real phone lines).
With the imminent demise of Callvantage, I
went searching for another VoIP provider for our outbound
calls. Essentially nothing has changed in the last few
While Callvantage had a problem with maybe 1
in 200 calls, the other VoIP providers we recently tried had
a problem in 1 in 10 or 20 calls. To make sure we were doing
a valid test, we simply unplugged AT&T's Centillium ATA and
put in a Linksys SPA3102 or PAP2 ATA in it's place.
Some of the problems were garbled voice,
occasional calls that wouldn't go through after they were
dialed, intermittent one-way audio (only on some calls),
intermittent busy signal on incoming calls (only on some
calls), no Caller ID sent, strange Caller ID sent, no dial
tone or a busy signal when we went to make an outgoing call
(only on some calls), DTMF digits in the middle of a call
("talk-off" caused by frequencies in some people's voice),
The best I
Networks' OnSIP Hosted PBX service (I tried it on a
PAP-2). Junction Networks is cheap, requires no contract, is
easy to setup if you understand how to program
SIP information into a VoIP phone/ATA or a SIP trunk (even
with DID), and they have a free 30 day trial. When I tested
it, maybe 1 in 100 calls had quality problems, and we did
notice talk-off (random DTMF digits caused by voice
frequencies, maybe caused by the Linksys ATA and not the
service). The quality was about as good as I've heard on
VoIP (not quite as good as Callvantage), but not always as
good as a real phone line from a real phone company.
None of the problems I had with the VoIP
lines were resolved by resetting the power to the ATA
(unplugging it for 10 seconds and then plugging it back in),
although most VoIP providers love to tell their users to
reset their ATA. I've always wondered why anybody keeps a
phone service where you have to reset the phone line on a
regular basis to make it work, but I guess Microsoft has
gotten us all used to rebooting stuff (and less than near
100% dependability like the Phone Company has, in general).
I've been installing electronic phone
systems since the first ones in 1980 (before that, they were
electromechanical). I guarantee you that the companies I've
installed phone systems in didn't take kindly to the
suggestion that they reset their phone system to solve a
problem (even old electromechanical crossbar PBXs needed to
be powered down once in a while). Doing that during the day
can be pretty traumatic at a busy company.
I was once locked in a psych ward at a
hospital by the nurses until I fixed their phones, none of
which were working when I arrived on the service call on a
Saturday. All they had to communicate with the outside world
was a single Motorola hand-held radio that security gave
them. Many of the early releases of electronic phone systems
did require an occasional reset until the bugs were worked
out by the manufacturer. The Stromberg-Carlson DBX at that
large hospital in 1981 was a real mess. Any kind of outage
with their previous electro-mechanical system was extremely
rare. Then came stored program electronic phone systems, and
problems soared (keeping pace with all the new features that
were available once the phone system was computer
Many of today's phone systems are much
worse, requiring resets on a much more frequent basis to
resolve strange problems (but then most of today's phone
systems are first generation, even if they are sold by a
legacy phone system manufacturer - because they are using
third world country engineers with no experience to save
money when designing new systems). If it's a VoIP phone
system where each phone is plugged into an Ethernet port
like a computer, most require frequent resets of lots of
stuff... the phones, VoIP server, Internet router, etc.
Every VoIP service is going to go totally
down occasionally since it's just a bunch of PCs (servers)
somewhere providing the talk path, but some that I tested
were much worse than others. Most of them
allowed me to program in another phone number to direct
incoming calls to if the service went down. I never tried
it, since we don't receive incoming calls on the outbound
lines. You really want to have this ability
with any VoIP service you get for incoming
There were some VoIP providers who were
obviously screwed up as soon as we programmed the ATA, so we
didn't even bother to put them live on the phone system.
There were a couple of VoIP providers where we never got
them to work at all, even after defaulting the ATA (that had
worked with another provider) and using their published
setup procedures (including port forwarding in our router).
One thing that surprised me was how callers
depend on Caller ID when they answer a call from us. While
they were used to seeing Mike Sandman in the past
with Callvantage or our real AT&T (SW Bell) phone lines,
they were totally confused when it said something like
Illinois Call or even Out of Area on their Caller
ID box. None of them said PRIVATE on outgoing calls, but
many allow you to set a flag for permanent blocking or dial
*67 before the phone number to block the Caller ID.
As our customers know, we have screen pops
based on Caller ID on our POS (Point of Sale) system. Using
the screen pops, we can get their order and get off the
phone - usually in under four minutes. If someone calls us
and it says PRIVATE, and they have never bought from us, we
generally don't even bother to talk to them since we deal
primarily with phone companies and phone system vendors (who
generally don't try to block their calls). If you get a call
from someone wanting to buy something and their Caller ID
says PRIVATE, they're probably a scammer of some sort.
Some VoIP providers, primarily the slightly
more expensive business grade VoIP providers who often offer
"VoIP PBXs" or "Hosted VoIP PBXs" (many of which seemed as
bad as the others), let you put in a Caller ID name and
number to display from a control panel for the service
(Junction Networks OnSIP service mentioned above lets you do
that). That would be particularly useful for us, since we
don't have a way to answer the lines that we make the
outbound calls on - and a lot of people these days just push
DIAL on their cell phone to return a call.
Out of maybe 20 different VoIP providers we
tried (and another 20 or 30 I called that I decided not to
test), the only one we found even close to the quality of
Callvantage was Junction Networks. There are other business
class VoIP providers who may also have reasonable quality,
but the ones I called all required a contract with a minimum
time and dollar amount each month. Some required us to put
in a dedicated T1 just to try their service (probably the
only right way to get VoIP is on a dedicated pipe to the
Internet with the same up and down speed, so their service
was probably pretty good?), which is a very expensive
proposition to see if their service was good or bad. One
company was willing to give me one line to test, but I had
to guarantee that I would take their service for a minimum
dollar amount each month after that. Right.
As a phone man I may be pickier than most,
but we've all answered calls from people on cell phones or
VoIP lines where we couldn't understand what they heck the
person was saying (over 10% of the incoming calls we get on
our real POTS lines are like that these days). I sure don't
want to project that image when we call out. I can live with
1 in 100 calls being bad to save some money. I can't live
with 1 in 10 or 20 calls being bad to save money.
You can try out a single line from almost
all of the consumer grade VoIP providers. If you don't like
it, you're out maybe $50 including signup fees. Spending a
couple of hundred dollars trying a service before you
actually commit to using it can save you a ton of money and
grief later. Maybe you can put up with the quality issues to
save some money on VoIP, but will your customers?
Here's a typical VoIP related
CALLER: Hello. I'm having trouble with my phones
since I switched from the ABC Phone Company to XYZ VoIP
service. I've called XYZ, and they say their VoIP lines are
fine. It must be my phone equipment. My phone equipment
vendor checked the system, and said it's fine, especially
since it worked OK last week with the Phone Company Lines.
MIKE: OK, what kind of problem are you having?
CALLER: When someone calls, there's nobody there when
I answer the line. If the caller calls a second time,
sometimes I can answer it and I hear them, but I can always
answer it and hear them when they call back a third time.
MIKE: Sounds like you should switch back to the ABC
CALLER: Oh no. I would never do that. XYZ VoIP is
only $199 a year per line, with unlimited local and long
Here's another typical
CALLER: Hello. I just replaced my three phone lines
with lines from ABC VoIP service a few days ago. Since then,
I can make outgoing calls fine, but when someone calls here,
the call is answered by the Automated Attendant on our
Toshiba phone system, the caller hears a click, and the call
is dropped. Once I figured it out, I turned off the
Automated Attendant, but I really need it to answer the
lines. We can't always get to them ourselves.
MIKE: What happens if you answer the VoIP lines with
a regular single line phone plugged directly into the VoIP
CALLER: It works fine.
MIKE: Is your Automated Attendant plugged into single
line analog station ports, or is it integrated into your
phone system digitally?
CALLER: It's on analog station ports.
MIKE: Then unplug the Automated Attendant and plug
the regular single line phone into the analog station port,
and see if the phone rings - and you can answer and talk.
CALLER: OK, I just did that and the phone rings and I
can answer an incoming call and talk just fine.
MIKE: There seems to be something on the VoIP line
that makes your phone system think that the line has hung up
as soon as it's answered. There may be an extra CPC (Calling
Party Control) signal coming from the VoIP box as the line
is answered, which is detected by your phone system, which
then sends in-band signaling (like a DTMF D tone) to the
analog station port to tell it to hang-up. You're going to
have to call your phone system vendor to figure it out, or
switch back to lines from the phone company.
CALLER: I can't switch back to the phone company. I'm
saving $100 a month with the VoIP lines!
And another typical
CALLER: My customer is a doctor's office with a small
Panasonic phone system. They just switched to Eggplant Phone
Service (not their real name), a CLEC in our area. Since
they switched, every time the customer hangs-up from a
conversation, the phones ring back right away. They answer
the line, and there's nobody there. They hang-up, and the
call rings in again. I replaced the KSU, but it's still
doing it. I took all of the readings on the Telephone
Line Diagnostic Table on your web site, and they were
all OK except one.
MIKE: What were the readings?
CALLER: The On-Hook AC voltage from Tip to Ring was
MIKE: 106 Volts? Is it a really cheap meter?
CALLER: No, it's a Fluke. I checked my meter by
checking an AC outlet, and it seems OK.
MIKE: That's really strange, but it explains why
you'd be getting false ringing. Regular ringing is only
90VAC, so the phone system should see the 106VAC as ringing,
which it does! There should be less than half a volt of AC
on the line.
CALLER: What can I do to fix the problem?
MIKE: Luckily, phone company specs say that the phone
company has to reduce the AC on the line if it's above
50VAC, which is because anything higher would be dangerous
to a phone man working on the lines (not because the phones
or a phone system wouldn't work right). You just have to
call Eggplant and tell them you measured 106VAC on the line
from tip to ring, and they need to bring it down.
CALLER: I called Eggplant, but I can't get anybody to
call me back. I told the customer to switch back to the
Phone Company so I can talk to repair, but he said he's
saving too much money to do that.
MIKE: You can take a look at our Longitudinal
Imbalance Tech Bulletin where we list the name of a
company who makes gizmos to reduce the AC on a phone line.
It might be expensive, especially since it's really
Eggplant's job to reduce the AC.
another typical conversation:
getting our incoming 800 service, our local phone service,
and our Internet from one company who installed a box that
lets us dynamically share a T1 between voice and the
Internet. For the past six months, we've been
getting calls that ring once, and when we answer the line,
there's nobody there. Our customers keep telling us that
they've been trying to call us, but the line rings once,
they hear a click, and that's it. They finally reach us
later in the day, but I think we're losing business. We
didn't have this problem before we switched to ABC Telephone
MIKE: Do you have
the T1 going directly into your phone system, or do you have
a Channel Bank that breaks the T1 out into separate analog
lines that go into your phone system?
CALLER: We have a
Channel Bank in-front of our Panasonic key system.
MIKE: It could be
a problem in your phone system, or with ABC Telephone
Company. Did you call your phone system vendor and ABC?
CALLER: I called
both of them, but they both say their equipment is OK.
MIKE: The easiest
way to determine what's broken is to bridge regular single
line phones onto the lines in-front of your phone system.
They will ring at the same time as the phone system does.
When you notice the problem start happening, answer the call
on the single line phone to see if someone is there. If
there's always someone there on the single line phone, but
they're not always there when you answer on your phone
system, your phone system is probably broken or not
compatible with your Channel Bank. If there's nobody there
when you answer the single line phone, the problem is with
ABC Telephone Company. You may have a bad Channel Bank, it
might be programmed wrong, or they may have a problem with
the programming on the T1 or a problem in their CO switch.
They should be able to figure it out right away by
connecting a data scope to one of the lines in the CO, and
watching the data as the bad calls come in to you.
Here's one more typical conversation:
CALLER: I need to
order some Loop Current Boosters.
MIKE: OK. What
kind of problem do you have.
customer ordered XYZ cable phone service for his hotel.
After the cable company installer connected the trunks to
their phone system and left, they couldn't make outgoing
calls from the system.
MIKE: OK. What was
the loop current on the lines?
CALLER: I don't
know. When we put the phone system back on the AT&T lines,
which are still live, we could make outgoing calls.
MIKE: Well I don't
think a Loop Current Booster is the first thing I would try,
especially without determining what the loop current was.
How did you decide to order the Booster?
CALLER: We sent a
technician there and he couldn't get dial tone on the lines.
MIKE: The phone
man didn't get dial tone with his butt-set?
CALLER: No, he
doesn't have a butt-set. We're a computer and networking
company. We don't know anything about phone stuff. He
couldn't get dial tone on the PBX console.
MIKE: What kind of
phone system is it?
CALLER: A Mitel
MIKE: Why didn't
the customer call the company that maintains the Mitel?
customer just bought the hotel, and we are doing the
computers for him. He doesn't know who maintains the phone
system. He figured we could do it for him.
MIKE: OK. I think
I would take the on and off-hook voltage readings, and the
loop current readings for all the lines. You can find our
Telephone line Diagnostic Table on our web site, which
will let you record the readings and then try to figure out
what's different from the old lines and the cable company
lines. Oh, wait a minute. Are the lines for the Mitel loop
start or ground start?
CALLER: I don't
know. What is ground start?
MIKE: OK, I think
that's your problem. Most or all Mitels are setup for ground
start lines, which are used to try to prevent crashes or
glare where somebody trying to make an outgoing call answers
an incoming call. I don't remember whether the SX200 uses
different trunk cards for loop and ground start, uses
jumpers for the card, or is programmable from the console.
You're going to need to check whether the AT&T lines are
ground start by putting a phone on the pair to see if you
get dial tone. If you don't get dial tone, you're going to
need to attach a wire to ground like the screw on an AC wall
plate, and touch the ring side of the line for a moment to
see if you get dial tone.
CALLER: OK. We can
MIKE: If it is
ground start, you need to ask the cable company if they can
make their lines ground start, or find someone to see if
they can make the SX200 loop start. Until then, they won't
be able to make calls, and won't be able to receive calls on
the AT&T lines that still work for outgoing, since they've
already ported the numbers.
This is happening many times a
day all over the country. Just because a VoIP
provider or CLEC says they have a feature doesn't mean it
will work the way you expect, work the way it did from the
real Phone Company, or that you'll be able to get any
support if it doesn't work.
Just because you can buy
a phone or phone system, doesn't mean you will be able to
make all of the features work. Some of the worst offenders
are the expensive "phone systems" they sell at the Office
Biggie store. They have four line corded or cordless
"systems" with tons of features, but there's a pretty good
chance all of the features won't work right. Sometimes
they'll work OK on a real phone line, but when used with a
VoIP phone line from a box a lot of features don't work
(these types of phones usually communicate on frequencies
over the normal voice range, on Line 1). If you buy this
stuff, make sure you save the boxes and can return it. A lot
of companies thought they could save money by getting this
stuff, ended up buying a real phone system, and then sold
the expensive junk on ebay (or it's still sitting in a
corner of the office).
KSUless phones from
the Office Biggie Store are JUNK! Expensive junk.
VoIP phone systems can be
a real surprise. Some features which both users and
Interconnects take for granted on a regular phone system are
missing or crippled on IP phone systems. I got an email from
an Interconnect who was surprised to learn that All-Call
Page on the VoIP system they just installed didn't quite
work the way it did on most other phone systems - it would
page a maximum of three phones. They wanted a good
way of getting paging to the other 97 phones they had just
installed. Even if a VoIP phone system vendor says they have
a feature, it might not be implemented at all (in the
current release), it might only be partially implemented, or
it might just plain not work right. Will the manufacturer
fix the problem? Eventually, but maybe not in time to keep
the customer happy, or from returning the phone system.
Most VoIP sets require
power to work, either from a power cube at the desk or using
PoE (Power Over Ethernet). PoE may be difficult
and/or expensive to implement (but it's getting a little
cheaper and easier). The power to run the phone comes right
from the Ethernet Switch, and it's a very neat installation.
Everybody should probably buy Switches that provide QOS
(Quality of Service priority for VoIP packets) and PoE for
any VoIP sets they may buy in the future - even if they
don't need it right now. PoE Switches aren't cheap,
and some only offer PoE on a limited number of ports, not on
all the ports. PoE is a much
better idea than having every phone plugged in using a power
cube (if they do use a power cube, hopefully they plug it
into a battery backup at the workstation). Every part of an
Ethernet network should be battery backed, including the
switches both inside and outside the computer room.
Some businesses feel
compelled to use the all of the features on their new phone
system. Everybody wants to get their money's worth from a
purchase, but using features just because they're there is
not a good business practice. I've had customers actually
put their company out of business because they
had to use their expensive new Automated Attendant and
Voice Mail - when the main thing the company did was sales
over the phone. If you give employees the ability to hide
behind technology, many will take the opportunity.
Unfortunately, that translates to the bottom line when sales
start going to other companies who don't hide behind
technology, and eventually everybody at the company loses
their job when the company goes under.
If you want your
company to stand out from the others, use real people to
answer the phones!
I'm still amazed when I
call a company and the greeting tells me to "listen
carefully." I simply dial "0" for the Operator because I
just don't have time to screw around with this stuff. Some
companies are goofy enough to either not give a caller the
ability to dial "0", or they send "0" calls to some company
mail box during the day. That's when I call another company.
Some VoIP phone system
manufacturers and dealers tell you that you can use their
system to make your small company sound like a big company.
Sounds like a good way to make your company go out of
business, to me.
I can't believe how many
calls I get about cordless phones. Sometimes they just don't
work because of the construction of the building,
interference from other stuff using the same frequencies
(like wireless cameras or Wi-Fi), or they're just garbage.
The only way to know if it will work is to try it in your
particular location. Make sure you can return this expensive
stuff if it doesn't work! Ask your phone system vendor if
they have one you can borrow for a couple of days before
ordering it (you'll probably have to pay for installation).
Cordless, VoIP and cell
phones are coming together in a new generation of wireless
phones. You can get Wi-Fi cordless phones that work over the
Internet instead of a phone line (even at a coffee shop), or
a combination cellular and Wi-Fi phone that will switch over
to Wi-Fi when you get to a hotspot, like your office or a
coffee shop. I'd either wait a while to adopt this new
technology within a company, or start buying bigger bottles
It seems like "Buyer
Beware" is important when purchasing telecommunications
How can an otherwise smart business
get themselves (and their company) into this?
An awful lot of people
are going for the lowest cost deal without trying it,
checking references, or asking their phone system vendor
about it. Phone service is phone service, right?
Phone Company has been the poster child for bad service for
decades (remember Ernestine the Operator on Saturday Night
Live?). It's probably worse today than ever, because they've
laid off everyone who knew or cared, and now you talk to
people who are as close to clueless as possible. Next time
you feel a need to ask your local Phone Company something,
ask your dog instead. The answer might be better than you
get from the people they hire today either here in the US,
or in India.
If the first person you
talk to at a Phone Company is an idiot, just hang up and
call back. Keep doing it until someone answers who you can
deal with. Not everybody who works for the Phone Company is
an idiot, so you'll eventually get someone who is fairly
sharp, and who cares. Call the Phone Company back several
times in the next few days to have them read the order back
to you (there's a pretty good chance it will be wrong the
first time). Have them fax you a copy of the order you just
If this is what you get
calling the real Phone Company (who's guaranteed a profit
because they're a utility), what do you think will happen
when you deal with a VoIP provider? Even if you get
wonderful service from a VoIP provider or CLEC, they're
probably using the Phone Company's copper to get the data to
your building, and they'll have to deal
with the Phone Company if something goes wrong with that
copper. Some VoIP providers and CLECs just don't offer the
same level of service as the Phone Company, no matter what.
They have a limited menu of products, services, and support
that they offer. Just because you can get a particular level
of support from the real Phone Company doesn't mean you can
get it from a VoIP provider or CLEC.
I would suggest that you
keep some lines from the real Phone Company. Unless
phone calls aren't very important to your business, you need
to have a Plan B. If you're crazy enough to get your
incoming calls from someone other than the real Phone
Company, make sure you have a disaster plan so that they'll
re-route your incoming calls to a pre-determined number,
like your cell phone. I'm not just talking about a
hurricane. I'm talking about losing power to your building,
a water leak onto your phone system or computers, a cable
cut outside, or even a fire. Cell phones are a good choice
for outbound calls if your phone service goes down, as long
as the cell sites are still working in your area. Since
almost everybody has cell phones these days, outbound
calling in a disaster at your company isn't much of a
problem. If it's a community disaster, the cell phones are
unlikely to work because the cellular system is overloaded.
Having some real phone
lines from the Phone Company also lets you do some
troubleshooting. When everybody is pointing fingers at each
other, the easiest way to determine who's at fault is to
replace a VoIP or CLEC phone line with a real phone line
(even a fax line would be handy in that case). If the
problem goes away, the problem is with the VoIP provider
or CLEC. If the problem is still there, the problem is with
the phone equipment.
That single fax line
might end up doing double or triple duty, also being used
for the alarm system, postage meter, and maybe even the
water meter's modem.
Many of the phone system vendors tell me that they only find
out that their customer has switched to VoIP or a CLEC
after the customer has ordered the lines,
dropped their old lines, and things aren't working.
The customer then expects
their vendor to make the phone system work with these new
lines one way or another. This is stressful for both the
customer and the phone system vendor, but many VoIP
providers and CLECs don't care - they figure it's not their
problem, and they know they've got you because you don't
have any real phone
and you've signed a contract for a zillion years to get the
lowest rates. Some of the VoIP providers and CLECs will go
out of their way to help their customers. Without doing some
research, maybe trying a line or two to see if it works with
your equipment, and checking some references before you jump
in, you're really behind the 8-Ball...
Call your phone system
you make a switch in
who provides your phone lines!
Some VoIP providers
specifically target simple residential or small home office
customers (the low hanging fruit), but a business will order
VoIP service from them because it's so cheap or they want a
particular feature. In many cases the VoIP provider just
doesn't have the level of support needed for a real business
customer. It's like buying a used Yugo to drive from New
York to LA.
inherently wrong with VoIP. It's just a way to
digitize and transport the digitized voice from one place to
another. There's no reason the quality has to be any worse
than a traditional voice T1, which is digitized using a
different technique (but VoIP is more prone to echo).
Besides the fact that the equipment that most VoIP providers
use is not "Carrier Grade" like the real Phone Company uses
(which makes VoIP somewhat less dependable), the biggest
difference is the bandwidth that's available to send the
voice packets from Point A to Point B.
One of the problems with
the modern telephone network is that a call starts out as
analog from the mouth of a guy on a telephone handset (which
is always analog). It then gets digitized many times
before the sound gets to the ear of the guy using a handset
on the other end of the call. It's very unlikely that a call
would be analog from end to end these days. Phone system
manufacturers use one method of digitization, the Phone
Company uses another method of digitization, and VoIP stuff
uses still another method of digitization.
As analog voice is
digitized, some of the information is lost. When it's
changed back to analog, a little more information is lost.
The analog to digital and back sequence can happen several
times on a single call, resulting in quite a bit of lost
voice on the other end of the call. Most of us are used to
this new mechanical sounding voice, so we don't seem to
care. When analog touch tones go through that
process, they can get clobbered and the voice mail or
whatever may not work right on the other end of the call.
VoIP devices usually hear
the analog touch tone on the sending end, and covert it to
data. The VoIP device at the receiving end sees that data,
and makes a new touch tone right out of that device - which
allows most devices like Automated Attendants and Voice Mail
systems to work correctly. Because other digitization
methods (like TDM and PCM) theoretically have enough
bandwidth reserved so the touch tone audio should make it to
the other end, the touch tones can get distorted as they are
digitized up and back via the different methods. In some
cases, the DTMF tones that are dialed just won't be
recognized dependably if any part of a call is VoIP - on
either end. You have to do a lot of testing with real
calls before making a system live!
One other result of
several digital to analog conversions is echo. Echo is
caused by several factors, the main one being that a
digitized telephone call is four wire - with
separate transmit and receive. A traditional phone line is
two wire, with both sides of the conversation
on the single pair. A device called a hybrid transformer is
used to convert four wire to two wire, or back. The hybrid
transformer is simply some windings of wire around a metal
core - but it's not simple. No matter how well the hybrid is
made, it's not 100% efficient, which means that some of the
transmit and receive audio gets mixed and sent back to the
other side of the hybrid transformer. That's called
On a regular analog phone
call, the sidetone caused by the inefficiency of the hybrid
can't be heard because there's no delay. The sidetone
created by the inefficiency is increased if there's an
impedance mismatch between the analog line and the hybrid,
but again you don't notice it because it's pretty far in the
background, and there's no delay.
When the conversation is
digitized, there's a slight delay, which means that sidetone
is heard a fraction of a second later - which is why you
hear an echo. Most VoIP equipment has echo cancellers, but
there's a limit to how much echo they can cancel. Echo is
increased if you have two analog to digital conversions
inside the phone system, like an analog phone line going
into a VoIP phone system, and someone talking on a call on
that line from an analog station port. Now you've got twice
the echo to deal with, coming at you from two places within
the phone system. It would be better to give users digital
phones, instead of old style analog phones that require an
extra D to A conversion. The fewer analog to digital
conversions you can do on a call involving VoIP, the better!
Some day well into the
future, voice will be digitized and transmitted as digital
data from end to end on a phone call, where it's converted
back to analog just once in the handset (until we get
One of the things that
companies have had to deal with as they ordered digital
lines is that they can no longer easily record their
employees' conversations. There are some very expensive
devices that you can hang on a T1 line, and devices that
will work with some models of phone systems that
decode the digital voice and send it to a voice logger
(recorder). If you don't use one of these devices, the only
place you can get analog audio on a digital phone system
using digital phones, is at the handset. That requires a
little gizmo be attached to the handset or headset jack on
the phone, which sends the analog audio back to the voice
logger on a spare pair of wires.
If you're rewiring your
office, it would be a good idea to put in two
CAT5 cables to each desk. Having an entirely separate CAT5
network in your office for a VoIP phone system will give you
a lot less grief than trying to run both voice and data on
the same network.
Some business class VoIP
providers insist on your getting a T1 just for their lines.
While you could conceivably put the T1 router on your
network and segment it so the VoIP phones get their packets
from the T1 router used for VoIP, it's much simpler and more
dependable to have two totally separate networks. You'll
appreciate this advice when nothing works right and your
computer guy can't figure out why.
There are real benefits
to not having voice compete with the data traffic on your
network, like while you're downloading a large file, large
database, youtube files or porn (gosh, I'm sure that would
If you insist on running
just one network, most VoIP phones have a built-in 10/100
switch with an extra CAT5 jack on the back for you to plug
the PC into - so you don't need two CAT5 cables at the
workstation. Then they're both running on the same network.
Do you have an enemy in
business that might want to turn off your phones? They can
do it if you're using VoIP. All they need is the IP address
of your DSL, T1 or whatever you're using to connect your
network to the Internet. DoS (Denial of Service) attacks are
pretty commonplace. The web sites of the White House,
Microsoft and lots of businesses across the world have been
literally shut down for hours or days, and it could happen
While there are lots of
ways to screw up your business' computer network to the
point that it slows down (you've probably noticed it
before), which will make VoIP calls so garbled that even if
they go through the conversation will be unintelligible, the
easiest way is to "rent" some home computers that are
infected with a Trojan Horse from a Russian underworld
character. They program the PCs they've taken over to all
try to reach your IP address at the same time - and you're
out of business.
The most famous use of
Russian etc. "botnets" is during a popular sports event like
the World Series or Superbowl, where the Russians extort the
owners of online sports betting sites. They tell them that
unless they pay $X00,000 up front, they'll send all their
botnet PCs to the betting site for a day or two before the
game, so nobody can reach the site. For the betting web
sites, the protection money is just a cost of doing
business. Can it happen to you? There's no way for you to
stop it if you use VoIP phone lines.
Even if everything
works OK, you might have voice quality issues with VoIP:
The frequency bandwidth
of a traditional telephone conversation is around 3,000
cycles per second (from around 300 to 3300 cycles per
second). It's not like listening to a radio or TV station,
but it's OK for carrying on a conversation. When those 3,000
cycles are digitized for a voice T1, they end up taking
about 64Kbps of data. You can fit exactly 24 of those
digitized voice conversations on a traditional T1, which
reserves the bandwidth for each conversation so it's always
the same quality.
Now days, everyone wants
to (has to?) stretch everything to get the most bang for the
buck. The lowest price wins out, even if it's not the
smartest solution. Even if it doesn't work... "If there's a
problem we'll deal with it later. I'll get my bonus this
When cellular phones came
out, it became OK to have bad sounding telephone
conversations. While the original analog cell phones had the
same 3,000 cps reserved for voice, they sounded bad because
the analog radio signals would break up with static or
When the cell companies
decided to digitize voice (analog cell has been turned off
in most of the US), they realized that we were already
putting up with crummy voice quality so they used their new
digital system to compress some of the traditional 3,000 cps
of audio to something that sounds pretty bad. The more
conversations they can carry, the fewer times the customer
will see "Call Failed" (even if the calls that don't "fail"
sound like garbage).
It's not just telephone
traffic that gets compressed. Anything that can be digitized
can be compressed. You've probably noticed the effects of
compressing a satellite TV channel, or a satellite radio
channel. You can certainly see the effects of compression
when you watch a video on the Internet, where the picture is
small and the quality low (but the audio usually sounds
pretty good because it takes the least bandwidth).
The reason that all this
stuff is compressed is simply so you can fit more of it into
a single pipe of limited bandwidth. Amazingly enough, VoIP
calls don't take up a lot of bandwidth. You can make
many internal calls on an office computer network
(LAN) and they'll sound great. You can make some calls on a
broadband Internet connection, as long as you have the same
bandwidth to the Internet as from
ADSL lines, the type of
DSL that the Phone Company usually provides, limit the
upload bandwidth but give you a pretty big download
bandwidth. That works fine for downloading movies or music,
but since telephone calls are two-way, making several
simultaneous VoIP calls on an ADSL line often works
The real problems show up
when you try to make VoIP phone calls on a broadband
connection that's also being used to surf the web or for
email. At that point, the voice calls are competing for the
limited bandwidth with web pages and email. You'll hear the
quality of the VoIP call get pretty bad as someone starts to
download (or upload) email, music or a web page. Modern
Ethernet Switches can use QOS (Quality of Service) rules to
give VoIP packets a priority, but few companies have the
equipment, or have it set-up properly.
Even if the VoIP packets
make it through to the Internet on your broadband
connection, you have no control over how those packets get
to the other end of the call. With a web page, if you see
the bottom or the page before the top for a second, nobody
knows or cares. With a VoIP call, if the person on the other
end of the call hears the second half of your words first,
that ain't good. Luckily, there's a lot of bandwidth
available at most ISPs and on the backbone of the Internet,
so that's not the main source of bad sounding calls today.
In the future, the entire Internet might have QOS so
that VoIP packets will get priority no matter where they go,
and calls will sound quite good.
Rather than using your
regular Internet connection for VoIP, there are companies
who will give you a T1 on their private digital network
where the packets don't have to compete with regular
Internet traffic (often called an ATM network - which is
not Cash Machines).
The voice quality on that network, or even on your own
private T1 between branch offices, will be as good as a
regular phone company POTS call (unless you purposely limit
the bandwidth of calls to stuff more on a pipe).
If you're getting VoIP
strictly to save money, you won't like the private network
solution because it's expensive. If you're getting VoIP for
the features, and you have a business need for the features
which will either allow you to save money, make more money,
or provide better service to your customers, a connection to
a private ATM network might be just what you need to get
your company into this leading edge technology.
Some cable companies are
offering telephone service that they call VoIP. It's
"hip" to use the word VoIP these days. Although the cable
company is digitizing the telephone call using IP packets,
which makes it VoIP, they aren't sending the packets out
over the public Internet, and they're prioritizing the
packets as they leave your premise so that TV programs or
Web surfing won't affect the quality of the call. Although
the quality of the voice will be about the same as the real
Phone Company, you're still going to be dealing with a box
or features that may or may not work well with the
particular phones or system you have connected to it. The
box also needs electricity to run, so you need a good
battery backup/UPS to be able to use the phones during a
Remember that if you're
using VoIP over your Internet connection, if the Internet
goes down, you won't have telephone lines, OR
email and the Web.
It's an insane idea for most businesses to switch 100% to
VoIP. If your business is telephone intensive and you're
selling something, it would be a good idea to use real phone
lines where the quality of the call won't become an issue in
the sales process. Just do your homework before committing
to any of this leading edge technology - so it doesn't
become bleeding edge
for your company.
A VoIP Provider
is NOT a real phone company. If you know that going in, you
should be able to successfully implement VoIP at your
company... Because you'll have
A little background is necessary to understand what you're
getting into by being a first adopter of VoIP. This is still
early in VoIP's development. You're participating in a big
In the beginning, there was the Phone Company.
Only one Phone Company. You got your phone lines from them,
and you rented your telephone equipment from
They weren't perfect, but it was all we had, and we could
make and receive calls just fine. As a matter of fact, they
sounded pretty good compared to today's cell and VoIP calls.
The phones that the Phone Company rented out were as tough
as nails. The 500 set (rotary dial), and then the 2500 set
(touch tone), became the standard by which all other phones
were judged. When the Phone Company finally came out with
Decorator Phones (like Mickey Mouse, or a fancy phone in a
box), the innards always had the same components as a
regular 2500 set.
The 2500 set is still the gold standard for both the Phone
Company and VoIP providers. They have the same attitude...
If the line works with a standard 2500 set, then the line is
fine and a problem you're having with your phone system is
your problem (click). Unfortunately, nobody actually uses
2500 sets these days (except my Mother?). They're using all
kinds of electronic telephone stuff. Even the expensive
multi-line feature phones you buy at the Office Biggie store
don't work on every phone line (but hopefully you can return
When the Phone Company was broken up into a
lot of smaller parts, it became legal for other companies to
sell you telephone equipment. Eventually, you were also able
to get your phone lines from other companies. The first
generations of telephone equipment that were sold to the
public were still tough as nails. A lot of the designs were
licensed from Western Electric, who designed the original
equipment. Today's telephone equipment is not tough as nails
(it's closer to spaghetti). Almost everything is designed as
a throwaway - figuring the maximum life many be a few years
The engineers who design today's telecom equipment, the
factories who produce it, and the companies who sell it are
so far removed from the quality standards of the
Phone Company that there is no comparison in the
equipment... But, for some reason (that I
can't figure out) consumers and companies assume that every
piece of telephone equipment that's made is still up to the
standards of the Phone Company of yesterday.
Purchasing phones or phone service can be pretty
stressful! Or maybe I should say what happens
after you buy the phones or lines is stressful.
The CPE (Customer
Provided Equipment, which is phones or phone systems) that's
available today is essentially throw-away. Phones that were
rented in the old days would often last decades. While some
of today's equipment can be fixed if it breaks, most
of it can't be fixed economically because of the way it's
made (surface mount components that are hard to replace).
It's just cheaper for the manufacturer to send you a new
gizmo than to try to repair the bad one. If you do send your
old one in for repair, they'll often throw it in a pile and
sell it for scrap, or maybe send it back to China to be
refurbished in the future.
How often telephone equipment breaks isn't that big a deal
these days. If it works out of the box, it's usually pretty
dependable and won't just out and out break until you throw
it on the floor.
In some applications
phones don't work right out of the box. The engineers who
design today's telephones, phone systems or VoIP stuff come
from a digital world of 1's and 0's. The way 1's and 0's act
in a digital device is always the same if the device isn't
broken. Analog is much more complicated - closer to an
art than science.
Almost all of the
telephone instruments made these days are made to be as
"hip" looking as possible. Most manufacturers have odd
shaped phones, odd shaped buttons, and odd shaped handsets.
While in the old days you could get an amplified, noise
cancelling, or push-to-talk handset for just about any
phone, most phones made today are incompatible with anything
else on the market, and the manufactures don't even think
about the special stuff that their customer may need, like
an amplified handset.
Companies buy new
telephone systems, and forget that they had special stuff
like loud ringers or amplified handsets attached to some of
the phones, and the same stuff isn't available for the new
For many years, the "key
system" has been the most popular type of phone system. In a
key system, there's a button and a light for each line, and
a hold button. While you can intercom someone and tell them
to pick up a line, a lot of people just yell over and tell
someone to "Pick up line 4."
Larger companies with a
lot of lines use a PBX. Since you can't get hundreds of
buttons on a telephone in a larger business (and even if you
could there would be too many to use), a PBX lets a user
dial a code (like 9) to get an outside line, and
automatically answer whatever incoming call that rings their
phone (or it might ring a couple of "loop" keys). Users hate
going from a key system to a PBX because they're forced to
transfer every call to someone, instead of just putting a
call on hold and telling them to pick up a particular line.
Most of the VoIP phones
and systems sold today work like a PBX, where you can't see
the status of every line. Maybe you can stick a couple of
lines on most phones, but you usually can't make it work
like the old familiar key system. Since there are a limited
number of buttons, you don't get to have very many BLF/DSS
(Busy Lamp Field/Direct Station Selection) keys that show
you if someone at another extension is on the phone. If
you've never had these features, you probably won't care.
If you had them on your old system,
you'll wonder what kind of idiot designed this new system.
A worse problem on a lot
of the VoIP phones is the lack of sidetone.
Sidetone is when you hear a little of your own voice coming
back to you in your ear, as you talk on the phone. That
gives you a nice warm feeling that the phone isn't dead.
Dead is the exact
description of what you hear when you talk if a phone
doesn't have sidetone. Some people can get used to it, and
some can't (I can't).
You also lose the ability
to record from the handset jack of that kind of phone, since
you only hear one side of the conversation,
the outside caller, if there's no sidetone. The nice
thing about recording a call from the handset jack on a
normal phone is that you hear both sides of the
conversation, and the levels are usually pretty
balanced so that the person inside isn't a lot louder than
the person outside. If you don't have several users try a
phone before you buy a lot of them, you could be in for a
Most of today's engineers who design phone systems (in a
third world country) look at analog connections to a phone
line or phone as easy stuff that's pretty much beneath them.
They figure the analog telephone connection is simple, and
they whip that out in no time. Problem is, the analog
connection isn't simple. It's actually very difficult when
you consider all of the possible combinations of old and new
devices that can be connected together. Unlike a digital
interface, which is simply trading 1's and 0's between two
pieces of equipment, the analog interface deals with AC and
DC voltage and current, db levels, impedance, resistance,
noise, induced AC and imbalances.
Most of the VoIP boxes on the market today do a poor job of
emulating a real phone line. One side of the coin is bad
engineering, but the other side is cost. The manufacturers
feel that they don't want to put an extra 25 cents worth of
parts into a device if it's only going to be needed by 20%
(or less) of the users. That works OK for the 80%, but it
causes real headaches for the customers who buy the stuff
expecting it to work, and it doesn't.
Most of the VoIP
providers don't care. The 80% are giving them so much cash
that they don't feel a need to start doing the much harder
work of getting the other 20% working - so they don't. Most
VoIP providers are perfectly happy to take the VoIP device
back if it doesn't work in your application, which costs
them very little. The problem is that the customer
thought it would work OK, and they went through a lot of
pain and expense to try to make it work.
Good VoIP works fine 99.5% of the time when the application
is simply making outbound calls by a real person. It's when
you try to do something as simple as putting an answering
machine on the line when things start to go down hill.
People pick up a phone,
make or answer a call, and hang up the phone when they're
done. Automated Attendants, Voice Mail, answering machines
and automated telecom devices expect to see cues that help
the machine deal with the call.
Some VoIP devices (and even T1 Channel Banks) ignore the
standard cues (protocols) that have been used on US
telephone lines for decades. In today's global economy, the
Chinese VoIP box that you bought here is probably sold in 50
other countries, some of which use different cues. The VoIP
providers are looking to install as many lines as possible,
and they don't really care whether the box is made to work
well in England, China or the US. They just use it here in
the US because they need a box that's cheap and easy to get.
When your telephone
equipment gets the wrong cues it may not ring correctly
(besides having the wrong ring voltage or not enough
current, some phone system COs won't recognize ringing other
than regular 2 seconds on, 4 seconds off), the voice mail
may never hang-up at the end of a message, the volume may be
low or high, or you may have echo.
Analog station ports on
mainstream phone systems usually don't do a very good job of
emulating a real phone line. If you're thinking of plugging
a station port from a phone system into a VoIP gateway, the
gateway may not recognize the station port as a real phone
line because there's not enough talk battery, loop current,
ring voltage or the wrong ring cadence.
While you may be able to fix these problems by adding
voltage or current, changing the impedance, attenuating the
audio, or getting a witch doctor... you may not be able to
fix it even after playing with it for hours. That's
not a terrible thing if you want to be on the
cutting edge of technology and really need the features or
cost savings, but it's INSANE to just order
the stuff and disconnect your old stuff - assuming
everything will work fine.
Some VoIP providers will
help you setup an ATA or Gateway so it will work with US
type equipment. Unfortunately, most won't because they're
scared of all the setting they can change (it's pretty
intimidating!). Again, they just want to deal with the low
hanging fruit that's not going to make them do much work for
Some VoIP equipment
manufacturers are touting HD VoIP, which is basically high
fidelity voice over VoIP. HD VoIP would work fine if
there's enough bandwidth, but that's a real stretch if you
consider that nobody can make regular VoIP calls sound as
good as a real phone call, primarily because of bandwidth
The closest to delivering
high fidelity VoIP for everyday use is Skype, which must be
between two computers running Skype software (their new SIP
service for business uses standard telephone quality
bandwidth). If you use a good quality headset or microphone,
the quality can be great (depending on the path the packets
take over the public Internet). Better than AM radio
quality. If you have enough bandwidth and a webcam, you can
even see the other person you're talking to.
There are companies
making expensive ATAs for Skype that allow you to put a
Skype phone line into your phone system, just like a line
from a phone company (with standard quality audio
bandwidth). Skype is supposed to come out with a SIP service
for businesses, that can be used on a phone system without
the expensive ATAs.
While that's not for
everybody, it could really change the business model of an
International company. Skype users already know Skype isn't
all that dependable, so they may not hold you responsible
for the bad sounding calls and cut-offs (like an American
Even if Skype's voice
quality is better overall on PC to PC calls, if you make a
Skype call through a real phone system you're back down to
the traditional limited bandwidth of your real phone system
- 300 to 3500hz.
Is the Perfect Storm
coming to VoIP?
There may be a perfect
storm coming for VoIP phone calls. There is a big push to
allow people to download movies over the Internet. Movies,
especially HD movies, are just plain HUGE files.
Unlike phone calls, they can simply stop and buffer for a
little while if the Internet is slow.
Comcast is touting a new
very fast Internet connection over their cable service.
AT&T's U-verse and Verizon's FiOS are close behind. There is
almost no need for an Internet connection that fast,
except for downloading movies (main-stream
While it's likely that
many will stream movies at night, when you're probably not
making business related VoIP phone calls, those with a
slower Internet connection may start a download or two
before they leave for work in the morning so the movies are
downloaded and ready when they get home from work (an HD
movie takes a while!).
To put it simply, there
isn't enough bandwidth in the country if everybody starts
downloading movies on a regular basis. In normal times, the
Internet might get slow and choppy for a while until the
owners of the backbone and the ISPs buy new bandwidth and
the equipment to support it (normal growth pains).
There's already plenty of
fiber in the ground to support the bandwidth increase, but
there may not be any money available to buy/rent it, or all
the very expensive routers needed to make use of it.
With the credit crunch, a
perfect storm could be looming on the Internet, fueled by
the popularity of videos and movies - but there may be no
money to pay for it. VoIP phone calls and video conferencing
are the two applications where you can't buffer any part...
It has to happen in real time.
I have a feeling there's
more money to be made in movies than VoIP, so VoIP may be in
for some rough times in the future.
VoIP is easy for an
ISP to purposely screw up
If you're planning to use
VoIP between two locations (like an office and branch office
or home worker), consider using a VPN (Virtual Private
Network). A VPN will encrypt the SIP (VoIP) packets that
carry the conversation (and any other data you send like
email and spreadsheets, etc.). That encrypted connection is
called a VPN tunnel.
VPN routers are inexpensive and easy to setup these days.
You'll need one for each end of the connection.
It's very unlikely that someone would try to intercept the
network traffic between your locations, and if they did it
would be very hard to do unless they could get right onto
your network or DSL/cable/T1 leaving your building.
The FBI does have a box
at every ISP, including yours, that lets them
grab all the packets from a particular IP address (like
yours), which gives them the ability to monitor and record
VoIP conversations (and everything else you send or receive
over the Internet). I would imagine that they have the
ability to break VPN encryption, but not in real time.
The real reason to encrypt your VoIP traffic is to prevent
your ISP from blocking/degrading the quality of VoIP calls
by messing with the SIP packets, which are easy to identify
as they go through their routers. Why would they
do that? Because they probably are
or own a phone company in addition to
offering broadband. If your VoIP sounds terrible, you're
more likely to switch to their phone service (which is
almost always a better quality than VoIP, even if they call
it VoIP themselves).
Some countries, especially China, monitor all of the traffic
on the Internet - and have been known to automatically send
a BYE packet intermittently, which tells the other end of
the call that the other party has hung-up.
If someone decides to hack the software on the Cisco routers
that are used to route all of the packets on the Internet
(which has happened), they could put a little bit of code to
send a BYE in response to every SIP packet, which would
bring down everybody's VoIP that isn't encrypted in a VPN
(routers don't have the ability to break the encryption of a
VPN on the fly).
The bitterness of poor quality is remembered long after the
sweetness of low price has faded from memory.
And he never used