Saturday, August 27, 2011

Farewell to my traditional landline phone

At our house, I've finally made the move to VOIP. After trying several different solutions out, including Skype as a possible VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) solution, I've found a solution that seems to offer the quality of service I am looking for at the price I was willing to pay.

I'm a landline snob. I enjoy the portability and convenience of cell phones, but frankly, I can't stand the spotty coverage and lower voice quality of cell phones, especially on long phone calls. And with the band my wife and I play in, we have radio interviews from time to time over the phone -- we always do those with a land line phone. I can't image how annoying that would be to conduct a radio interview with someone on a cell phone .... "can you hear me now?"

We migrated from AT&T's traditional POTS (plain old telephone service) line to a Comcast converged internet and voice service about 4 years ago. Comcast's voice service was just as advertised - super high quality (equivalent of AT&T), and very dependable. Comcast is running VOIP for their telephony service, but they are careful to manage the quality of service so there aren't strange dropouts or warbles in the voice calls.

When we switched to Comcast, we started with one of those 12 month deals that makes the service look very appealing -- and of course, at the end of the 12 months, the price doubled and I had to call Comcast and beg for them to reduce the cost again. For 2 years running they gave me a $27 discount each month (after I called and begged each time), then reduced that discount to $15 this last year for two 6 month terms ... and increased the cable modem rental from $2 or $3 per month to $7. In our area, the only way you have have phone with Comcast is to rent the cable modem -- there is no simple way to purchase a cable modem that includes a telephone jack on it. I could see the writing on the wall -- I probably wasn't going to be getting any discounts once this last one ran out, and my unlimited domestic long distance was going to cost $45 per month plus $7 for cable modem rental.

During this time, I installed and maintained 8x8 VOIP virtual PBXs for several of my IT customers -- and although the service is not quite as good as a traditional land line, it's about 95% as good ... and when the cost is less than half, people are willing to live with the occasional hiccup in phone quality. I have also made sure to isolate the voice traffic from the data traffic in the LAN - using various QoS (quality of service) methods like isolated VLANs, CoS bits, port based priority, and dedicated DSL lines just for voice ... this means that the voice traffic receives highest priority within the network that I can control. But sometimes the occasional hiccup comes from the parts you can't control -- like the IP to PSTN gateway, where the traffic leaves the internet and joins the circuit switched traditional voice network. Or if that gateway is far away from the office, the packets have to traverse many routers and experience delay and congestion as they travel. Packet delay, jitter (variation in delay), and packet loss all contribute to those annoying dropouts or echoes in conversations that we have all probably experienced.

So after testing a bit, and hearing from a somewhat tech savvy friend about his experience, I switched to Phone Power. The somewhat cheesy name turned me off a little bit at first, but the technology works, and their PSTN gateway is in California, so it's a short path over the public internet from my house to their gateway.

They claim their service is $8.33 per month, and like many marketing things, it's not quite true, but very close. I pre-paid 2 years, and the equivalent per month cost came out to more like $10.40 per month. If you order the service straight from their website, they will ship you a phone adapter that you plug into your router, and then plug a phone line into that adapter and connect it either directly to a phone, or into a wall jack and it lights up all of the phones in your house with dial tone (make sure to disconnect AT&T's outside line at the side of the house before you do that).

After running with Phone Power for 6 months, I'm pretty happy with the service. I've had to reboot the little adapter twice. I haven't had a call drop -- just twice I went to make a call and the call wouldn't go through (fast busy sound) - after rebooting the device, it went through. Unlimited high quality voice calls in the US for $10 a month is a pretty good deal. You do want to make sure you have a router that can insure the QoS of the phone power adapter, or you will hear strange artifacts in the audio when you make calls and web surf at the same time. I'm currently using an Asus RT-N66U router with QoS turned on, but no tweaks made, and it works like a champ.

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