Our VOIP Phone System

We have recently moved  our phones from TelstraClear to 2talk using Voice Over IP (VOIP).  Our phones now run over the Internet and in the process I’ve learn’t a lot about VOIP.

Why VOIP?

  • It’s fun
  • It’s flexible
  • And you might even save some money (but don’t count on it)

Before the switch we had two land lines from TelstraClear – one for home and one for the business – plus a fax number that was a distinctive ring service on the business line with faxes answered by a fax modem and routed to our email system. We also had a cable Internet connection but no cable TV (we ditched that for Freeview a while back, that’s another story).

We (Dowse Murray Chartered Accountants) have grown a quite a bit over the last few years and we really needed more business phone lines (more than one) – it’s very easy to tie up a single line talking to IRD. We also needed to put a phone line into our second office and have DDI’s and be able to transfer calls – i.e we needed a PABX with at least three lines.

I also thought it would be cool to be able to use my iPhone as an extension on our phone system. As we have a reasonable cable Internet connection I figured that if we implemented a VOIP solution we could ditch our phone lines completely and as long as we could use our iPhones as handsets over 3G then if the Internet went down we would still have phones.

So what we needed to make it all work was a VOIP provider, some VOIP phones for home and office, a fax service, a VOIP client for the iPhones and to be able to keep our existing 04 phone numbers. With a bit of help from Mr Google we got all this – read on…

VOIP Provider

www.2talk.co.nz. 2talk are a New Zealand Internet Telephony company that sell VOIP services, from what I can see they are no 1 in this space in NZ. You can sign up for a plan with them or pay as you go.

I started with the free plan which gives you as many 028 numbers as you want (calls to 028 numbers are charged at mobile rates) and 15 minutes free calling to landlines in NZ per month. After that it’s 3c a minute local, national and most international destinations and 24c a minute to NZ mobiles. Local numbers (e.g. 04 for Wellington) can be added for $7 per month each. All prices inc GST,  auto-topup from your credit card.

I used the free plan for a few days while I tested out the functionality 2Talk offered. It’s very functional, you can pretty well do anything with it that a full function PABX can do and all from their website. I spent many hours playing with it – too many – we had phones ringing all over the office night and day while I  worked out the best set-up for us. Very annoying for everyone around me but I had lots of fun.

The features I liked the most (in no particular order) were:

  • Voicemail can be received via email
  • Incoming faxes can go to email
  • Self provisioning – you can add/remove lines and change your plan online – btw you only see a few plans on the 2talk sign up page but once logged on if you take the option to change your plan you can see all the available plans
  • The locate me service – you can configure a number to automatically ring other numbers (2talk or non 2talk) after a configurable delay
  • The one number service – you can have multiple phones logged onto the one 2talk number
  • Whitepages reverse lookup – incoming calls display the name of the caller as listed in the whitepages
  • You can set the callerid per line to any of the numbers on your 2talk account, and also to verified non 2talk numbers

The monthly plan we now have gives us three local (04) numbers with 6000 local minutes (although it doesn’t seem to be metered so is unlimited),  2000 international minutes and 100 mobiles minutes for $45.  If we use up these then it’s 3c a minute local, national and most international destinations and 24c a minute to NZ mobiles. We added a fourth 04 number to use as a DDI for an additional $7 per month.

By using a combination of locate me, one number, 04 and 028 numbers with the callerid set to be the main business number we have no limits on the concurrent number of incoming and outgoing calls – we are only limited by the number of humans there are to answer our phones.

VOIP Phones

For VOIP phones I found www.nicegear.co.nz who specialised in VOIP solutions. Hadley from Nicegear recommended a Siemens Gigaset A580IP cordless VOIP phone which I duly purchased with a second handset and then duly returned a week or two later. Nice guys there – no problem sending it back minus the restocking fee.

The problem with the Siemens wasn’t functionality – it worked well – it’s just nobody here liked the handsets. Unergonomic, sound very average and very light and plastically feeling. We have always used reasonable quality Panasonic DCET phones and the Siemens was a very poor alternative. At Hadley’s suggestion I did register one of the Panasonic handsets we have with the Siemens base and it worked after a fashion. However there was no dial tone (possibly because the Panasonic was a couple of years old and didn’t do the DCET generic access protocol thing too well) and no voice message indicator so I gave up on that idea.

In the end I purchased a Linksys SPA2102 from Nicegear – this is an analog phone to VOIP adapter and has two phone/fax ports. I configured it as per the guide from the 2talk support page, plugged in our existing Panasonic DCET and it just worked. As with most Cisco products these SPA’s have a huge amount of configuration options so the 2talk guide was really useful. The call quality was comparable to our land lines but there were a few differences in dial tone and handset volume. After a bit of trial and error and lots of ringing of phones I fine tuned the configuration – you can download a copy of our version of the 2talk configuration document here.

FAX

Incoming faxes were easy – I just configured the service to send them to an email address as PDF’s – pretty much what our old system was doing. However outgoing faxes were a bit harder. I couldn’t get the 2talk email a PDF to a fax number working reliably, I think part of the problem was the service didn’t like the PDF’s our PDF creator was generating.

As we don’t send a lot of faxes anyway these days and when we do it easier to just put them through a fax machine I decided I’d configure the second port of the SPA as a fax port, plug the fax into it and send through there. I just couldn’t get it working reliably, one or two pages seemed to be the limit regardless of how I configured the SPA. The 2talk forums seemed to indicate that the faxing was marginal at best and I was on the point of giving up when I came across a post that mentioned the SPA’s shipped with quite old versions of firmware. I upgraded the firmware and problem fixed!

iPhone VOIP Client

The ideal iPhone VOIP client works over WIFI and 3G, is integrated with the iPhone contacts, supports multiple SIP accounts and will run in the background to accept incoming calls.

2talk have a free SIP client which is fine for testing but it doesn’t run in the background or support multiple accounts. I tried all the free SIP clients I could find in the App Store but none of them were much better than the 2talk app. Of the paid for apps Acrobits Softphone and Bria got good reviews. Acrobits had been around a while and supported push notification, Bria was very new and didn’t.

I bought Acrobits and it worked but not as well as I had hoped, some quality problems and big delays connecting so you missed the first few words of whoever answered the phone plus the dial tones weren’t right. $10.99 wasted. There is another client from Acrobits called Groundwire that I haven’t tried.

Bria had only been out a week or two and was on special for $5.99 so I bought it. A fantastic client, it seems to work perfectly with 2talk. No delays, good quality over WIFI and 3G, nice interface and although the first version didn’t work in background mode or support multiple accounts a new version is out now that does. The only problem is that when in background mode it eats battery life – about 5% per hour as it has to keep listening for UDP connections. It’s the same with Skype (but not necessarily Acrobits as it can use notifications).

What I have now is Bria configured to logon to our work number (one number handset), our home phone (one number handset) and my 028 number. When I’m in the office I start Bria and my iPhone becomes another phone off our main number that will ring when a call comes in. I use the 028 number (callerid set to the main work number) for outgoing calls so don’t tie up the main number. It works well over WIFI and as long as there is good reception, calls over 3G are just as good.

Bria iPhone app

Porting Numbers to 2talk

I was a bit wary about porting our three phone numbers (home, work, fax) so I ported the home phone first.

It’s all done via the 2talk website, you request a port and it comes back a few days later with the date it will happen. The port was scheduled for about a week after I requested it and that morning I got an email telling me the number had been provisioned ahead of time so I could set it up before the cutover happened. I had the SPA ready to go so it was just a matter of putting in the number and password and it was working for outgoing calls. At this stage incoming calls were still coming into the land line. I set up voice mail and then wandered off and later that day the new phone rang. Incoming call, someone in Queensland trying to sell me a holiday.

It took a day for all calls to some in on the new phone and then a couple of days later TelstraClear cut off the old line. I left it a week to make sure we were all happy with it then ported the work phone and fax across. As far as I can tell there was no downtime.

A Month Later

Two things I would do differently:

  1. Get an 04 number before testing calls to 2talk. I ended up making quite a few calls to the 028 number at mobile charges.
  2. Switch the monitored alarm system to a wireless system before cutting off the land line it used.

Generally quality is as good as a land line (using the G711 codec) but one or two callers get an echo on the line.

Capital cost – we spent about $600 on three SPA’s and some new DCET phones, plus another $500 switching our alarm to run over VHF. Ongoing costs have reduced by maybe $50 per month even after increasing our Internet plan to 50GB a month (calls run at about 120MB/hour), more phone “lines”, and paying extra for the VHF alarm monitoring.

I don’t think we would have done this over ADSL as 1) we would have had to keep one phone line so less savings and 2) latency is higher on ADSL so call quality may not have been as good.

* One more thing to avoid – testing the home phone at 1am with the other extension next to the bed where Baubre is asleep.

Three Months Later

One more gotcha – our directory listing disappeared from the white and yellow pages after porting our numbers to 2talk. We found this out when the new phone books arrived. A call to yellow pages on their 0800 number has reinstated us in the online directory but we have missed out being in the printed copy this year.

18 thoughts on “Our VOIP Phone System

  1. Excellent summary Martin. I’m currently looking at VOIP clients for iPhones myself, so will start in the direction you’ve taken and see how that fits in with my clients set up.

    From your investigations, I wonder if the iPhone client can integrate with an existing VOIP platform … ?

    Tim

  2. The iPhone client should interface with any system that supports SIP clients – e.g. Asterisk systems. There are also Nokia and Android versions of a lot of the SIP clients.

  3. Great article, just what I was looking for, a real live user experience. The ADSL comment interests me as I have no real choice and our rural ADSL is not very fast – about 200kbs up and 700 down – so I’m picking that that’s going to be an issue.

  4. Yes I suspect it could be a problem. You can find out by signing up for a free 2Talk account which gives you and 028 number with 15 minutes national calling free each month then downloading their softphone or iPhone client and trying it out. If you are going to do more extensive testing then it’s worth paying the $7 or so for a local number for a month as 028 numbers are charged at our outrageous mobile rates.

    • Thanks Martin, yes I’ve already signed up and installed their softphone – it’s as echoey as all getout which is what was making me suspicious. However, I understand that a proper VOIP phone should perform better, so I’m just trying to figure out how I’d test the system without having to buy one …

  5. Hi Martin,

    Very good summary, and pretty much the same experiences I’ve had with 2talk since I’ve been using them. Can’t beat the price!

    I’d just like to make a comment about your dismissing of VoIP on ADSL. It does work fine, and latency is not really a problem. Secondly, with a naked DSL connection, you can dispense with the physical phone line. Several ISPs now provide Naked DSL options.

    Cheers,
    Mike.

  6. Hi there. Thanks for your post. I just thought I would add my 2c experience to your blog which was very helpful.

    In my case I have elected to go with Naked Broadband at home with a $10 2talk account and Bria running on my iPhone. The reason is I can get a home phone and internet package for almost half of a bundle from the telco.

    I was able to get it all working but I noticed that if I did not use the iPhone for more than 5 mins I would not receive incoming calls. I thought this was the iPhone going to sleep. I tried all manner of options including:

    – Groundwire Sip Software (Horrible compared to Bria but has Push Notifications).
    – Greenpoison Jailbreaking the phone to allow the wireless to never switch off. (Avoid – Jailbreak iPhones go through the battery not to mention the always on Wireless).
    – Proxy TCP server connecting to 2talk UDP server.

    I reversed all the above and tried hard to get Bria to work as the interface was more to my liking, and (sounds silly) I preferred the ring tones (Groundwire ringtones sound budget).

    None of the above worked as the phone continued to not receive calls if it had been in standby for more than 5 mins.

    The solution was one setting in Bria. 2Talk has a time out that occurs if it does not hear from the SIP phone. This setting is called SIP Registration Refresh. Bria (and most other apps) are default set to 600. This is far too long for 2Talk. I set this to 250 and now my phone works. I tried as high as 300 and noticed the disconnects. (The lower the number the faster you will go through your battery so it is important to keep it as high as possible.). 250 works well and I can go from home to work or any of my friends places (with their permission to use their wireless) and my phone works.

    FYI – due to costs and not being a business I have my software set to not use 3G. This is simple to do with Bria and 2talk goes through to the answering machine when I am out of range which works for me.

    Regards
    Dom

  7. Hi Dom

    thanks for that info. I changed my router recently and found I was missing incoming calls. In this case it was advanced account settings for UDP keepalive I had to tweak as the new router was clearing the NAT connection quite quickly. I have it set to 60 seconds now for wifi.

    But I have also noticed when I switch to Bria that it often re-registers itself so I’ve just changed my registration refresh to 250 to see what happens. Agree about the ringtones (and dial tones) – it was a biggie for me too.

    Cheers

    • Hi again,

      After all that I am still missing calls from 2talk. I am wondering if it is because of the CHCH earthquake? On the phone (land line) when calling in it rings and all looks fine but the iphone does not ring at all. It is a bit hit and miss. I tried your wifi 60 seconds, then 20 seconds as per their website. Re NAT is there something I can look at on my router? I browsed about ports but they said it either works or it doesn’t with ports and mine is about 60% calls coming through. When I originally posted it was great now it’s gone south….wondering…

      Dom

  8. I had 2 Voip phone lines going to 2 flats and was paying $56 per month to TC for cable modem 20 GB per month but nobody was using the internet so I set up a router that has 3G usb stick pluged into it – I pay $21 a month for 2 GB from 2 Degrees the tenants are Chinese and love the free calling to china as I have a 10 line plan with 2talk it costs me about $9.50 per month per line add to that $10.50 for internet for each flat that is only $20.00 per month.

  9. Hi Martin-
    i was just wanting to follow up on your 2Talk VOIP experience – we are a small NFP community organisation looking at changing from Telstra CLear to 2Talk cos we need another line.
    Are you still having a great run with the 2Talk deal?
    (as your post was from 2010…)
    many thanks

  10. Pingback: Our VOIP phone system – one year on - blog.dowsemurray.co.nz

  11. Hi Martin,
    I would be interested to know all of the settings you’re using with Bria if you don’t mind sharing? I’ve been testing it between 2 mobiles and with it switching in and and out of wifi / 3G – Bria seems to make a real mess of the registrations back to 2talk and in the end one phone in the pair either wont call out or can’t be reached, even though it looks online at 2talk. I first noticed it when i wandered out of wifi and it automatically switched over to 3G and it just stopped working. I also purchased Acrobits Groundwire and ran exactly the same tests and it works fine no matter how many times I switch either phone in or out of wifi / 3G and test call between them. Really like the look of Bria so would like to get it working properly if I can – I’m hoping its just a settings issue.

  12. I leave it on 3G all the time so I can’t confirm or deny a problem. The settings I’m using that may be relevant are:

    Account\Advanced\Transport and Security
    – SIP transport UDP
    Account\Advanced\SIP registration
    – Wi-Fi Refresh Interval 900
    – Mobile Refresh Interval 900
    Account\Advanced\Keep Alive
    – Wi-Fi Interval 30
    – Mobile Interval 30

    Cheers

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