Welcome to the world of VoIP

Yesterday was the day I ditched BT and their expensive ISDN 2e service. I’d had ISDN for around fifteen years – back when I started writing about the internet, it was one of the simplest ways of getting a relatively fast connection. I carried on using it both as a way of providing backup for other net connections and because it provides some useful features for people who work from home.

For example, an ISDN 2 line allows two simultaneous calls, and you can have blocks of numbers allocated to the line – I had the typical ten number block, allowing me to have a main number for business, one for fax, one for family, one ‘public’ number in the phone book, plus others that were used at various times for things like specific projects, or to give my then lodger a separate phone number on which he could be reached. It was all routed through a small Euracom 141 phone system (originally made by Ackermann), which also allowed clever stuff like automatic diversions based on time of day, so if you call by business number any time other than 1000-1800 weekdays, you get voicemail, and I don’t get disturbed.

But times move on; my Euracom died earlier this year, and I’ve been using a FritzBox as a stop-gap, while porting my numbers to a VoIP service (provided by Gamma Telecom). One of the reasons for doing that is BT’s charging policy for ISDN; you get the feeling they never wanted it to succeed, certainly not when  a typical quarter’s bill would come to £151.41 (plus VAT) for line rental and services, with calls making up a measly £24.96. That line rental bundle is made up of £103.41 for the basic rental, £2.40 for the first two numbers, £19.20 for the additional ones, £8.25 for the ability to divert calls, another £8.25 for caller ID display, and finally £9.90 for the ‘Total Care’ package that I took out after one too many BT mistakes had left me without any service at all. It’s really pretty overpriced, in my view, and a good example of how BT puts prices up on some services, while pretending to keep them low overall. (And don’t forget the £9 charge just for not letting BT, with their broken billing systems that have overcharged me so often in the past, have the keys to your bank account).

So, VoIP. And what can it do for me? Well, my VoIP service is about £10 a month for a SIP trunk with two channels, so the same call capacity as BT. No extra charges for number rental, or call diversion, or caller ID. All those things are taken for granted, and I have a relatively low-powered PC (a Via mini-ITX system) running Windows XP Pro with 3CX.

Now, I have the same numbers, and I can do most of what I did with my Euracom and ISDN via 3CX (a few things I’m still working on, some you can’t do with the free version of 3CX).

And I can do more clever things; my Nokia E72 connects to the phone system. All my numbers are stored on that in international format, and 3CX works out what to do when I call via the Nokia, which can be done over WiFi  when I’m in the house, or using SymVPN to connect back into the phone system when I’m somewhere else (see this post for more). So, I can be anywhere I like, find a number on the Nokia, select ‘Internet call’ and as far as the person I’m calling is concerned, it looks like I’m sat at my desk in Hackney. If there isn’t a network connection to let me use VoIP, I can just dial using the mobile as normal – no need to store numbers in different formats at all.

Diverting calls over the internet effectively costs me nothing. As far as most people are concerned, nothing’s changed – they dial the same number to reach me. But for people who live back home in Winchester, I have a local number there, so they can dial me with six digits instead of eleven. Thanks to a service called IPkall, I also have a number in Washington state’s 360 area code, where my half-sister lives. Rather than being a separate VoIP account, that simply directs the number to any existing SIP address you have.

Voicemails are delivered by email, as well as being available from the phones; so since I use the excellent ProfiMail program on my E72, I can pick them up easily too.

And for my own convenience, 3CX makes it simpler to dial people I call a lot; key in a six digit number, and it’s set up to add the dialling code for Winchester automatically. Enter eight digits instead, and it’ll assume a London number, prefixing 020. Enter just four, and it’ll add the prefix for the numbers at Incisive Media, where I work with quite a few people, so I can effectively just dial their extension numbers, like I do when I’m in the office. And any number starting with 118, or just three digits long, is passed to the FritzBox and on to the analogue phone line that provides my DSL service.

There are some other useful goodies too, like ‘digital receptionists’ that answer the call and give people a menu; I’ll never have to listen to a telemarketing recording again, because it won’t know which button to press to reach me.

I’ll be blogging a bit more about the technical side of this later – but for now, so long, BT. I’m really not sad to be leaving you, and I’ll be glad of the extra cash in my pocket.

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