Tuesday, January 31, 2012

VOIPo experiences

Mentioned in this review


(Paid link)
  • VOIPo provides voice over IP services at an extremely low cost.
  • If you have a broadband Internet connection, you use VOIPo to replace your home phone service
  • VOIPo's competitors include Vonage and Ooma
  • VOIPo works with your existing phone system.
  • Be aware that VOIPo's low rates generally require a two year subscription, paid in advance.
As regular readers will know, I'm interested in voice over IP and have spent a little while setting up an Asterisk system at home. Voice-over-IP (VoIP) is usually advertised as a way to cut down your phone bill, but I think that's a little misleading. VoIP provides a different way of making and receiving calls, which can be much more flexible than the simple two-wire set-up most of us are used to. While the fee paid to your VoIP provider is usually lower than that you'd pay to a wireline phone company, the service requires you have a good, high quality, broadband Internet connection - and as DSL typically requires an associated wireless phone service, and cable operators typically offer bundled phone service for a low cost, it's not entirely clear you'll save as much money as you'd think.

I'm using Asterisk with two VoIP systems. One is Google Talk and Google Voice. When combined, the two together provide a decent enough voice calls system for both incoming and outgoing calls, but there are some caveats:
  • If you want to use Google Voice as a VoIP system, you either need to make your calls on a regular desktop or laptop computer, or you need to install an Asterisk PBX and buy the necessary equipment to interface your regular phones with that PBX. This is because the service is only available via a protocol that's oriented towards instant messaging, rather than the popular SIP standard supported by regular VoIP devices.
  • Google are providing a VoIP interface, via Google Talk, to Google Voice for free right now as a favor, but it's not clear the service will continue to be available. Google makes money only from international calls and advertising on the service, and you only see the advertising if you go to Google's related websites.
  • Google does not, currently, support porting your existing landline numbers to Google Voice.
  • Asterisk and Google Talk/Voice do work together, but the configuration is "interesting" and the defaults often result in rather annoying side-effects, such as having your contacts removed from Google Talk.
The other VoIP system I'm using is VOIPo. Let's talk about them.
openoffice web app
(Disclaimer - there's a sponsored link on this page, but as you can see from my other reviews, that doesn't mean I'm going to whitewash the product if I don't think it's any good.)

VOIPo is a division of HostGator, a web hosting company that's been around for longer than I remember. They offer both residential and business VOIPo systems, and from what I can figure out, the only difference between the two are the names. VOIPo uses the industry standard SIP protocol, and uses the simplest form, essentially requiring voice calls be entirely uncompressed.

The core product comprises of a basic VoIP adapter, which is sent to your home, and a collection of basic calling features designed around a single number. Details of the hardware differ, but core features common to all of them are two phone jacks, which can work independently, and a set of network ports that can be configured either to sit between your network and the outside world (VOIPo recommend this in their instructions - I don't!), or on your network if you open the appropriate ports on your router (my recommended configuration.) The adapter is locked to VOIPo.

A "monthly" fee (paid bi-annually) covers the cost of the service and gives you:
  • Unlimited calls within the US
  • From what I can work out, "Unlimited" simultaneous calls - although VOIPo only promise two, so they may cut it to two if you abuse the system.
  • 60 minutes of calls to some international numbers each month. Some destinations, notably caller-pays mobile phones, are not included, however.
  • A large collection of calling features (call waiting, call forwarding, etc.)
Voicemail is also included, and takes the form of audio files that are emailed to an email address of your choice. And there's a web interface that also provides access to voicemail, as well as core calling features. So, for example, if your home internet connection is down, you can log in via your smartphone and update the call forwarding services.

Because VoIP is flaky, at best, with faxes, VOIPo provides a fax gateway for sending faxes. Receiving faxes requires a subscription to a separate service. The gateway is web based and requires you upload PDFs of the documents you want to send. Needless to say, you can forget about using a modem with the service.

Pricing is extremely good - somewhere between $120 and $200 every two years.

That's the core product. Now, as noted above, I'm using VOIPo with Asterisk (originally 1.4, now 1.8.) There are some caveats that need to be mentioned up-front on this.

  • VOIPo explicitly allows what's called "BYOD" (Bring Your Own Device) on their service. VOIPo publish the settings to use on their website, which I'll cover in a moment. You may read elsewhere that VOIPo does not do this. That's false, and based upon the fact that initially VOIPo did forbid BYOD on their systems, apparently for support reasons.
  • You have to enable BYOD for your account via the web interface.
  • You cannot use BYOD if you haven't already set up the supplied adapter at least once and successfully configured everything.
  • You cannot get customer support unless you have the supplied adapter set up and are using that instead of BYOD - which makes sense, it's not entirely fair to expect a support rep to understand why your service is down if you're using some obscure bit of software they've never heard of.
  • You cannot make international calls. Not even your free 60 minutes.
I've used VOIPo BYOD with both a Siemens Gigaset A580IP and Asterisk and can confirm it works without problems.


Initially the only problem with VOIPo was a lack of any kind of phone service during the period between VOIPo contacting AT&T to port our number, and us receiving the VOIPo adapter. This meant a weekend without home phone service, although we were able to log in and redirect the number to our cellphones.

Thus far reliability has been mostly good.  Early on we did have a few issues with incoming calls being redirected to the other numbers, seemingly at random. This may have been a number portability issue, or it might have been something deeper, but this problems resolved themselves within a couple of months and I'm reluctant to make too many assumptions on the basis of that problem. Reliability since has been fairly solid.

Voice quality is good. I did notice that the volume was considerably higher using VOIPo than with AT&T, which is not a bad thing as it's easier to understand what people are saying when you can hear them! But some people may consider it annoying. Overall, voice quality seems on a par with a good cellphone on a good network in a good coverage area. There's the occasional glitch, but the voice quality is certainly good enough.

There are three ways in which I've used the VOIPo system. The first is via the supplied adapter, which in our case was the Grandstream HT502. This arrived about a week after we ordered the service. I disconnected the AT&T phone service lines outside of our home, and plugged the HT502 into the wall, which meant all of the phones already hooked up worked with the new service.

VOIPo recommends plugging in your router into the adapter, and the adapter into your cable or DSL modem. When I did this, my elaborate, beautifully crafted, Internet system with IPv6 and incoming servers and all kinds of good stuff broke, because the adapter makes no attempt to appear transparent and does its own NAT thing. Rather than try to get this to work, I instead disconnected the HT502, plugged it in to my network as just another device, and configured my regular router to forward the appropriate ports to the adapter. This worked without problems.

Wanting to use the two-line feature in a useful way, I then bought the above mentioned Gigaset, and enabled the BYOD functionality on our device. This again worked without problems, and my personal opinion is that if you're just looking for a good cordless phone system to make the best use of your VOIPo service, the Gigaset is probably the best way to  do it.

Finally... Asterisk. Again, no problems as long as you remember a few important tips:
  • You need to convert all numbers to ten digit US phone numbers
  • You need to ensure only aLaw and uLaw codecs are supported
  • To keep everything compatible, you need to tell Asterisk to route all calls through it, rather than forward them.
Here's some useful configuration file extracts to get you started:

From sip.conf:

register => 772xxxxxxx:xxxxxxxx@voipo



callerid=Living Room <101>

From extensions.conf:

include => external
include => homeextensions

exten => _NXXXXXX!,1,GoTo(voipo,772${EXTEN},1)
exten => 123,1,GoTo(voipo,${EXTEN},1)
exten => _N11,1,GoTo(voipo,${EXTEN},1)
exten => _1NXXXXXXXXX!,1,GoTo(voipo,${EXTEN:1},1)
exten => _+1NXXXXXXXXX!,1,GoTo(voipo,${EXTEN:2},1)
exten => _+NX.,1,GoTo(gvoice,${EXTEN},1)
exten => _011XX.,1,GoTo(gvoice,+${EXTEN:3},1)

exten => _X.,1,NoOp(Routing via VOIPO)
exten => _X.,n,Playback(connecting)
exten => _X.,n,Dial(SIP/${EXTEN}@voipo,99,TK)
exten => h,1,NoOp(Call ended)
exten => h,2,Hangup

exten => _+X.,1,NoOp(Routing via Google Voice)
exten => _+X.,n,Dial(gtalk/harritronics/${EXTEN}@voice.google.com,99,TK)
exten => h,1,NoOp(Call ended)
exten => h,2,Hangup

exten => _10X!,1,NoOp("Extension called")
exten => _11X!,1,NoOp("Extension called")
exten => _[a-z].,1,NoOp("Extension called by name")
exten => _[a-z0-9].,2,Goto(homeextensions-map,${EXTEN},1)

exten => 100,1,Goto(incoming|s|1)
exten => 101,1,Goto(homeextensions,livingrm,1)
include => regexten
exten => _[a-z].,2,Dial(SIP/${EXTEN}, 20, tk)
exten => s,1,NoOp(Call from VoIP ${CALLERID(name)} ${CALLERID(number)})
exten => s,n,Dial(SIP/livingrm, 30, tk)
exten => s,n,NoOp(Call timeout)

The key thing to notice in the extensions.conf is the [external] section which turns a locally dialed number into either a ten digit number for VOIPO, or which routes calls out via Google Voice if the numbers are international.


I have no problems recommending VOIPo to others. Here's a quick summary of the issues you need to consider:
  • The core service, using the supplied adapter, is a good replacement for regular phone service, especially if you have a cellphone you can use as a back-up. Reliability is good - the service is rarely unavailable. Call quality is good.
  • It is worth using the BYOD option. I do recommend the Gigaset mentioned above. It's a good DECT system that supports the major features of VOIPO out of the box. The Gigaset includes a regular phone port too, so you can connect it to VOIPO's supplied adapter for international calls.
  • Remember: faxes are problematic. Modem calls are out of the question. You may have devices with modems that you're unaware of, such as in your home alarm system.
  • If you get your broadband connection via DSL, you may have problems porting your number. Talk to your DSL provider first before going ahead.
  • I shouldn't have to say it, but your phone service will be as reliable as your Internet service. Ten years ago I'd have recommended against switching, wholesale, to VoIP, but right now, with everyone having a cellphone, and Internet access much more stable than previously, that's no longer true.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On the SOPA box: Copyrights, copylefts, and copywrongs

I don't usually politicize on this blog, it's generally counter productive, but the recent fight in Congress and on the Internet concerning the "SOPA" (Stop Online Piracy Act) law means the tech industry is in the spotlight, and I wanted to make some comments.

SOPA was proposed as the latest law updating copyright for the digital age, a process that really started with the DMCA. The DMCA had good and bad elements to it. The good was that it recognized that there was a distinction between services and users of those services, and it sought to ensure that companies that provided online services weren't penalized because some of their users violated copyright laws. The bad was a somewhat draconian law that made it illegal to "bypass an access control" - put simply, if you make your own DVD or Blu-ray disc player, you can end up in a Federal prison for up to four years. Why? Because DVDs and Blu-ray discs contain an "Access Control" system preventing the discs from being used in any way the studios don't like. In order to play the content, you need to bypass that access control. Which, if you're not authorized, is illegal.

Neither side was entirely happy with the DMCA, with the content industry feeling that it couldn't easily target services that existed specifically to help copyright violators, and the tech industry really not being happy with the "access control" system. The DMCA was also specifically a US law, and the content industry couldn't use it to go after copyright violators outside of the US.

SOPA is an attempt to address the copyright holder's issues with the DMCA. With major Internet infrastructure in the US, including ICANN, SOPA proposed methods to allow copyright holders to cut off access and funds to foreign organizations that promoted copyright abuses. The tech industry had two major problems with SOPA:

  • The law was clearly easy to abuse. While the DMCA had protected websites that in good faith hosted comments by users that violated copyrights, SOPA made it possible to shut down websites with very little oversight. For example, if I were to describe how to get hold of copyrighted material without authorization on, say, the Guardian Newspaper's forums, it would be increasingly easy for copyright holders to have the entire Guardian website removed from the Internet, the more people who posted such material.
  • The law proposed the use of technologies that would undermine Internet reliability. Specifically, the law proposed that DNS and IP routing tables within the US be changed to block foreign websites. These would leave the Internet with competing configurations in different parts of the world, and as businesses attempt to evade blocks, which would be inevitable, these configurations would have a major impact on the Internet's general reliability.
The Internet is not a single entity, and neither is the tech industry. Different entities had different concerns. Many tech titans are sympathetic to copyright holders, being copyright holders themselves, or simply seeing value in the protection copyright provides to content creators. But there's also a strong movement against copyright, at least, in its present form. Opponents of the status quo in copyright argue:
  • Copyright terms seem excessive. Few, if any, businesses plan for a product still paying for itself twenty years into the future, yet the copyright terms applied to, say, the movies released this coming Friday will not expire in your or my lifetime. Even 30 year mortgages are expected to pay for themselves within 20 years! (Compound interest, sayeth Einstein, is the most powerful force in the universe...)
  • Creatives build upon an existing body of creative work, and cannot avoid doing so if they want to create material that reflects and fits within our culture. The prevention of a vibrant public domain is damaging to creative freedom.
  • While many copyright infringers do so to save money, many are simply seeking content not available to them in other ways. In some cases, copyrighted material is too expensive, but in other cases, movies, TV shows, and (to a lesser degree today) music simply cannot be obtained via legal channels in a form the infringer finds suitable, if at all. The movie and TV industries, in particular, are extremely bad at making their content available to buy in the first place.
Because copyright law is going in the wrong direction, with copyright terms extended rather than cut, virtually any law that shores up copyrights will attract increasing opposition. 

My view is this: SOPA is the wrong approach, regardless of whether you believe copyright laws are not lax enough, or strict enough. The law put service providers in an awkward position that would have ended many legitimate online forums. The technical measures proposed by SOPA were colossally
stupid and would have caused massive disruption to the Internet.

The content industry may find it worth looking at the example of the music industry to see where its issues with piracy might be solved. The music industry went back and forth on a number of strategies, many of which were damaging to its reputation, before finally licencing its music to a variety of companies. Right now, you can listen to whatever you want whenever you want by getting a low cost subscription to Rhapsody. Or you can buy individual tracks from Amazon, Google Music, Apple, or a variety of other companies, in a format that will work on virtually any modern digital music player. And the pricing is fairly decent. Music piracy is clearly down - very few people, in my experience, talk about using P2P to download music any more. Online discussions of music almost always lead to links to an MP3 store. While piracy exists, it's very much the exception, not the rule.

Both the music industry and music lovers have benefited from this arrangement. The music industry is now getting more from MP3 sales than it is from sales of CDs - albeit the latter sales are down due to a combination of (now declining) piracy and lack of interest in physical plastic discs.  And music lovers are now finding that virtually anything they're interested in is a click away - if it isn't today, it will be soon, with around twenty million tracks already available.

How does the movie industry, for example, go forward from here? Well, the most obvious is to start cooperating with services like Netflix and Amazon and make as much material available online as possible. Traditionally, even when the movie industry has made content available to online services, those services have had a relatively poor selection available, with DRM making buying content - as opposed to just renting it - fairly undesirable.

Ironically, the industry had a chance to fix this in 2007-2008 when HD DVD and Blu-ray disc were battling it out. HD DVD started, right from the beginning, with a standardized framework that was intended to be the foundation of a standardized online digital downloads system. HD DVD wasn't DRM free, but the standardization it offered was at least was a step in the right direction. Large chunks of the movie industry chose Blu-ray disc instead, believing that BD's stricter DRM meant it was more likely to help fight piracy, and because those studios wouldn't budge, HD DVD went the way of the dinosaur, and piracy continued to blossom.

Ultimately you can't kill piracy, but it's false to argue you can't compete with free. If you sell it, they will buy. If you make content available in a legal form that's easy to obtain, people will use legal means to get it. Nobody wants to scour an obscure forum for hours on end to find a movie or TV show they're interested in, and most of us actually like supporting the content we enjoy.

The legislation we need today is legislation that legitimizes copyright by liberalizing it. And the right approach to killing piracy is to actually sell your content to those who want it.