Drifting toward an all-VOIP world

I’ve finally moved our old hard line over tot he VOIP server, so all of our calls go through it.  So far, so good.  I also switched from using the Siemens phones’ answering machine to Asterisk voicemail.

On the plus side, features like blacklisting now work as they should.  When a telemarketing call comes in, it takes less than half a minute to add that number to a blacklist so that number will never be able to call again.  Well, they can call, but they just gets a tone indicating that the number is out of service and are immediately disconnected.  We also have voicemail available via email, which is really nice.  On the down side, we lose call screening — the ability to listen to someone leaving a message, and answer the call if we want.  We almost never used tat feature anyway, so it’s not a big loss.

There are still a few tweaks I want to make to the system, but overall it seems to be working well.  We’re enjoying being able to use the cordless phones for simultaneous calls, for one thing — if Lisa’s on a call, I can just pick up a phone and dial.  I can also — finally — pick up calls for the house on my desk/work phone.  No more having to keep two phones on my desk, yay!

At some point I’ll port our phone number over to VOIP, and get rid of the wired line altogether.  Between the usage charges and all, it will end up saving us around $10-20 a month.  I’m occasionally shopping around for a better deal than Flowroute, but as yet I have not found one.  They’re not perfect for local service, because you pay metered rates for all calls whether they’re local or not.  I can get unlimited inbound calls for a pretty cheap rate, but calling locally still costs just under a penny a minute.  Still, you’d have to talk an awful lot to run up the bill to equal what we’re paying Cox.  And that less-than–a-penny per minute rate applies whether we’re calling across the street or anywhere in the country — so it’s still a pretty good deal.  Just not so good that I’m in a big hurry.

 

Telemarketers getting entirely out of hand!

Over the past week it seems the number of illegal telemarketing calls we are getting has increased dramatically.  We’re now getting several calls per day.  The new ones are mostly live people, calling and asking for me by name, with some bogus crap about filling out an on line survey and winning some discount package or some crap.  Bullshit.  I don’t fill out online surveys, for one thing.  Certainly nothing with a phone number, and I’ve also told them to stop calling.

The latest batch has been guys with heavy Indian accents calling with Florida caller ID.  OK, first… Don’t call me if you don’t speak English, asshole.  Second…  I don’t know anyone in FL, and I’m sure as hell not answering your call if the CID just says the name of some shitty little town in Florida.

I’m going to move out land line to the Asterisk box and let the blacklisting and privacy extension features start weeding these slimy little bastards out.  In the mean time I’m filing FCC No-Not-Call complaints for each and every call.  It’s probably a waste of time and effort, but you never know.  The last time I did that, people went to jail.

In Florida.

 

Experiences with the Gigaset S675IP

A few months ago I replaced out old Uniden phones with a Gigaset S675IP and all new DECT 6.0 handsets.  I liked the S675IP because it offered something I couldn’t find anywhere else — VOIP service with automatic failover to a POTS line backup.  After using it for a few months, the result has been half rewarding, half frustrating.  The Gigaset product is pretty impressive when it works.  Sadly, the software seems to have been written as a freshman project and support from Gigaset is completely useless.

The handsets are sleek, very nice, and work well.  Battery life has been great; they will last for days off the charger, and I don’t think we’ve ever managed to kill a battery yet.  It’s also nice being able to have two simultaneous phone calls going at the same time.  The ability to set up a dialing plan to route local calls via the POTS line and anything long distance via the VOIP server has saved us money in long distance charges — we went from .05 per minute for long distance, to .0098.  Intercom voice quality is excellent, as is voice quality during calls.  I’d like a little better volume with a call on speaker.

The software has been a horror show.  While the dial plan feature is nice, what they don’t tell you is that if your dial plan specifies that a call goes out via VOIP connection, and that VOIP connection is down, your call just simply doesn’t work.  The dial plan also allows for only one destination for a call — you can’t have backup routes.  My solution will eventually be to just route everything via VOIP and let a real dial plan handle it, but it’s certainly a disappointment.

I’ve also had more than one occasion where a corrupted voicemail is stored in the internal answering machine memory.  Once there it can’t be deleted or managed in any way…  the only solution is, apparently, a complete wipe of the base unit.  ALL settings are lost.  There is NO way to back up the setitngs, so you have to start completely from scratch and set up the system.  VOIP accounts, dial plans, all settings — everything.  Again, Gigaset support has been completely useless.  They tell me the settings can be backed up, but apparently are talking about the directory stored in each handset.  Gigaset has stopped releasing new firmware for this product, and after a couple of emails they simply stop responding to help requests.  It is the poorest support I have ever gotten from a vendor, bar none.

I honestly cannot recommend this product.  It’s a really cool idea, with the crappiest implementation I have seen in a long, long time.  Add to that the fact that their support is effectively nil, and you have a product that looks nice but just simply doesn’t work as it should.  It looks like the newer model might be better — but apparently they have abandoned the US market, which is probably not a bad idea.  Maybe the EU customers will tolerate this kid of junk.

Cell phone troubles

Well, the other day I pulled my 14 month old Droid 2 Global from my pocket, and found it powered off.  That’s unusual.  What was worse, it wouldn’t boot — I got a text bootloader screen telling me the battery was too low to load code.  Not good.  Figuring the battery had croaked, I ordered a new one ($3 or so eBay special).  Unfortunately, it seems the problem runs deeper.  The phone won’t charge the battery regardless of how I try it, and the new battery didn’t last long enough to load a firmware image from my PC.  I believe the phone is now expensive scrap.

So off to the Verizon store I went. I’ll spare the details, but suffice it to say that I left there, as usual, with no working phone and a serious intent to just cancel ALL our Verizon service.  Seriously, where do they find these worthless little retards?  A call to their customer service line was a complete waste of time…  I ended up finding out that their phone reps have to use a web site that sucks even worse than the consumer site (quite a tall order) and it’s actually cheaper to just use the web site.  Sigh…

After wasting most of a day on this — well, more than a day, since I’d spent several hours on it before today — I have a new Droid 3 on the way, at zero cost, with a vehicle mount and the desk charging dock.  I just had to go somewhere other than Verizon.  I found a place on eBay with a killer upgrade deal, did a little research, found out they were legitimate and that, in fact, even NewEgg uses them.  So I went through NewEgg, since I have more confidence in their ability and willingness to strong-arm a vendor if they don’t deliver.

Now, why I have to jump through so many hoops and do so much work for the exact same end result is beyond me.  In the end I get a brand new Verizon phone, and a new extension of my existing Verizon service.  Just like if I’d done it in 10 minutes at the Verizon store.  The only difference is that NewEgg and the company they use are both making money — and Verizon isn’t.  In fact, as far as I can tell Verizon is making a few hundred dollars less than if they’d just sold me the phone in the first place.  It’s beyond stupid.

In the end I get a new phone, but I’m about 50% less satisfied with VZW than I was before.  So much so, in fact, that I plan to see if I can get my phone to work on AT&T and T-Mobile networks (there is a way) so I can try out prepaid SIM cards from them and see if they suck less.  Maybe, maybe not…  but VZW has really gotten to be a pain in the ass to deal with.

On top of all this,  we were supposed to fly today but it’s too damn cold.  Oh well.

A recipe for disaster — or at least telemarketers.

We’re getting more and more telemarketing calls lately.  Quite a while ago, we would get calls almost daily trying to con us into buying worthless “extended warranties” on our cars, or promising to reduce our credit card debt.  How they planned to reduce it below zero is a puzzler.  Well, it would be, but the answer is — they’re just thieves.  Dregs of the earth, operating with impunity out of that haven for con artists and thieves, the great state of Florida.  Anyway, the scum who were behind that operation were eventually caught and sent to jail for apparently very short terms.  The calls have started again, with a vengeance.

So here’s the scenario.  You’re sitting at home and a call comes in.  Caller ID is almost always out of state (often GA or FL).  The CID name is something generic or is missing altogether.  You answer it and get a recorded robo-call pitching some scam designed to separate suckers from their money.  Nothing lost, except your time and a little aggravation, right?

When I’m feeling ambitious, I try to get a live person on the phone. I’ve learned that it is completely useless to ask them politely or impolitely not to call.  They don’t care.  They’re already breaking MANY laws.  So, I’ll play along long enough to get either a web site or a number where I can call them back to sign up for whatever crappy scam they have.  The old “Oh, I need that, but I don’t have my wallet with me and I’m on the john – can I call you back or sign up on line?” usually works.  Armed with that bit of information I file formal complaints (which can be done on line) with the FCC and the FTC.  I also have sent many letters to state Attorneys General, but they seem to be routinely ignored.  The last time I did that for a year or so, I got a nice letter from the Justice Department telling me that I might be needed as a witness int he scumbags’ criminal prosecution, but it was unlikely.  THAT was a nice letter to get.

Anyway, I’m not always that ambitious, and I’d like to be able to squelch these calls permanently and let someone else fight the fight for a round or two.  So the question becomes — how do you know which calls to not answer?

Enter Asterisk.  Asterisk is a free, software based PBX that runs on Linux.  It gives you the ability to make your phones do pretty much anything a very expensive, incredibly powerful business phone system would do.  In fact, you could use Asterisk to run your own phone company with a little time and patience.  Voicemail, transfers, conference lines, automated services like time, weather, wake-up calls, remote control of appliances, messages delivered via email, FAX to email gateway, call forwarding to your cell phone, the list goes on and on.  All that can get complicated, but right now we just want to do something pretty simple – screen and reject calls.  Asterisk lets us do it with style.

So I started working on a system to look at the caller ID on an incoming call and try to make a decision whether to pass it along to a human or not.  The first stage is call screening.  If the caller ID is blocked, or if the number is valid but the name says something like UNAVAILABLE or UNKNOWN, the system will answer the call, ask the caller to say their name, and put them on hold.  It then rings the phones in the house.  We get a voice telling us that there is a call, and plays back whatever the caller recorded as their name.  We then have several options:

  1. Accept the call, remember the number and always accept calls from that number.
  2. Send them to voicemail, now and any time they call.
  3. Send them to a very impolite message telling them not to call.
  4. Send them to a very polite message telling them not to call.
  5. Send them to voicemail now, but allow the call through in the future.

I actually have our set so that options 3 & 4 both simply send the three tones that say “the number is not in service”, and hang up.  #3 also adds their number to the blacklist, so we will never even know if they call again.

Part of the nice magic here is the blacklist.  We can blacklist any particular phone number, or the last number that called.  A blacklisted number’s calls will never be answered — the caller just gets a message from their phone company (or one that sounds like it, depending on how the call comes in) telling them that the number could not be reached.  We never even know the call came in.  I am also immediately rejecting certain NPA/NNN (the area code and first three digits of the phone number) that I know are invalid and signal a telemarketer call.  For instance, if you see a number like 305-000-1234 on your caller ID, you know it’s faked.  There are no 000 numbers in the country.  Those calls get dumped before they even reach us, as will 111, 555, 999 and a number of other area codes and prefixes.

So far I’ve been testing this out on my VOIP lines that I use for work and for HamGadgets.  I haven’t been getting any telemarketing calls on those yet, but when the new Gigaset base arrives I’ll be able to do the same for our home phone line.  Stay tuned, kids, and I’ll show you how to un-private blocked caller IDs.  🙂

 

Siemens Gigaset handset comparison

I’ve got a couple of different Gigaset handsets on hand as I have been ordering gear to replace our existing cordless phones.  So far I have two models, the S79H and the slightly more upscale SL78H.

Gigaset SL78H
Siemens Gigaset SL78H
Gigaset S79H
Siemens Gigaset S79H

The features of the two are quite similar.  The primary difference is that the higher end SL78H has Bluetooth in addition to a mini-USB port for managing pictures, ring tones and contacts as well as headset use.  The S79H has a mini-USB for file transfers, but has a standard 2.5mm headset jack for a wired headset.  Since we pretty much never use a headset with any of the house phones, this difference is pretty much moot.

The two differ quite a bit in other ways, though.  Both have good sized color LCD screens, but the SL78H is definitely sharper and better looking.  The SL78H also has a metal frame (polished chrome plated, even) and has a much heavier, more solid feel.  It’s a little shorter and a little slimmer.  There is no doubt whatsoever which is the higher end handset.  It’s not all one-sided, though.  The S79H has a louder speaker, louder earpiece volume, and can stand on a table for better speaker phone use.  Lisa and I also prefer the separate, easy to feel raised keypad buttons over the smooth and stylish but not so easy to use “Razr” style keypad on the SL78H.

Each uses the same kind of easy to navigate interface for placing and answering calls, muting a call, changing settings, etc.  I thought it really odd that the set of standard ring tones is not the same between the two…  but I can copy the ones I like to whichever handset doesn’t have them.  The same software (free from Siemens) will manage either handset.  Of the two, I really feel the S79H is a better value for the money…  but everyone likes the SL78H better, so that’s what we’ll have around the house.  🙂

 

Phones, phones, phones!

So this week I’m up to my eyeballs in phones.  I’m replacing our old, trusty Uniden cordless phones with some slick, new Siemens Gigaset phones.  The new setup will be one of the “hybrid” models (the S675IP) that will allow them to use both our existing wired “POTS” phone line from Cox, and the new voice-over-IP (VOIP) service.  I have been using VOIP for work and for HamGadgets for a while now, and have things stable enough that I think it’s time to start seeing how well it will meet our day to day needs for the household.

The advantages are pretty big.  VOIP calling can reduce our monthly bill by quite a margin.  We’re currently paying Cox around very close to $50 per month for a single line, plus a nickel a minute for long distance.  That seems high, doesn’t it?  Well, it’s $17.65 for the line itself.  Then tack on $14.99 for what we would consider to be very standard features like caller ID, call waiting CID, call waiting, etc.  Now add on over $6 in fees (“FCC charge” and “extended local calling area”).  Now add on yet another $8.51 in other fees and taxes, and you’re at  $47.52 – before any long distance calls are made!  Wow.

Compare this to the cost of going VOIP.  Startup cost will be $25 to port the number over so we keep the same phone number.  After that, it’s $6.95 per month for unlimited (unmetered) inbound calls.  Add on $1.39 for E911 service, so we can call 911 and they will get the correct information on screen.  Now all of our outbound calls (local and long distance) will cost us…  but it’s 0.98 cents per minute, anywhere in the continental US.  Toll-free calls still don’t cost anything.  So let’s assume we use (let’s pick a random large integer) 1200 minutes a month of outbound calling, that’s 20 hours of phone time.  Maybe more, maybe less…  but remember, it doesn’t matter if it’s local or long distance.  That adds $11.76 in charges, bringing the grand total to…  just a little over $20, or well under half the current bill.

So, the new phones will let us use the existing phone line in parallel with VOIP calling for a few weeks to decide whether VOIP is going to work for us.  It will also give me a chance to get our Asterisk system tweaked and tuned to meet our needs… like being able to nuke telemarketers, get better caller ID, etc.  Of course we’ll have to live without Cox plastering the caller ID across half the TV screen every time the phone rings.

Oh well.