Wednesday, 21 October 2015

My VoIP Evolution: From Softphones, ATA's, IP Phones, .... to IP-PBX's?

Originally when I started dabbling with DIY VoIP (at least 13 years or more ago), all I had was a softphone running on my PC. (Honestly, I can't remember if it was on Win95, Win2000, or WinXP).  Best I can recall, the first softphones I used to get my feet wet in VoIP were Skype and DialPad back around 2002-2004.

At this time in VoIP history, VoIP over softphones on a PC were not quite ready to replace PSTN landlines (Public Switched Telephone Network) or home phone service.  But, for people like me, it was a great long distance calling alternative at much cheaper rates.


Around that same time,Vonage was also starting to set roots as a long distance and home phone replacement alternative.  However, at that time I wasn't ready to go that route.  I was still trying to figure out how to DIY VoIP from my PC.  This was all new to me back then.  And, just being able to save on long distance calls was a big deal.  At that time, calling to USA from Canada via PSTN was costing me about 7 or 8 cents/min.  But, Skype was free... at least for a while...


Skype - Gizmo - GrandCentral - Vs. Google Whatever

As Skype was becoming better known as a free and low-cost long distance calling alternative, more competitors started moving in and creating competition in the softphone-based VoIP space.  The clear Skype competitor at that time was the "Gizmo Project" developed by the owners of SipPhone.  Later on, Gizmo Project was renamed Gizmo5.  For me, I preferred Gizmo5 over Skype.  If I recall correctly, around 2004/2005 I was able to make Gizmo5 calls to USA for about 2 or 3 cents/min. It was worth the hassle of wearing a PC headset to make long distance phone calls.

It wasn't long before Skype and Gizmo5 started offering "Call-in Numbers" (or DID's as we know them in the VoIP world).  Being able to receive inbound calls via a Call-in number (or DID) is also known as "Origination Service" in the VoIP world.  Now, for a few dollars a month we could be reached on our PC softphones from people calling from the PSTN network landlines as well as from mobile phones.  And, of course we could make low-cost outbound calls, too. (Outbound calling in the VoIP world is known as "Termination Service".)

In 2005, along comes another disruptive telephony service called GrandCentral.  GrandCentral offered an innovative service that not only provided inbound calling numbers, but also allowed you to forward those calls to any and all of your other phone numbers you may have with other service providers.  This is really the essence of Ring Groups which I recently wrote an article about.

I was one of the early adopters of GrandCentral and obtained an account that included a USA phone number for free.  As it turns out, GrandCentral and Gizmo5 soon created a partnership that allowed Gizmo5 to inter-operate with GrandCentral accounts.  Things were really looking up in terms of PSTN in-bound and out-bound calling alternatives at very low rates.

Well, with all these new VoIP developments going on, Google wasn't about to stand by and watch from the sidelines, or get left in the dust. Guess what?  Google decides the best way to beat the competition is to buy them out.  Thus, Google buys-out GrandCentral.  Next thing we know, GrandCentral gets shut down by uncle Google.  Then, with the wave of a wand, Google launches a new service called..... Google Voice!  And of course,  Google Voice is really just GrandCentral re-branded and absorbed into the Google ecosystem.

So, what became of Gizmo5 in the midst of all this?  Well, Gizmo5 continued to compete with Skype for a while... until Google decided they weren't pleased with the competition Gizmo5 presented to their Google Talk and Google Voice empire.  Presto chango - Google buys Gizmo5.

All of us Gizmo5 fans thought - wow - what great things can we expect from Google now that they own Gizmo5?  Will Gizmo5 integrate with Google Talk for Gmail and Google Voice?  Well, after about 16 months of anxious anticipation and waiting.... Google decided Gizmo5 just didn't fit within the Google grand scheme of things.  In April of 2011, Gizmo5 was shut-down and laid to rest in the garden of VoIP antiquity memories.

In the meantime, Skype continued to grow in popularity.  However, there were a few unstable moments along the way, though.  In 2005, Skype's creators sold it to eBay.  In 2009 eBay sold 70% of Skype to a group of technology investors.  There were top-level shakeups and financial uncertainty to follow.  Then in 2011, Microsoft purchases Skype in an all cash deal.  Finally, Skype settles down with a new foster parent.


The Need For Canadian Dial-in DID Phone Numbers

I did continue to use Google Voice for a while after Google's acquisition of GrandCentral.  But, because I live in Canada and Google doesn't provide local call-in DID phone numbers for Canada, Google Voice never proved significantly useful for me.

The same with Skype.  I used it for a while, too. But, Skype doesn't provide Canadian local DID phone numbers either.  So, it became obvious that I needed to look elsewhere for better VoIP home phone options for Canadians.

It is unfortunate for us Canadians that there is all that innovation taking place next door in the USA that we can't take full advantage of.  I believe the reason is nothing short of pure politics and the Canadian Telco's having a strangle hold monopoly on the Canadian telecommunications industry.  This is all why I have become so determined to go BYOD DIY VoIP - so that I can find lower cost solutions that don't depend on the incumbent monopolies that control our economy. Ok, bla, bla bla, enough ranting on that topic...

The "other" problem with solutions like Skype, Gizmo5, Google Talk, etc., was that these kinds of services primarily required that the customer use their proprietary softphones that only work with their specific voice services. Keeping in mind that I am referring to how things were back in the early to mid 2000's era.


Moving Into The World of Configurable SIP-Based Softphones

Around 2005, I decided I wanted to explore other VoIP options.  I soon learned that there were a few companies around that made PC based softphones that were compatible with any SIP-based (Session Initiation Protocol) VoIP service.

X-Lite 2.0 (if I recall correctly) was one of the first popular DIY configurable softphones that I became aware of that could be downloaded for free and configured with any open SIP-based VoIP service.  X-Lite is a product of the Vancouver, BC, Canada based software company known as CounterPath.  For a very brief period I upgraded to CounterPath's paid-for version called Bria.  Unfortunately, I didn't have very good results with that softphone - so that affair didn't last very long.

Actually, as it turned out, I now recall that the Gizmo5 softphone also had the ability to be configured with other SIP-based VoIP services.  Come to think of it, I seem to remember that I had better results using the Gizmo5 softphone vs. X-Lite 2.0 or 3.0.  I also recall dabbling a bit with the Express Talk softphone from NCH Software in Australia. I dabbled with some others like Ekiga, SJPhone, Zoiper,  a few other softphones that I can't remember - probably because they didn't make much of an impression on me.

It wasn't until about 2007 that I finally found a free downloadable SIP softphone that I really liked and worked best for my needs.  It was the 3CXPhone Softphone version 3.0 or 4.0 (I'm not quite sure which version it was).  It was a free download from 3CX Corp.  They designed it specifically to work with their PC-based IP-PBX software as a softphone client.  It just so happened that it could also be configured to work with any BYOD DIY SIP VoIP provider.  I'm still using version 6.0 of the 3CXPhone Softphone client to connect to multiple VoIP providers simultaneously on my desktop PC.  Unfortunately, 3CX Corp no longer promotes this phone.  Instead they have created version 12, which only connects directly with their proprietary 3CXPhone IP-PBX system.  Too bad...


Experimenting With Various BYOD DIY VoIP Services

Eventually, I needed to explore more about BYOD DIY VoIP as a viable PSTN home phone replacement.  I desperately wanted to pull the plug on my incumbent Telco service provider.  I began to research who were the viable low-cost VSP's (VoIP Service Providers) that I could test and tryout.

Oh, a little side story here.  Sometime around 2005/2006 I recall contacting my incumbent Telco provider asking them if they had any plans to provide VoIP services in the near future.  I emphasized to them that VoIP appeared to be the future of telephone communications and that it would be great if they were to consider offering this service, too.  Well, their polite response was: "We have no future plans of providing VoIP services to our customers.  It doesn't fit into our business plans.".  Well, fast forward 10 years or so... I'll bet they are kicking themselves in the tin-can wishing they had just a little more foresight of the future that they are falling so far behind in...

Anyway, getting back on track, after doing some further research, I created various accounts with VSP's like Sipphone, Ideasip, Les.net, InPhonex,Voxalot, and perhaps a couple others that I can no longer remember. If I recall correctly, there were a few that I tried that went belly-up within a year or two.  I played around with all of these accounts on my Gizmo5,  X-Lite, and 3CXPhone softphones for a couple of years saving tons of money on long distance calling.  I was still dabbling with Skype, Google Talk and Google Voice, but I was slowly gravitating away from Google and Skype over to the BYOD DIY pure SIP world.  It was all one big learning curve.


Going Beyond Softphones

While softphones are interesting to use and are great when you have a headset with microphone to allow hands-free talking while working on the PC, they weren't a true home phone solution to replace my traditional PSTN landline analog telephones.

If I wanted to have a true BYOD DIY VoIP-based home phone service, I realized that I would eventually need to upgrade, move into the realm of hard-phones, and learn how to configure my own VoIP ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter).  At that time, I knew absolutely nothing about VoIP hardware.  This was around the years 2007/2008 time frame. Time for more research and self-learning....


Time To Upgrade To ATA's

OK, one can only do research for so long - eventually I finally needed to make a decision.  From my research, the Cisco Linksys PAP2T and the SPA2102 were the industry workhorse ATA's of choice for home phone VoIP ATA's.  I found a Canadian VoIP supply retailer and made the decision to take the plunge and purchased a PAP2T and a SPA2102 VoIP ATA. So, now I was really getting into the nuts and bolts of BYOD DIY VoIP.

From here, it was just a matter of connecting my Panasonic analog cordless phones to the PAP2T and configuring it with one of my selected VoIP providers.

By now, I had narrowed down the ITSP's (Internet Telephony Service Providers) that I thought would best suit my BYOD DIY VoIP needs for home phone service.  I tested these ATA's with services like Les.net in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Allo in Vancouver, BC, Canada (who is now belly-up as a VoIP service, but still sells hardware), and InPhonex in Miami, Florida.


Settling In With BYOD DIY Home Phone VoIP Service

Finally, around 2009 I settled on InPhonex as my primary home phone VoIP service provider.  To the best of my memory, for about $8/month I had a local Calgary, Alberta home phone DID number, voicemail, and e-911, etc. - all the standard VoIP basics.  All outbound calls were about 2.5 cents/min. (local and long distance).

This worked fine for a year or so, but then I started getting restless, again.

I wanted to find VoIP providers who had even lower rates than Inphonex and yet with more features while still maintaining good quality of service.

Through more research I discovered CallCentric, based out of New York City, NY.  They seemed to have more of what I was looking for at even lower cost than InPhonex.

Getting Into The Swing Of Number Porting

In order to make the transition between BYOD DIY home phone service providers, I ported my Calgary DID phone number from InPhonex to CallCentric. This was the first time in my life that I ever had the opportunity to port a phone number.  I believe this was around the year of 2010.

The number porting went smoothly between VoIP providers.  However, it did take close to 3 weeks to complete the porting process.


ATA's Are Getting A Bit Old Fashioned - Time To Move Up To IP Phones

Sometime around mid 2011, I decided it was time to move into the realm of IP Phones.  So I thought, how about an all-in-one VoIP phone that didn't need a VoIP adapter to connect to my outdated analog PSTN telephones.  While Panasonic DECT cordless phones aren't really outdated or old fashioned just yet (or at least not in 2011), it is a bit cumbersome to have to buy a special VoIP adapter in which you must plug an analog telephone into in order to convert it to a VoIP phone.

It actually makes more sense to have an "all-in-one" VoIP telephone that includes VoIP adapter and handset, all in one unit.  This cuts down on wires, power adapters, power consumption, and takes up less space.

I spend a lot of time working on my desktop PC.  Thus, I thought a desktop IP Phone would be just the cat's meow to upgrade to.  Thus, I picked the Cisco SPA504G 4-Line desktop IP Phone.

At the time, the SPA504G was a new released IP Phone that included all the firmware bugs new products tend to come with.  It took a few firmware version upgrades before the SPA504G became the very nice reliable phone I had hoped it would be.

Another reason for picking a 4-line phone was that now I could easily test multiple VoIP services on one phone and select between different services at the press of a button.  This worked very well for me for quite some time.

However, that 4-line love affair didn't last forever before I decided I still needed more lines.  So, around mid 2013, I set the SPA504G aside and upgraded to the SPA508G.  Now, with 8 selectable lines, I had plenty of room to test even more VoIP services from a single phone.  To this day, I'm still using my SPA508G as my primary desktop phone while I work on my PC.


Time To Upgrade To A New Lower-Cost Primary VoIP Provider - Again

Periodically, I continue to research and seek out new BYOD DIY ITSP VoIP services who can deliver reliable quality service at rock-bottom prices.  It was around early 2012 that my love affair with CallCentric began to wain. My eyes were starting to wander.  I kept thinking, where can I get more for less.... ?

Then, it just happened.  I don't remember how or where, but around late 2011 I just happened to stumble across a Canadian ITSP VoIP provider called Voip.ms.  They are based out of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. I wondered how it was that I didn't discover them sooner?  After all, they had been operating in Canada since about 2007.

Soon thereafter, I promoted Voip.ms to be my primary ITSP provider status while CallCentric became my secondary backup ITSP.

Currently to date, Voip.ms remains my primary VoIP service provider.  This is because they have points of presence (POP servers) all across Canada and the USA.  And, they offer more features at lower cost than any other ITSP that I have ever used, to date.  (Too bad I can't convince them to pay me to say all these good things about their service...)

All that said, I do have one big disappointment with Voip.ms.  They don't provide DID phone numbers for any cities in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, including Kelowna, BC where I now live.

So, I may have to stray, once again (just a little bit) in order to find other ITSP's that can provide Kelowna, BC DID's (at sub $2 rates per month)....


Cordless DECT IP Phones Are Becoming More Common

Last year, I decided it was time to move into the era of cordless DECT IP Phones.  After all, my Cisco SPA508G desktop IP Phone isn't very portable.  What to do...?

Believe it or not, I really don't have a lot of money to spend on VoIP phones for testing.  So, I did a little research and came across the Grandstream DP715 expandable Cordless DECT IP Phone and thought I would give it a try.

In the end, this phone has worked out quite well.  It is a good option to the Cisco SPA112 ATA's that I used to connect to my Panasonic DECT cordless phones.  The DP715 is a nice compact and very portable IP Phone for use around the home or small office.  I added two DP710 expansion handsets for picking up calls to the DP715 base unit at different locations around the home (when I'm actually not in the office working on my PC).


The End Of The Story?

This has been a long drawn out history of my life's encounters and experiences with BYOD DIY VoIP.  So, here it is - October 2015.  Does the story end here?  Well, I hope not. So what's next?

Good question.  I only have so much money and time for testing new devices.  (Keeping in mind I don't get paid for writing this blog.)  So, I guess I will continue to do what I have always done.  Write about what strikes my fancy. Write about what interests me personally. Write when I'm in the mood. Test new VoIP products when I can't resist the temptation any longer.

Perhaps it's time I start dabbling in the realm of.... mini/micro IP-PBX appliances?
Perhaps...maybe, we'll see...