17 February 2012

The easiest Roll-Your-Own VoIP yet

Since starting this blog, I've documented many reasons why roll-your-own internet telephony is a hugely cost-saving and flexible approach for home and business use for those who don't mind a small amount of initial geek-work.  Savings versus conventional phone service and digital providers like Vonage approach 90-95%, yet the quality is at least as good and the flexibility is far superior.  So I set up my two locations' phone services using the Linksys/Cisco PAP2T-NA analog telephone adaptor, which lets me provide high-quality, dirt-cheap phone service throughout my house (after disconnecting the PacBell line) just by plugging the adaptor into a phone socket and signing up with a voice-over-internet (VoIP) wholesaler like voip.ms or Callcentric.

The PAP2T-NA has served us well, but as a product it seems to be suffering from a measure of neglect after a sequence of corporate transfers: as I understand it, the unit was first designed and built by a talented startup named Sipura, which was purchased by Linksys, which was purchased by Cisco.  In any acquisition circumstance it's common that the acquired products become the red-headed stepchildren of the acquiring company, so it's understandable that there's a sense of the PAP2T-NA looking forsaken and wide-eyed as it begs for a scrap of sustenance from its current corporate parent.  Firmware updates grow few and far between, software utilities become incompatible with advancing computers and operating systems, documentation grows suckier over time, support web pages go un-updated and are difficult to find, links expire, and so on.  All these symptoms are regrettably the case with the PAP2T-NA now.  The firmware update process, for example, requires a Windows machine (assuming you can find fresh firmware in the Linksys/Cisco labyrinth).  Mac users are out of luck unless they spin up a virtual machine as I did.  Meanwhile the setup user interface is clunky and beset by the acronym-itis that afflicts VoIP.  Fortunately, there are tutorials (such as my own) which walk you through the setup process.  But it should be easier.

So it was with considerable interest that I read about the founders of Sipura starting up a fresh new venture to build easy-to-use VoIP hardware for Everyman.  Their new company, Obihai Technology, manufactures what can be regarded as the technological and spiritual successor to the PAP2T-NA, and it offers lots of additional functionalities and service possibilities, including such service possibilities as Google Voice and their own associated calling service, OBiTalk.  They even offer apps for iOS and Android devices.

Lots of possibilities there.  Plus, the company is fully supportive of "Bring Your Own Device" (aka roll-your-own) VoIP.  Which makes their new adaptor ideal for a review here.
The OBi110 is available at Amazon

The company kindly provided their compact OBi110 adaptor for me to play with.  It's about the same size as the PAP2T-NA, meaning about the size of two packs of playing cards.  Connection could not be simpler: there's a cable to attach to your router, and a port for your phone (connected, in my case, to my home's phone wiring.)  This model has an additional port for connection to a conventional phone line if you still have phone-company service; in that case the unit will switch between both services intelligently.  The whole purpose of our VoIP adventure is to eliminate that and its monthly costs, so that port is not connected to anything in our case.

As with any device of this breed, there's an impressive array of parameters-- some might say bewildering.  Fortunately, very few of these need fiddling when setting up with a VoIP wholesaler.  I'm a happy voip.ms customer, and that company provides a simple and helpful guide to setting the very few parameters that need changing.

The OBi110's web interface is clean and sparse, and it's easy to navigate since it uses a familiar expandable-tree motif for organization.
For use with my voip.ms account (whose setup I documented in my very first post on roll-your-own VoIP, here) only my voip.ms (sub)account number and my selected voip.ms server address needed to be entered.  A small quirk: you must uncheck the "Default" box to the right of any box you fill in, and you must scroll down to the bottom of any page you modify and click the "Submit" button before navigating to a new page.  In the example shown, I unchecked the Default box and typed in the identifier for the specific subaccount (i.e., phone-line) that I'd configured on the voip.ms site for use with my home line.  In my case, this identifier is "[MyAccountNumber]_home".  Scroll down, click submit.  On clicking the submit button, a notice appears that the change has been stored but the device must be rebooted for it to take effect.  Okay, point noted: there's a "Return" button to send you back so you can make more settings.  One simply iterates to enter in the required settings on each page, then submits that page, then return, and so on until all the needed settings have been entered.  Finally, there's a reboot button.  Click that, and within a few seconds your new settings will have engaged.

For voip.ms, the sum total of your settings is:

  • You enter their server address in two places, 
  • Your (sub)account number in two places, and 
  • Your voip.ms password in one place.  
  • If you're smart, you'll change the OBi110's web password.  
  • Finally, voip.ms recommends going to the Physical Interfaces page and setting the Phone Port to default to SP1, meaning the service provider (in my case, voip.ms) set up in the first step.  There are fancier options as well.

Throughout, the OBi110's setup pages offer little question-mark symbols which, when you hover over with a mouse, provide definitions and hints.  That is a huge step forward for newbies and those wanting to stay afloat in the sea of VoIP acronyms.

Here's a specific example illustrating how much friendlier the OBi110 is versus the older PAP2T-NA design.  Like most people, I'm sure you've been annoyed at the fiddling the U.S. Congress and other governments have been doing with Daylight Savings Time.  In the past few years there have been several changes which our digital gizmos need to accommodate.  In the case of the PAP2T-NA, you can accommodate Congress' creativity by typing-in arcane character strings to define the begin and end time of your region's time-change:

Good luck figuring that out-- and in particular, good luck figuring out what needs to change next time Congress gets frisky.  The OBi110, by comparison, gives you simple date fields:

...Easy!  Except, that format might look puzzling.  No problem, just hover over the question-mark symbol, and up pops the information you need:

Pop-up help and definitions represent  a significant step forward in usability
...Of course, in the case of the fresher OBi110 design, the defaults were correct and needed no change.  I've seen PAP2T-NAs delivered with a variety of settings, both current and obsolete, and figuring-out and correcting that string of gobbledegook was left as an exercise for the user.

All told: armed with voip.ms' instructions, it took me less than five minutes to get the OBi110 set up.

We've been using this system for a while now and have been entirely satisfied with the sound quality and ease-of-use of the OBi110.  Firmware updates couldn't be easier: if you're taking advantage of the OBiTalk service (which I haven't yet explored), the process can proceed automatically with a couple of clicks.  Or, go to Obihai's support page and download the firmware from there.  Follow the instructions-- any computer and any browser running on any operating system can perform the update.  That's as it should be.

Summarizing: the OBi100/110 adaptors are my new top recommendations for homes and small businesses needing a single phone line.  The OBi110 has unusually flexible capabilities for bridging a variety of telephony technologies ranging from VoIP wholesalers like voip.ms and Callcentric to Google Voice and even your legacy phone service, so your single phone line can partake of the best and cheapest technologies.  These adaptors are easy and quick to set up and are agnostic towards your computer and OS.  Once set up, no computer is needed for everyday use.  These units are inexpensive to purchase and well-supported, and designed by people whose past work remains well-regarded and has stood the test of time.

UPDATE: A correspondent asks if the Obihai adaptor is compatible with the live VoIP-status monitoring trick I documented in another post.  Answer: Sure-- that trick queries the voip.ms server and does not interact in any way with the adaptor.

UPDATE: As is typical of analog telephone adaptors, the OBi110 provides a wealth of flexibility for configuring how outgoing calls are dialed and routed, for example among its various ports.  Importantly, its default configuration routes 911 calls to the plain-old-telephone-service (POTS) line, which it assumes is connected.  But since the whole point of Roll-Your-Own-VoIP is to get rid of POTS services and all their costs, the OBi110's default configuration needs to be changed to route 911 calls properly.  (This also assumes you have subscribed for your VoIP provider--e.g., voip.ms--to provide "e911" capability, which automatically sends your address to your local emergency services provider.  Now, the practice in the industry is to specify the call routing via strings of characters, which gives a lot of flexibility at the cost of incomprehensibility.  In the case of the Sipura/Linsys/Cisco PAP2T, these strings are called "call plans"; in the case of the OBi110 they're called "DigitMaps" and there are several of them.  For most situations the one you'll want to modify is the OutboundCallRoute one.  Open up the OBi110's configuration webpage and navigate through Physical Interfaces -> PHONE Port -> OutboundCallRoute.  In this field you'll see a bunch of rules, each contained in {curly braces}.  Look for the one which states, "(<#:>|911):li"  ...What this tells the OBi110 is: "If the number dialed is '911', dial it out the POTS (line) port."  Change "li" to "sp1" and it will dial your 911 call over your VoIP service provider instead.