To keep busy, I’ve been doing web sites for two non-profits, my church and the local Road Scholar Lifetime Learning Institute Network affiliate sponsored by Old Dominion University. Both web sites were in need of updates for the brave new world of iPhone and iPad. Neither site was responsive and both had become disorganized as the sponsor’s activities grew in scale and complexity.
A small church updates its telephone system
My church had been dissatisfied by the service from its phone carrier. Multiple annoyances led the office staff to seek an alternative but the most telling was that the phone system was difficult to manage. Most troubling was that the staff could not change call forwarding from outside the office.
The incumbent was providing 2 line business service using VoIP off the cable. The cable split between a carrier provided ATA and a Motorola SurfBoard cable modem feeding a Linksys WiFI router. The carrier provides a custom front end web site for managing phone service that was proving difficult to navigate and use. And we were paying about $80/month for service. The box supported two AT&T office desk sets that are somewhat clunky to use.
Given the office’s frustrations I began looking about for alternatives and found Ooma for Business. Ooma for Business is Ooma’s small business VOiP offering and is similar to its home offering in many ways but different in ways important to businesses. And different in some ways important to UCN.
- Calling for 3 staff members, Minister, Office Administrator, and religious education director.
- Ability to call out while an inbound call was active
- Call forwarding for 3 internal phones
- Voice mail for 3 internal phones
- A single inbound number.
- Auto-attendant to free the office administrator to roam the building as needed.
- Off-site management during weather closures
- Off-site voice mail access during weather closures
Testing your ISP Service
Ooma for Business requires about 256 Kbps or so of bandwidth to service an active call plus the auto-attendant. You can verify an adequate Internet service using the speed test on the Ooma support pages. This test verifies through-put, latency, and latency jitter. Successful completion of this test is recommended prior to ordering.
Ooma Premisses Equipment
The Ooma premisses equipment is a trade paperback sized black box with 2 Ethernet ports and a POTS port that connects to the Ethernet. You may connect it between the gateway router and switch using the two Ethernet ports or to an inside port on the switch. If you have a robust service, the internal location is preferred. With DSL service, connection between the DSL modem and switch is preferred.
The little black box runs a tailored instance of Asterix private branch exchange software that supports internal calling, an auto-attendant, and voice mail.
In addition, the base system comes with two DECT 6.0 Linx devices. These provide a wireless connection for a regular 1 line business or home phone with caller ID support. The base configuration supports 3 internal lines, one on the PBX device and 2 using included Linx devices. Two additional Linx devices may be added with current firmware for a total of 5 extensions. Future releases of software are expected to increase this to a total of 10 local RJ-11 drops.
The system can support an additional 10 virtual extensions. A virtual extension pairs a PBX number with a POTS phone number somewhere in the US or Canada. The PBX forwards the call to the paired number. To the caller it appears as a local call. This is very similar to Google Voice forwarding a call to your mobile number to your home phone.
The Ooma PBX also has a teleconference bridge. This service requires an additional extension to be used for joining conferences.
Ooma’s marketing is a bit confusing on how Ooma for Business works. The best way to learn is to read the support pages. You purchase 2 resource types from OOMA, phone numbers and internal destinations (extensions or virtual extensions).
A phone number is a 10 digit dialed telephone service address associated with the system. UCN needed one of these.
An extension is an internal port that is able to make and receive calls. These come in 3 varieties.
- The RJ-11 POTS port on the Ooma PBX
- The RJ-11 POTS port on each Ooma Linx wireless device
- Virtual extensions.
It seems obvious that you would pay for numbers but shouldn’t extensions be free? Why is Ooma charging for them? The Ooma PBX creates one “line” for each extension. They are 100 percent provisioned for external service access. All may be active on external calls simultaneously. Most large scale branch exchanges assume that most calls will be internal and that some fraction will be external. This is an invalid assumption in a small office context.
Virtual extensions are internal extensions that are paired with a POTS phone number, typically a home office or mobile number.
UCN needed 3 extensions and 0 virtual extensions.
Ooma prices the business service based on numbers and extensions.
- Numbers are $20 per month
- Extensions are $10 per month
- Taxes, 911, and universal service fund are $5/month per number.
UCN’s bill is about $55 per month
The auto attendant uses a synthesized voice to deliver a greeting and directory information. It has different greetings and behavior for business hours and non-business hours.
- During business hours, you can dial an extension
- Outside business hours, it sends you to extension voice mail or to the common office closed voice mail queue.
This behavior is customizable and each day of the week can be a business day or a closed day. Each day of the week can have different business hours but only one period per day of business hours.
The system is bring your own device. Any RJ-11 POTS phone (desk set or cordless) may be used provided that it has an electronic ringer. The RJ-11 ports do not have the heft to power mechanical ringers or some older caller ID desk sets.
The system does not support direct pairing of DECT 6 wireless phones with the Ooma base station. Ooma uses a high definition voice codec to communicate between the base station and Linx end points. Ooma’s HD hand sets will not pair with the Ooma Business base station in current form.
The system provides voice mail delivery in several ways.
- Directly to the handset. Dialing the handset’s number takes you to its voice mail queue.
- By E-mail. Ooma also delivers the recorded message by E-mail as an audio file attachment to an E-mail address paired with the extension. Transcription is not currently supported.
- Voice mail can be managed from off site using a web browser.
During power outages and Internet fades, Ooma HQ picks up service and will take messages in much the same way that your mobile carrier sends calls to voice mail when a mobile handset is indisposed. Ooma will read or play your recorded announcement and direct callers to voice mail.
Voice mails will be queued for delivery on site and delivered by E-mail as described above.
UCN has experienced one service interruption associated with our router loosing its DHCP leases from our ISP. Basically, everything inside the router lost DNS access. Restarting the router and Ooma PBX corrected the problem.
With apologies to Pink Floyd!
What is Ooma?
Ooma is yet another VOiP telephone service but one with a twist, Astersik running on the subscriber equipment and Google Voice integration. It was Google Voice integration that hooked me.
I purchased my subscriber equipment directly from Ooma.com. The web store was a bit colicky when I purchased, probably as a result of unfortunate use of the back button on my part during the order entry. The site told me that the credit transaction failed so I tried again. Same symptoms. I placed an order with Amazon.
After running errands, I was surprised to find 3 order acknowledgments in my E-mail so I canceled the Amazon order and called Ooma operations support. They couldn’t head off the orders but told me to decline the duplicate. The next day during lunch, I receive a phone call from Palo Alto, CA, unusual. I answer it and find myself speaking to an Ooma programmer who questioned me about what I did and what I intended and cleaned up the mess saving me the trouble of an RMA and trip to UPS to post the returned duplicate.
Ooma has a daily sanity check the orders job that looks for duplicates and other common errors before shipping the accumulated orders. The QA process caught my goof and several like it so development tracked every order down to verify it and do what the customer intended! Having had a nameless pet sales company send a package to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Afghanistan, this was a welcome surprise that puts Ooma ahead of the web sales pack.
Unboxing and Installation
My subscriber equipment arrived properly packed for UPS in Apple pretty packaging. I ordered both an Ooma Telo subscriber interface and an HD-2 handset. The setup instructions for both were clear and initial setup went smoothly. The combination has several advantages.
- The HD-2 handset uses DECT 6 wireless protocol in a band away from WIFI, baby monitors, microwave ovens, and other sources of trouble.
- The traffic between base and handset is session encrypted.
- The handset uses a codec designed for low data rates and high immunity to dropped packets. This encoding carries end to end when talking to an Ooma HD-2 or similar handset that supports this codec. Otherwise, the call is transcoded to coding that both parties can support.
- The HD-2 handset can import your contacts in VCF format.
- The product includes life of the product US calling. You pay the taxes and 911 service fee.
- Home phone service with basic Ooma features costs $4 per month vs $35 for my Vonage bill.
The Ooma handset works well with a few minor quirks, possibly knowledge gaps on my part rather than product issues.
- I’ve yet to learn how to change the handset and speaker volume during a call. The menu set to do this is preempted by the call menu set.
- The navigation buttons are a bit small but serviceable.
Ooma Premier and Google Voice
Ooma Premier is an $10 per month option that unlocks a number of features, some of which are unique to Ooma. The one that attracted me was Google Voice. Without Premier, Ooma Telo can be one of your Google Voice forwarding phones. With Ooma Premier, two things important to me become available.
- Outbound calls show my GV virtual phone number
- Google voice and Ooma voice mail are merged.
Ooma Premier adds another much appreciated feature, community and personal blacklists. These work so well that one Florida subscriber received exactly two political telemarketing calls during the 2012 presidential campaign. Politicos are exempted from the do not call list. Should somebody leak through, it is a simple matter to go to my.ooma.com and add them to your personal blacklist, much as I do with unwanted callers to my Google Voice number.
When an inbound call occurs on my GV number, my mobile and the Telo HD-2 ring. Since the Telo telephone output is connected to the house wiring, the old cordless to be retired also rings. Telo does distinctive ringing so GV rings ring-ring and calls to my home number ring-ring-ring. I can tell them apart. By using my GV number, I can take inbound calls on my home phone as with any GV forwarding. When I make an outbound call via Ooma, my Google Voice number appears for my callers, something Vonage could not do.
Porting of my Vonage number to Ooma took about a week with no pestering from Vonage. I guess they have figured out that they have been one-upped. Consumer Reports ranks Ooma at the top of the heap for US domestic telephone service based on service quality, value, and unique features.
Before Ooma with Google Voice integration I had been making all of my home calls on my mobile. With the HD-2 handset and GV, it is as easy to do this calling by land and the call quality is much better for the recipient. They sound fine to me courtesy of that tall tower and beefy base station transmitter but my mobile is scratchy or worse at the other end courtesy of a small antenna and a few milliwatts of power. So my friends, family, and vet are much happier.
Ooma Telo keeps voice mail locally. You can play it at the base station, with HD-2, or from my.ooma.com, or call your Telo number and play it remotely. Voice mail transcription is optional, an option I forgo using Google Voice transcription instead. Google does well enough that messages, though somewhat silly at times, are usable. I still have to check my mobile’s native voice mail separately but the message is to call my unstated GV number and leave a message there. If you don’t know it, we don’t have a relationship. Tough.
Ooma will forward calls to an outage number. I have my outage forwarding set to my mobile’s native number. I expect this feature will see limited use but Thursday’s storm put the power out for 1.5 hours.
Hey Daddy this. Aunt Nancy, I was just returning your call, had a rental exactly when you called earlier in the couldn’t talk, but get back with me when you get a minute. Okay. That.
Just What is Google Voice
Google Voice is a new twist on plain old telephone service that integrates land and mobile services for you. A single number to ring them all (with apologies to J. R. R. Tolkin).
How Dave Got Google Voice
My iPhone 4 had been off contract for several months but was in good condition (Nick hadn’t taken a taste of this one) so I was free to do something without giving AT&T my first born male child (joke’s on them, I don’t have one to give). I considered purchasing a new iPhone but what to do with the old one that is still going strong? And buying a new one just forges new chains to AT&T or Verizon, pick your lesser of two evils.
Then I stumbled across the Straight Talk iPhone 5 announcement. “Hummm, what is Straight Talk?” Straight Talk is the largest carrier in the Americas with service from the Arctic Circle to Terra Del Fuego. They are a Mobile Virtual Network Operator. They lease capacity wholesale from AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon. My iPhone is an AT&T phone. It has a SIM slot and is built for GSM frequencies so it can function on AT&T Straight Talk with HSPA+ 3g++ data service.
The folks at Cult of Mac have instructions for setting up an iPhone on Straight Talk So I ordered a SIM (by mistake, two of them) and decided to give Straight Talk a try. Activation and setup went smoothly following the instructions in the booklet. The only hard part was popping my AT&T SIM out using a paper clip.
Once I had confirmed Voice, SMS, and data, I put the AT&T SIM back in to file for divorce from AT&T by transferring the number to Google. A day later, the transfer was complete and I configured Google Voice to ring my new mobile number and my home number when anyone calls my old Sprint, then AT&T, now Google number.
Google Voice Features
Google Voice offers incoming telephone service and, using the Google Voice App, outgoing telephone service from your Android or iPhone mobile. The application offers visual voice mail at the web site and on your Android or iPhone mobile. Google visual voice mail is similar to the iPhone service. It shows each waiting message, no calling to listen to a list of messages. You select the message to play it. But Google upstaged Apple by transcribing the messages to text. It shows them in Google Voice, forwards them by SMS, and forwards them by E-mail.
Google Voice also provides the slickest voice mail on the planet. If you pick up, you answer normally. If the call rolls to voice mail, you can pick up, optionally record the call, or forward it to voice mail.
One More Thing
Google Voice can be configured to black list callers, including telemarketers. And it collects everything you need to file a complaint. Great for the 2016 elections!
Straight Talk offers “unlimited” voice, text, and data for $50 per month, $30 less than AT&T for exactly the same service. You join Jack Bauer in the land of “burner” prepaid cell phones. Each month you have to visit Straight Talk to add another month, 3 months, year, or enable auto-refill. If you subscribe for longer than a month, you get a discount. Since you brought your own phone, Straight Talk is not financing your phone for you.
Why I Left AT&T
When you go off contract, they keep billing you the $25/month they were sending to Apple to pay for your phone. As long as you stay on your original service level, they keep collecting that extra money. Enough of it that you can buy an unlocked iPhone and come out several hundred dollars ahead. If you’re an impoverished student, carrier financing of your phone is helpful. If you’re a retiree, you want people’s hands out of your pockets so I sacked AT&T even though I had not experienced horrid service from them. The value wasn’t there, especially with them taking $25 a month to keep unlimited data for my next phone.
When It’s Time for a New Phone
Buy a new AT&T compatible phone unlocked from Apple. Put the Straight Talk SIM in it. Begin talking. You can get older refurbished phones at a nice discount at the Apple Online Store. If you’re willing to wait until world wide rollout is complete, you can get a new unlocked version of the current phone.
What, No Verizon
Currently (2013), this trick only works for AT&T phones that use a SIM. You may be able to do the same with a Verizon phone but the technique relies on all of a phone’s carrier identity being on a SIM. Verizon iPhone has a SIM slot but it works on a subset of frequencies supporting voice in Europe.
All US carriers are moving to Long Term Evolution data (LTE). And there’s a voice variant. As this happens, all US phones and eventually all phones world wide will use a common set of protocols. There will still be differences in spectrum from country to country but the goal is to have a common pool of frequencies supported world wide plus additional channels in the larger countries. When this happens, Verizon and Sprint folk can join the fold.
The Opening Quote
Earlier Sunday, I’d called Aunt Nancy. She had house guests and asked to call back. When she did, I was slow answering when 2 cordless, the cordless base, and my iPhone all began ringing at once. Chaos. I missed picking up so the call went to voice mail. Google’s Elbonian slave labor transcribed the call producing the result above. Hilarious but enough of it right to fix it up from context. If the text is a hopeless garble, the speech is still available for playback. Oh, and Google can archive messages for a good long time. Be careful what you say on my voice mail. It will be in the Google way back machine long after we both are buried.