SkypeIn/Out v. other Voip offerings 

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Skype while being very popular attacts some poor press from those that suggest people should us 'standards based' VoIP products. One real users perspective!

I've recently vacated the 'third bedroom' office to take up the kind offer of a desk with a local company I know on very reasonable terms and to the delight of my 8 year old daughter who *finally* gets her own room!

The only snag was they had no spare phone lines, but were more than happy to share their broadband access. A choice! Get in touch with my friendly BT representative and part with a small fortune to have another line installed, or investigate voice-over-IP. Voice-over-IP had some other obvious benefits as well, such as lower call rates for many destinations. To be honest I was also attracted to investigate a technology I looked at a while back that at the time seemed to be lacking.

Although an infequent but happy Skype user my initial inclination was to investigate 'full, standards based VoIP products'. I needed a full telephone service with ideally a local telephone number. SkypeIn is at the time of writing still in beta testing.

Standards based VoIP

Having spent an evening trawling VoIP offerings in the UK I came up with a short-list comprising and went for VoIP Talk. Both could offer local telephone numbers and their I could test their service with one of a number of VoIP soft-phones (software phones that run on your PC). VoIPTalk offered a free telephone number so I could at least test receiving calls. I set up the account and tested at home before venturing into the office, much less embaressing yelling into a microphone in the privacy of ones own home rather than scary my new-found work colleagues on first encounter!

Worked fine.

In the office it was a different story. I did manage to receive a call - and managed to phone their test number. When I tried to get anyone else to call the phone would ring and that was it - no sound in either direction.

Worried that this was the clients ADSL router I gallently offered to upgrade the software for them. The Belkin router they had was good but with a version number of 0.something and with them rebooting it once a day I was a little suspiscious. The upgrade went very smoothly - and now they no longer have to reboot daily. Alas, VoIP still would not work. By this time I'd discovered Sip Gate, and also found they could allocate me a local number completely free. Using the failure so far as an excuse I set up a SipGate account (for free) and persevered a little longer. Still no luck.

Rumaging around on the router I found that the firewall was enabled. Reading the description led me to have some serious doubts about the firewall - one of the things it could do was detect and stop 'UDP datagram flood attacks'. Sort of a good idea, except that VoIP uses UDP and a something called 'Real Time Protocol (RTP)'. To a not so clever firewall a stream of RTP packets carrying voice could well look like an attack. A peak into the devices security log confirmed this with 'UDP flood on port 8000' occurring whenever a call was made!

Simple I thought. Bypass the firewall (remember it's not my office or firewall so I didn't want to turn it off!). I added my PC into the 'de-millitarised zone', or DMZ. This should prevent the firewall from interfering with the free-flow of traffic. Nope - it doesn't. Not on the Belkin product at least. Nor is there any way to modify the thresholds - the firewall is 'on' or 'off' - no ability to fine-tune!

By this time I'd been installed in the office for the best part of a month and was running out of excuses for not having a telephone number!

Skype to the rescue!

Almost out of despair I turned back to Skype, fully expecting this to have the same problems given at the end of the day it is voice-over-IP. As it happens it worked. I subscribed to the experimental SkypIn, which gives you a phone number, and parted with ?10 for 3 months. Not free like the other providers - with those you only pay call charges. I can now make calls and receive them with no difficulty at all.

The downside is that at the moment Skype isn't really aimed at satisfying business telephony requirements - it is more replicating a basic phone service, although it does have voice-mail answering service.

From the business users perspective Skype, in my humber opinion, suffers a number of limitations. I can live with these for now but I *really* hope they improve the service soon:

  • No local telephone number - you are offered a very limited range of number prefixes.
  • No non-geographical numbers such as 0800, 0870
  • No stand-alone Skype phones (that I could find). With VoIP you can have a phone with an Ethernet port that just plugs into your network. With Skype you're pretty limited to USB handsets that require your PC switched on and Skype running.
  • No divert to other number if busy.

Contrast with those limitations of course it just works. If Skype can create a protocol that works over standard ADSL connections with bog-standard routers and firewalls then the standards committees are doing something wrong! Incidently I've since spoken with a VoIP expert that installs full VoIP solutions for larger organisations. His view is that he couldn't recommend a low-end firewall that he would gaurantee would work with VoIP protocols.

I hope the VoIP people get their act together - some of the services they offer add real value and I want them. Of course in the mean-time Skype may well add these features, their SkypeIn product is still in beta-test after all. If they do then I'll stick with them - they've got me out of a hole!

I've now bought a Skype handset to go with my Skype service.... more on that later!

Note : my scores are for the overall combination of Skype, SkypeIn and SkypeOut as a service for small businesses. For a home-user I'd score it higher.

If you're not a Skype user you can find out more at their site :

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