SkypeIn/Out v. other Voip offerings
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!
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 : http://www.skype.com.
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