Goodbye landline – Hello VoIP

Apologies to wine enthusiasts – normal service will be restored as soon as possible – but this is an update to my 2012 post: Replacing a BT landline by VoIP. In brief, I have been and gone and done it.

After the flurry of activity back in 2012, there were several years of inaction, as I was a bit nervous about committing to VoIP, and my wife was not totally happy with VoIP line quality. We continued to have phones connected via Sipgate and Voipfone, but only used them occasionally, and for outgoing calls only.

ATA and Virgin Hub 3.0 – another great technical innovation of 2020 was the introduction of a labelling machine into the household

However there were a number of technical innovations in the Slatcher household. Not least, I was dragged screaming and kicking into the 21st century, and got myself a smartphone. This was significant because it meant I could call using VoIP also on my mobile, using the Zoiper app. And eventually, I moved from PAYG to unlimited UK calls for a small monthy charge, which made my landline even more redundant. In the meantime, my Virgin broadband speeds got faster and faster, and I ditched my old separate router to enable me to fully use that speed. Without the old router, my ATA stopped working, and at first I couldn’t be bothered to work out how to reconfigure it, so I had a cathartic clearing out of the rats-nest of redundant cables, boxes and phones. The ATA was moth-balled, and VoIP was Zoiper-only for a while.  But even though I was using it less and less, my landline provider (no longer BT) kept ratcheting up the line rental charges, so something had to be done.

A few months ago I resurrected my ATA, plugging it directly into my Virigin Hub 3.0 modem/router. It turned out to be not too difficult to get it working again with both Sipgate and Voipfone. When I looked afresh at the deals and service offered by those two companies, it seemed that their pros and cons were still pretty much as they were back in 2012. Voipfone would have been more expensive, with small monthly charges for a ported landline and multiple registrations, but it had excellent phone support. While Sipgate had no recurring charges for the same features, but support, while adequate, was email-only.  As I was by then less dependent on my old landline number working, I decided I could live with email support, and chose Sipgate as my main VoIP service provider – it was the one destined to host my old landline number, and to be the one hooked up to the main set of household phones.

The number porting went smoothly, so now the deed is done and everything is hunky-dory. The multiple registrations are a great feature, and mean that when someone calls our old landline number all the household phones ring, and also Zoiper on both our mobile phones. I also very much like the Sipgate voicemail system. All messages are emailed to me as mp3 attachements, which is so much handier than having to negotiate an answering machine or phone-based voicemail.

So far, so good.

Replacing a BT landline by VoIP

Things have been a bit quiet here recently, partly because I have had my mind on things other than wine.  And those other things that are going to be the subject of this post.  Google revealed very little information relevant to my mission to replace a BT landline by VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), so for the greater good I am telling my story here.  If you came here looking for information about wine, normal service will be restored in my next post.

Where I am coming from

My situation is that I rarely use my home BT landline, but it is still costing me the price of a decent bottle of wine per month for the line rental.  However I would quite like to hang onto my existing landline number to give family and friends a cheap way of contacting me.  So I wanted to explore the possibility of saving money using VoIP for the main household telephones.  This was feasible for me as I use a cable modem for my broadband.  My mission was to save money on line rental, but to have a good quality reliable system rather than aiming to get the cheapest possible deal.  I soon became aware that this is not a common motivation; most people seem to want to save money on call rates, or to use it as part of a PBX switchboard solution.

You probably also need to know a bit about me to interpret what I write below.  If I say something is easy or difficult you should bear in mind that I work as a software engineer, or computer programmer if you like.  I don’t have great networking skills, but usually manage to hack my way to a solution.

My story

Many VoIP providers will let you sign up free, and you can test out their services using a softphone – an application you install on your computer that lets you dial out and receive calls using the inbuilt computer speaker and mic, or an external headset.  I signed up with a couple of providers: Voipfone and Sipgate.  The choice was based on limited information.  I had seen Voipfone mentioned a couple of times in a positive light, and they are founder members and Quality Mark Approved members of ITSPA.  I wanted reliability, and all that seemed to bode well.  I chose Sipgate basically because I had heard it talked about quite a lot, and because it is cheaper than Voipfone in a few respects for my requirements – Sipgate will let me use a normal geographical number for free, while Voipfone would charge £2 per month.  However, you can contact Voipfone by phone or email if you need support, while Sipgate only offers email support.  Also Voipfone offers more extra-cost options should you need them.  There are cheaper providers than Sipgate, but I did not want to get into bargain basement territory.

It took me longer than I thought it should to find a suitable free softphone and get it installed and running. That was mainly because I did not spend enough time thinking about things, and spent a lot of time trying, and often failing, to quickly set up many competing applications.  I eventually settled on Zoiper Classic Free, which works fine.  As many people before me have said, the sound quality is a lot better with an external headset, but a softphone is perfectly usable with the inbuilt computer speaker and mic.  All in all the softphone step was quite easy really.

My next step was to get an ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter).  Getting that bit of kit running reliably is the key to me ditching my BT line.  It plugs into a cable modem and/or wireless router (I have two separate boxes) and will also allow ordinary telephones to be plugged into it.  When connected via the ATA to the Internet and my VoIP providers, they would then work as normal phones connected to a BT socket.  I went for a Lynksys SPA2102 as it seemed to be a popular choice and, unlike the cheaper PAP2T, could sit between the cable modem and the router, ensuring that telephone calls get priority over other Internet traffic.

The first issue I encountered with the ATA was that I needed an RJ11 plug to BT socket adapter, and one with a ringing capacitor as I was using an an older style phone.  But despite the fact that the ATA was packaged for the UK market, there was no mention of this in the documentation, so I spent at least one evening with the supplied RJ11 to RJ11 cable, messing with settings and trying to discover why things would not work.  The problem was diagnosed by Voipfone support.  Voipfone don’t seem to monitor their online forums well, which is a shame, but emails were replied to in less than an hour.

Then I signed up with Sipgate.  The actual account setup went smoothly, but I could not get their website to accept my credit card, and when I tried to register my address for 999 calls the website denied all knowledge that Manchester was a city.  An email to support got a reply some 12 hours later, and both problems were fixed at their end.  Since then I have never needed to use Sipgate support, and configuring the second line on my ATA to use Sipgate went smoothly with my prior experience.

With two lines now working, I turned my attention to the strange dial tone I was getting on the Voipfone line.  That was another evening of googling and messing with ATA settings, but it turned out that Voipfone were overriding the dial tone I had configured, to tell me that I had voicemail.

So then the two lines were working to my satisfaction, and I took a sigh of relief.

But later I was made aware that the SPA2012, which sat between my cable modem and wireless router, gave the router only 7.5Mbit/s of bandwidth – something else not mentioned in any documentation that came with the box. So then I spent another happy couple of evenings or so reconfiguring the ATA  so it would sit behind the router and not throttle my bandwidth.  The tricky bit was to make it reachable from my computer via the wireless network, so I could configure is conveniently in the future.  I also needed to figure out the most sensible way of configuring my router to give the ATA priority over other traffic.  It took so long because my networking skills let me down, but I got there in the end.

Here is my current setup.  From top to bottom, there are the leads from telephones for Voipfone and Sipgate, the ethernet cable from my router, and the power lead.  The top two lights indicate the status of the two phone lines.  Labels help me keep track of which line is which!

The last issue I noticed was to do with the way registrations are dealt with by my two VoIP service providers. In order for either the ATA or softphone to make and receive phone calls, it needs to register with the providers server.  This is an issue with Voipfone because, without paying more money, only one device can be registered at a time.  That means that a softphone and the ATA well sometimes fight to get the registration.  For my configuration, it is the softphone that loses out, meaning it might not ring even if you think it is registered.  Sipgate however allows multiple registrations on the same account, so all registered devices work as you might expect at all times.

The joy of ATAs

There are hundreds of settings on the SPA2102, and altogether I probably spent about a week of my free time messing with them.  If you are a technophobe, you really do not want to go there.  Even if you are a techie, beyond the basic setup, the information you need is complex and difficult to find.  The bible is Administration Guide – Cisco Small Business – SPA2102, SPA3102, SPA8000, SPA8800, PAP2T – Analog Telephone Adaptors, but you have to work that out for yourself with the help of Google – not that it is much help for mere mortals.  You are more likely to find suitable help in one or more of the many unofficial guides to setting up ATAs, but they often contain small errors, are inconsistent, and may not be for the precise ATA model you have.  My overall impression is that it is a bit of a black art, and very few people seem really to understand everything.  Those that do presumably earn a good living as consultants.

All this is not helped by the fact that there is no official way of saving and restoring settings so you can experiment without fear of permanently cocking things up.  But somewhere on the interweb I found that you can simply save the settings as a .mht file from your browser, and reload them by opening the file and clicking Save.  Seems to work, but who knows for sure?  The devices are really designed for remote provisioning – someone else does the work and the ATA gets the settings from a server.

The various online forums can also be a great resource.  Not only can you gain knowledge by reading existing threads, but you can also directly ask question.  In particular I found the newsgroup uk.telecom.voip helpful, and I would like to thank people for taking the time to help me in a couple of threads there.

Some VoIP providers will provide help with ATAs.  If I had paid a premium for my ATA and bought it from Voipfone, it would have come preconfigured, and with the RJ11 to BT adapter included.  And for a price, companies like Vonage seem to provide  more of a packaged solution.  But personally speaking I want to feel more in control so I can take advantage of the more open aspects of VoIP.

Which VoIP provider?

After a few weeks into my experiment I think I made a good choices of providers for my trials, and I don’t feel tempted to widen the field.

I have had only a few reliability issues over the course of a few weeks.  I once needed to reboot the cable modem and wireless router to get the Viopfone line on my ATA to work once – the Sipgate line was fine at the time.  The Sipgate sound quality was impossibly lumpy on one call, and on one Voipfone call the person at the other end could not hear anything at all.  But otherwise, sound quality with both providers has been as good as the BT line.

Which producer would I move my BT number to?  I am still not sure, but I think Sipgate is in the lead as it will be a bit cheaper, and allows multiple registrations.  But Voipfone is attractive because of the more responsive customer support.  What I like about both companies it that they are straightforward to deal with, and have a clear charging structure.  The complexity of BT’s charging structure is truly staggering, and I remember bad experiences of negotiating my way through their call centres.

I am still not sure if I will eventually take the plunge and ditch BT, but in the meantime I have a couple of extra phone lines into our house, and a couple more opportunities to find a good call rate.

Edit 09/11/20: If you are curious about what I eventually decided, there is a follow-up post available here: Goodbye landline – Hello VoIP