Archive for November, 2007

Almost free phone service

During the last few months, I’ve decided that I wanted to cut back on some costs. I could have tried to cut back on lunches, or other eating out, but I suppose that I really wasn’t that dedicated. Instead, I decided to cut back on things that I could get pretty much exactly the same service elsewhere for less money.

I detailed in an earlier post how I had moved from Vonage at about $20 per month to VoicePulse, at about $16 a month, to CallWithUs where I was getting service for $2.99 a month, plus 1.38 cents per minute for outgoing calls, which I figured would total up to about $6-7 per month. Then, I picked up an issue of 2600 while at B&N with the family the other day and spotted an article that could potentially get me down to the $3-4 level per month, or perhaps even lower. This article outlined how to use FreeWorldDialup and ipKall together to get free incoming calls. No, silly, not just calls from other nerds like us on FreeWorldDialup, but free incoming calls from actual landlines!

Enter Asterisk.
Or, in my case, AskoziaPBX. This is a distro of FreeBSD that’s based on my beloved Monowall. Essentially, it’s a build of FreeBSD that includes the great open-source Asterisk PBX with a web GUI for configuring it, but it’s targetted toward embedded systems, like the nifty little Soekris net4801 I had sitting around waiting for a good use. (You can also download a vmware build of AskoziaPBX to try out!)

I’ve played with a Linksys SPA-2002 and got it working with CallWithUs, so I’m somewhat familiar with the idea of configuring n ATA, but I’ve never had any experience at all with a PBX, unless you count making calls through one. The documentation on the Askozia website is a bit on the sparse side, but they do provide a Getting Started page, so that’s where I started.  After getting the basics out of the way (setting the IP address, gateway, new username, and password), you next go to Phones -> SIP in the menu and add a phone. Next, configure your SIP phone (or your adapter, like my Linksys SPA-2002) to point to your PBX (using the extension number as the username), and try it out. You could also use a software SIP phone running on your PC for this test.  From your phone, you can dial up an Echo Test tool, the Line Quality Test tool, and the default Conference room that comes built-in to Askozia. Once you have that working, you have to add a Provider. In my case, I added CallWithUs using similar configuration settings to what I put into my SPA-2002 originally. I could then call my cell phone from my VoIP line, and calls to the DID line I have with CallWithUs would ring my line, which was running right through Asterisk.

Now this is an unusual service. You get a phone number in the Washington State area for free, and you can forward it to an VoIP end-point you like. Don’t sign up yet, though.  You need to know where to have them point the free phone number first.

Next, go to their site and sign up for their service. Here, you get more provider settings. Set this one up as an incoming only Provider line in AskoziaPBX.

Now, ipKall
Sign up here now. Remember, it takes about an hour for this phone number to become active. When you sign up, you’ll need to provide the freeworlddialup proxy ( along with your FWD user. All calls that go to the phone number ipKall provided you will be sent to, to your ID. Assuming you’ve set it up right in Askozia, this will ring your line too.

But I don’t want a Washington State number!
Who says your callers have to know they are calling a Washington State number? Remember GrandCentral? You did get a number with them when I talked about it before, right? In that case, just add your new Washington State number as a forward number in your grandcentral account. Then your friends can just keep calling your GrandCentral number and they won’t have a clue they are actually hitting a Washington state number.

So, I need a PBX to save $3 a month?
Technically, no. The PBX approach gives you more flexibility. With the SPA-2002, you can only connect one extension to one service provider. So, if you wanted to use provider A for incoming calls and provider B for outgoing calls, this is what you need. In my case, I’m using FWD for my incoming calls (in collaboration with ipKall and GrandCentral), and my outgoing calls are handled through CallWithUs.

Without a PBX, you can skip the FWD part, and do it all on your ATA. Simply forward your ipKall’s free Washington state number to your service provider, placing their proxy server info in the fields at ipKall, along with the user ID for your service provider. Then, calls to your Washington state number will be forwarded over IP to your service provider, marked with your user ID. As long as you have a decent service provider, you’ll be able to receive calls with this small configuration that I’ve mentioned. (Some service providers won’t accept incoming calls over IP, from what I’ve read, but callwithus does.)

Why use a PBX at all then?
One word: Diagnostics. The Linksys SPA does a pretty decent job at what it does, but it doesn’t give you nearly the detail that you need to properly troubleshoot issues. As an example, in looking in the AskoziaPBX log, I’ve seen numerous times where AskoziaPBX wasn’t able to register with CallWithUs. It kept trying, over and over, and it finally worked, though, but I’ve never seen detail like that on the SPA. It’s possible that I’m having an Internet problem, but I would have completely missed this if I just used an ATA alone.

Did I mention there’s a VMware version of AskoziaPBX? If nothing else, download it and give it a try. Once you have the concept sound in your mind, you should be able to get it configured and working properly. Once you see the sort of things you can do with a PBX, you might just decide you need a physical one.

End Result
In my case, I’m still placing outgoing calls via callwithus, with all my incoming calls are routed to my Washington state number (via GrandCentral). I just deleted the DID line that I was paying $2.99 a month for, so unless I start having strange issues with FWD or ipKall, I expect that I’ll save about $35 over the course of a year.

November 10, 2007 at 1:32 am 4 comments

Leopard’s iChat

Instant Messaging is something that most of us do.  It’s great for a quick question to a friend and doesn’t have the formality of email.  Plus, there’s no chance that your IM will get intercepted by some Spam filter.  The new version of iChat that’s included with Leopard is another nice incremental step in functionality.

Greenscreen effect
The one feature that I thought looked great in the demos was the built-in backdrop feature that gives you a low budget greenscreen, essentially.  The demo looks pretty amazing if you’ve seen Apple’s videos about it, and it probably works really well in the Apple stores too, but in your home environment, it may not work quite as well.  One tip:  Don’t use a high-backed rotating chair.  You’ll get up to “step out of frame”, and your chair will move a bit, then when you sit back down, it will rotate to a different orientation and your background won’t look like you expect.  Also, make sure you don’t have anything behind you that moves.

Transcripts and Spotlight
You’ve been able to save off transcripts of your iChat sessions for quite a while, and perhaps Spotlight indexed them in Tiger, but I can honestly say that I never knew it (perhaps because I didn’t use Spotlight in Tiger often because of the slow speed), but just this morning I did a quick Spotlight search.  I noticed that there was a result item under Messages, so I selected it.  It turns out that this result was an iChat transcript.  It popped open in iChat when I selected it and I could see the entire conversation that took place on the day this particular search term was mentioned.  I can think of times when this would come in handy.  I imagine that I’ll find lots of things to love about Spotlight now that I use it more often.

How nice is this for troubleshooting your Mom’s Mac issue?   There’s a button right on the bottom of the main iChat screen to either share your screen with a buddy, or ask to share their screen.

Video/Photo sharing
While in a video iChat session, you can simply drag and drop photos, videos, presentations, etc. and share them.  Just drop the file to be shared on the video chat window and it is streamed directly to their screen.  No, it doesn’t show up as a file transfer, it displays in the video chat window itself and you can view it right along with them.  It couldn’t get much easier than that!  I think you can even show an entire iPhoto slideshow this way.  (You may need iPhoto 8 for that, though)
Overall, the new iChat is a solid upgrade, if for no other reason than the screensharing feature.  It comes is very handy when you are doing a “tech support” chat, since you can actually see the screen and (using the voice chat feature) actually talk to them at the same time.

November 1, 2007 at 7:03 am Leave a comment


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