When you are looking to purchase phones for your business, you have to ask yourself one question first: Can I accept being locked into a single equipment manufacturer for the next 5-10 years? If the answer is ‘no’, then you need to ensure that the phones you purchase are standards-compliant.

In the past, the model of telephone you chose was dependent on the model of PBX you were installing. Even within a single manufacturer, phones from one system often would not work with a different system. What that meant was that if you needed to change out your phone system, you had to throw all your phones away.

The cost of telephone sets represents a large part of the costs of a new system. If you purchase standards-compliant sets (SIP telephones that are certified by the manufacturer to work with many different types of telephone systems), you allow yourself to migrate to a new system if the business requires that, without having to invest in new phones.

These days, there are all sorts of models of SIP telephones that can be expected to work with most VoIP systems. Cisco (nee Linksys) offers their excellent SPA phones; Aastra provides a fantastic API for customizing features; Polycom enjoys an excellent reputation; and Grandstream continues to provide excellent bang for the buck.

If you really can’t decide, purchase one of each type you’re interested in and test them out. That’s something you can’t do with a proprietary telephone!

In the past, the PBX manufacturers owned the handset market. Today, it is the customer who has the power to decide what phones to use. This competition has driven down prices, without sacrificing quality or features.

Small businesses require flexible, feature-rich telephone services.

In the past, this was a costly part of setting up a small business. Usually you would either have to spend thousands of dollars on a complex, proprietary PBX, or you would have to make do with a basic service from the phone company that might not cost as much, but also wouldn’t provide the features you needed.

Today, with cloud-based PBX services, you can get inexpensive access to big phone system features, for less than a basic phone line used to cost in the past. Standards-compliant telephone sets mean you don’t have to lock in to a single vendor for 10 years, but instead can take advantage of competition in the industry, and ensure your provider is giving you exactly what you need, at a price you can afford.

You can still get a dedicated phone system for your business (this can be a great option if you have access to strong technical skills), and these days such systems are also more advanced and cost-effective than the old proprietary systems of decades past.

Either way; cloud-based (hosted) or onsite (PBX), small businesses have never had more options for getting powerful business telecom capabilities at manageable prices.

Voice over IP is a significant technology, however it’s not because it represents any sort of technical advance over traditional voice, but rather because it is disruptive, and changes the game.

In the past, telecom technology was a tightly-controlled, old-boys club, monopolized by large companies able to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars required to be able to play.

What VoIP did was bring telecom into a new arena, the Internet, where open standards and commoditized hardware ruled. Suddenly, the technology became something that anyone could learn about. Coupled with this, the rise of the open-source PBX meant that it was now possible to build a standards-compliant telephone system using nothing more than a server, a network, and a willingness to learn. We wrote the Asterisk bookin part because we wanted to provide a technical guide to those interested in this telephony revolution.

VoIP has changed the world of telecom. It has lowered costs, increased functionality, standardized complex protocols, and is steadily bridging the gap between the human voice and the computer.

Remember the old phone network? You made a call, owned that connection for as long as you wanted it.

Then this thing called VoIP came along. Promises of free phone calls, and all sorts of enhanced features, and all you needed was a PhD in Network Design to make it work (or maybe not work).

What is VoIP? It stands for Voice over Internet Protocol. So, it just means sending voice across a network that uses the Internet Protocol (the most famous of which is the internet itself), rather than across an old-school telephone circuit.

VoIP traffic has to share the connection between you and the person you are calling with all the other traffic on the network. Videos, pictures, emails, web page traffic; it’s all happening on the same network. If the network is working well, everything gets to where it’s going and all is well.

Unfortunately, if something doesn’t get where it’s going, the human ear can’t handle that. If even part of a word is lost, it becomes almost impossible to carry on a conversation. Computers don’t care; they’ll just retransmit. Humans are more fussy. We don’t like having to ask somebody to repeat what they said.

So, yes, VoIP is a bit more complex. Instead of a dedicated connection across the circuit-switched telecom network, there is a stream of tiny little packages, each one containing just a small part of the conversation, and they all have to get from one end to the other, in the correct order, with none of them lost, and with minimal delay getting there.

You can think of VoIP in a manner similar to how a courier works. You have several parts which the factory (your voice) needs send somewhere to be assembled (the phone of the person you’re talking to). Each part is sent as soon as it is built, so the sending starts before all the parts are complete. You address a package, and it is picked up, placed on a truck, taken to the sorting facility, put in a crate, on an airplane, and then carried with all sorts of other traffic to somewhere near the destination, where it is taken off the plane, out of the crate, and placed on a truck where it is eventually delivered. At the other end, each packet is opened, and the part inside is added to whatever is being made from all the parts. When all the parts have arrived, you have a finished product!

When it works, it’s invisible to us. When it doesn’t work, it drives us nuts.

Ten years ago, it mostly didn’t work very well. Today? It works very well indeed. Most network equipment is now aware of the unique needs of voice traffic, and excellent quality VoIP is normal in any well-designed network.

People hate talking to Bionic Betty. The IVR has become something that is universally disliked.

Still, it has a future, and here’s why.

When IVR systems first came into being, the costs to implement such a thing were astronomical. In order to justify the massive capital outlay such projects required, the ROI was often calculated in part by how many empolyees would be replaced. While this made it easier to justify the price, what it failed to take into account was the annoyance that callers would experience having to use the 12 buttons on their telephone to interact with a computer. People hated it. Terms like “voice mail jail” became part of the vernacular.

The power of IVR, however, has yet to be fully realized. Why? Because up until now, it has never been cost effective to deploy it in simple situations, solving simple problems. IVR should never have been used to replace humans, but rather to create value for customers. Due to the prohibitive cost, that didn’t happen. Now, it can.

Joel Sisko and I were having a conversation about this earlier today, and he sold me on the fact that the new world of open source telecom means that IVR systems can now be deployed in ways that people might actually enjoy using. An example of this is: when you call your favourite pizza joint to order some pie, the system will say “if you would like the exact same order as last time, press 1 …”. Does this bother you? I’ll bet it does not. If they gave you 15 choices to navigate though, it would be frustrating. If they keep it simple, it is pleasant, useful, and saves you time. Previously only the large pizza purveyors could offer such a service. Now? Much smaller enterprises can afford to access the same technology.

The point here is that becuase an IVR can now be deployed very inexpensively, it becomes feasible to design simple systems that have only one simple job to do, rather than a massively complicated system that has to justify it’s enormous price tag by attempting to be all things to all people, which only ends up annoying everyone.

The ultimate IVR system would only have one choice. “press any key to …”, and that’s it.

VoIP technology makes it easy to interconnect between systems. It is likely that many VoIP enabled companies don’t even realize that all the technology already exists to route calls across internet connections using the same numbering plan the PSTN uses.

Initiatives such as ENUM have already developed the protocols to handle this, and if you have a next-generation open-source PBX, you already have this technology.

What I’m not sure is when the tipping point will be. For any company to take advantage of what amounts to free long distance calling anywhere in the world, two things have to happen: 1) you have to be referenced in the ENUM databases, and 2) any company you wish to call has to similarly be referenced.

The technology is ready. Next we have to figure out how to get everybody on board.

Randy Resnick and the fine folks of the VoIP Users Conference kindly invited me to join them for a chat.

We ended up having a very interesting conversation about building small, inexpensive systems that would compete on price with a traditional key system, but then also started talking about high availability. Two subjects that would not generally be part of the same conversation, which is just another example of why open source telecom is so important.

Check it out:


Those of us head-down in this business of open source and emerging telecom will sometimes lose sight of the big picture. So busy with the day-to-day routine of running our respective businesses, we need to raise our eyes from the grindstone every now and then and have a look at the landscape.

A study recently done by the Eastern Management Group looked to quantify open source PBX adoption. The results show that open source telecom has been wildly successful.

This is personally satisfying, because I predicted in the first edition of Asterisk: The Future of Telephony that open source PBXs were going to change the telecom industry. I was not alone in this belief; it was something that was very obvious to those of us immersed in this space. Telecom had lost it’s soul, and we had found it back.

Two weeks ago I was at the Amoocon conference in Rostock, Germany. Conferences are important to someone like me. Our industry is still very grass-roots, and if we don’t hang out with our peers every now and then, we run the risk of losing sight of the big picture.

Open source telecom is alive and well, and still taking over the world.

The recent announcement that Nortel purchased Pingtel and SipFoundry has left me with mixed emotions.

On the one hand, it is good to see that the big boys in the telecom industry are taking open source telecom seriously. Congratulations to the SipFoundry team for having produced something of such obvious quality that they were the first of the open source telecom projects to be scooped up by one of the big boys.

On the other hand, it is hard to contemplate the magnitude of cultural shift that would have to happen at a place like Nortel, in order for something like this to avoid being squashed by corporate politics and entrenched ways of thinking.

Hopefully, Nortel will assume a hands-off policy with respect to SipFoundry, but how many big corporations can resist imposing policy on any new aquisition?

At the risk of adding nothing to the discussion other than negativity, I must be honest and state that I fear for the future of SipFoundry.

I hope that I am wrong, and that good things come from this.

I just finished getting YATE up and running as a conference server. Despite the lean documentation, I was impressed by how little I had to do to get it working.

I would expect that implementing more powerful features such as admin control and scheduling is going to require a bit more work, but it was amazing how fast it came together.

I’m writing a white paper for Sangoma on this, so look for that in the next few months on Sangoma‘s website