Thursday, April 5, 2012

A home phone line powered by Skype and ready for prime time!

Making the transition from a traditional landline (supplied by Time Warner Cable) to a Skype supplied "landline".  Some might be surprised at how easy and effective it is.
Here in rural North Carolina, my family is a customer of Time Warner Cable.  We might have chosen to purchase some of our services from the local phone company but we found TW to offer somewhat better quality and service.  Through TW, we have plain cable service at about $30 per month, plain internet service (3m down/500k up) for another $30 per month, and two phone lines at $30 each per month with unlimited calling in US/Canada.  Our household is an extended family, and we had decided that we needed a third line.  So I called TW, and they informed me that their "modem" would only support two lines.  The alternatives that I considered were:
  • The phone company... way too annoying and expensive.  
  • Vonage.  It would have worked, but I was looking for something simple and significantly cheaper than Time Warner. Vonage isn't.  
  • Magic Jack.  Absurdly cheap; just $20 per year.   I rejected this option for the simple reason that the phone service would cease to exist when I turn off the computer.  It also appears now that the company, Magic Jack will not be able to sustain its low prices
  • "Line2" from Toktumi.  It operates more or less as the Skype "home line" does in my description below.  I did a trial of Line2 a few months ago and found it to be quite excellent.   It's cheap compared to other alternatives, and its feature set is in some ways more complete than Skype... comparison chart. However, in the end I turned it down because I didn't need its extra features, and its pricing is about 2x Skype.
  • Wait for future developments.  There are new devices, technologies and services coming along all the time.  I am aware of some of them, and they sound intriguing, but they are not here yet.
  • Skype.  It is not immediately apparent that Skype can be set up for regular "phone" service. However, my wife and I each have iPhones, and I had come to appreciate the very high quality calling experience that Skype gave me with "iSkype"; actually better and more reliable than Skype on Macintosh (but that is another story).  I had also noticed that over the past year, SkypeIN numbers had become available in my local area whereas they had formerly been available only in the nearest city (Charlotte)  [note that "online numbers" are not available at all in Canada]. Finally, I observed that the combined cost of a SkypeIN number and a US/Canada calling plan was just $60 per year, versus $360 from Time Warner.  For all these reasons, I decided to give Skype a try as my wife's and my regular home landline, and not just for beta-testing purposes.  This had to work flawlessly.
Setup with Skype
Step one: sign up for a new Skype account.  That took about 30 seconds.   Then I gave that ID a US/Canada calling plan  ($30 per year) and a local SkypeIN number (now called an "online number" by Skype).   It would have cost $60 per year but there is a 50% discount when combined with a calling plan, so it was an additional $30.  Total: $60 per year.   These purchases took about 5 minutes, made pleasant by the knowledge that I would be saving more than $300 per year.
Skype Configuration  
For incoming calls to our new home number, my goal was to forward them automatically and immediately to our cell phones, thereby allowing them to function as "extensions".  When someone wants to contact me or my wife individually, they call our cell numbers, but when they want to call our home, they call our "home number".  It rings on our iPhones and the first person to answer is the one connected.  That's no problem because we can always use iPhone's 3-way calling if needed.  Note that I do NOT use Skype for voicemail here, but rather let the cell phone handle that.
Some people may be disappointed that Skype's "online numbers" are not listed in the directory or "phone book"; an anachronism and invitation to spammers.  We are happy to not have the feature.  Now, when we post contact information to mutual family and friends, it's the "home number" we give them.
Skype does not have the feature of simultaneous ringing on multiple lines, and I was a little concerned that incoming calls would not be re-routed quickly enough, but that proved to be a needless worry. It may take 10-15 seconds for Skype to forward a call.  That's about 4 to 7 rings, which is usually enough time for a spammer to give up, but plenty of time for a friend to wait patiently.   
Note the forwarding numbers in the screenshot are my cell phone and my wife's cell phone.  Skype allows forwarding to up to three endpoints, or "extensions".  It would be nice if Skype would allow more than three in order to accommodate a larger family.  If I wanted to, I could forward to my regular SkypeID in order to answer calls in Skype.  However I decided not to because when I'm sitting at my desk, I don't want multiple devices ringing at the same time; more chaos than I can tolerate.
Outbound Calling
Considering our use of the "home" SkypeID for outbound calling, let it first be said that the primary use of the Skype "home line" is receiving inbound calls, not making them.  However, because of the 50% discount on the SkypeIN number, the US/Canada calling plan is essentially free, and there is no reason to not buy it. 
This is how to configure callerID for outbound calling.  The following screenshot is from Skype4Mac 5.x whose user interface is infamously and unbearably horrible.  You actually go into the "messaging" preference panel and enter the phone number (of your cell phone) for SMS. Ironically, the design flaw is inherited from the Windows version; it made it into the "gold" release on both platforms.    Oh well, at least it works.
When deciding whether to make calls with your regular cell line or the Skype "home" line, consider these factors:
  1. Cost.  Depending on the time of day and whom we are calling,  your cell carrier (AT&T Wireless in my situation) may or may not charge extra.  Skype will never charge extra (US/Canada calling plan).
  2. Quality.  When at home or in range of a good WIFI connection, a Skype call is ALWAYS going to be of higher quality than a cellular call.  I have a slight hearing loss, so this is sometimes a crucial decision, especially if the person I am calling can be reached on Skype.
  3. Emergency Calling.  Until Skype has emergency 9-1-1 calling, it should not be your regular phone for outbound calling. However, the default mode on my cell phone is not Skype, and even when I am using Skype I have local emergency numbers in my Skype address book (eg. "911 - Police").  It's hard for me to imagine that the FCC is not going to force Skype into implementing real 9-1-1 services soon.
  4. Convenience.  To be frank, it's easier to call out with the cellular line than to boot up Skype, even if my iPhone is connected to a power source.  This convenience factor restricts my outbound calling with Skype to only those calls that will otherwise be charged as "anytime" cellular minutes.
Having completed the setup of the Skype "home line" (with far less hassle than it would have taken with Time Warner), I logged out of the new SkypeID... because call forwarding doesn't work if you are logged in; and I haven't logged back in since. It has worked flawlessly now for months. So there you have it.  A home phone line with a local number and unlimited outbound calling that rings on multiple "extensions"  both in your house and when you are on the road, all for a cost of $60 per year.  Can't beat it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Skype for Intercom and Public Address System

Skype is a multipurpose communication tool.  It is NOT just IP voice and video phone software. With just a little bit of creativity it can replace all kinds of fancy electronic equipment costing thousands of dollars.  A few weeks ago, an organization I belong to decided to address a problem in its communication system.  
Specifically, the question was posed:  

"As many of you know, we try to enable the nursery workers to hear the service going on in the main building.  The present method is a baby monitor setup, but it's not really satisfactory.  If any of you (or your friends/relativesJ) have an idea for getting the sound from the auditorium over to the nursery, or would like to research the problem, I would really appreciate it.  Audio systems are not one of my skills."

I replied: 
"Use your WIFI network or extend it as necessary, and then initiate a VOIP "phone" call (eg. Skype) from the auditorium to the nursery.  Skype runs very nicely on a smartphone and the audio quality will be more than satisfactory.  Assuming the WIFI is in place and that people have smartphones or laptops, everything else is free."
The alternative they were considering was a PA system, wireless or hard-wired, costing well over $1,000.  On the basis of a satisfaction guarantee and a cost estimate that was a small fraction of the alternative, I received permission to go ahead with my plan.  
  • On eBay, we bought a refurbished iPod Touch (latest generation) for $140.
  • We acquired a used Windows laptop and speakers.  Value: $150.
  • We boosted the WIFI signal at both ends to reduce the possibility of dropped Skype calls.
  • Skype was downloaded onto both the iPod and the PC. Separate Skype names were procured and they exchanged contact permission.  There was no need to purchase Skype credits.
  • The PC was set up in the nursery with the following special configurations: 
    • Computer would run 24/7 with the lid down.  It would be attached to a set of speakers sufficient for the nursery.
    • Skype would remain open, ready to answer incoming calls automatically from approved contacts (one and only one contact).  
    • The microphone was muted (system software) so that nursery noises would not be heard in the auditorium.
    • Because of a further decision to record the events in the auditorium, we installed recording software on the PC (freeware), and set it to record Skype calls automatically with recordings going into a "Dropbox™."  
  • The iPod Touch was set up in the auditorium as follows: 
    • A piece of Velcro was put on the back, and the iPod was appointed to be attached to the podium (but removable for a speaker who wished to move around with the "microphone"  in his pocket.
    • Power was provided at the podium to eliminate any worry that the iPod might run out of juice, so it is provided with a USB power cord to the power outlet.
    • Skype was configured to "never" go offline except when deliberately taken off.  This means that the screen can be turned off during an event without hanging up the call.
    • After some testing we determined that the iPod's internal microphone was more than adequate.  Therefore the Lavalier microphone we had purchased was returned.
The process of broadcasting an event to the nursery (or to any location) is now accomplished simply by placing a Skype call, which is automatically answered by the computer at the other end. The one-way channel provides crystal clear sound and is turned off by just hanging up the call at the podium.  Non-technical managers are able to handle the setup with no problem, and if the speaker needs to wander away from the podium, he merely takes the iPod off its Velcro holder and slips it into his shirt pocket.  The new system has completely replaced the baby monitor PA system. The sound quality is vastly improved.
The new system has also replaced the former recording system that used wireless microphones. The new recording system automatically records Skype calls and deposits the audio files into an assigned "Dropbox™" which is then linked from the website.  The entire recording infrastructure has been replaced with free software.
    If our purpose had been to broadcast a video feed to the nursery instead of just audio, Skype would have again comprised the solution.  Also, if we ever need to broadcast an event off the campus or even to multiple remote locations simultaneously, that should present no difficulty either.  Skype is proving to be a multipurpose communications tool that solves a myriad of problems.