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Computers

Advanced VoIP: Making and Receiving Landline Calls on Your Mac

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In the last article on VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) we looked at how easy it is to set up a normal “land-line” telephone number using a SIP provider together with a fantastic, lightweight app — Telephone — from the Mac App Store. In this article, we’ll examine the Telephone app. We'll cover how to customize it, how to improve the quality of your calls, how to assert a different geographic presence and how to reduce your telephony costs.


How to Customize Telephone App

On first setting up Telephone app, your account might appear something like 1234567@sipaccount.com. This isn’t very meaningful.

As an alternative, you can customize Telephone app to display more meaningful information such as the actual telephone number or the name of your company.

To do this, launch Telephone app, go to Preferences > Accounts and select the account that you wish to customize. Then deselect the tickbox that says “Use this account”.

Then, in the Description field, enter the actual telephone number for that account or a meaningful name.

Updating your accounts with meaningful names in Telephone app.
Updating your accounts with meaningful names in Telephone app.

Now, when Telephone App is running, you will be able to see exactly which telephone numbers you have active. This is particularly useful where you have more than one telephone number configured with the app.

Now you know which phone is which with meaningful names in Telephone app.
Now you know which phone is which with meaningful names in Telephone app.

How to Customize the Ring Tone (For Incoming Calls to the Mac)

Following the installation of Telephone, the list of available ringtones comprises system sounds such as Basso, Blow, Bottle, Frog, Funk, etc. These are not particularly inspiring or appropriate. It is perhaps better to use a conventional telephone ringing sound. (Listen to and/or download the telephone ring tone mp3, below.)

This is easily achieved and it requires two things: access to your ~/Library folder (which is hidden by default), and a sound file of a telephone ringing.

Access your ~/Library folder and navigate to the Sounds folder. Then drop a copy of your sound file into that folder. Ensure that it has an appropriate filename such as ‘Phone Ring Tone’.

Placing your ring tone mp3 in ~/Library/Sounds
Placing your ring tone mp3 in ~/Library/Sounds

Tip: If you don’t know how to access your ~/Library folder, you can find out how in our earlier article: How to Reveal Your Library Folder in Lion or Mountain Lion

Next, launch Telephone app and select Preferences > Sound. In the ringtone drop down list you should now see the option of your ringtone.

Selecting the telephone ring tone file in the Telephone app Preferences.
Selecting the telephone ring tone file in the Telephone app Preferences.

Making Sure Your Broadband Connection Can Support VoIP

In the last article, I recommended testing the speed of your Internet connection with a tool such as Speedtest. This will measure the upload and download speeds of your Internet connection and is useful in determining whether your broadband connection can support VoIP.

Checking the quality of a broadband connection using speediest.net
Checking the quality of a broadband connection using speedtest.net

In order to use VoIP successfully, as a general rule, you will need an upload speed of at least 80-90 Kbps for each VoIP user. (The actual amount required depends upon a number of factors such as the packet length, whether compression is used and the protocol employed. That’s outside the scope of this article, but for extra nerd points, Computer Weekly has an article all about VoIP bandwidth fundamentals)

Other important factors affecting the quality of voice calls are jitter and packet loss. In simple terms, when you use VoIP for telephone calls, your speech is converted to data and sent in ‘packets’. Jitter is the variation in the delay of these packets being received at the destination. The aim is to have little or no jitter. Packet loss is when the packets of data do not reach their destination.

In order to test your line for jitter and packet loss, you can employ a test at pingtest.net

Testing the jitter (variation in ping times) using Pingtest.net to assess quality of broadband connection for VoIP.
Testing the jitter (variation in ping times) using Pingtest.net to assess quality of broadband connection for VoIP.

Options to Improve the Quality of Calls

1. Avoid Other Traffic on the Network

For the home-worker, the simplest way to ensure quality of the voice call is to avoid using the Internet connection for other purposes while on a VoIP call. Downloading ISOs, watching YouTube videos or FTPing some website data to a server are all likely to affect the quality of your call.

If you have other people in the household, it may be a problem if they are using the Internet connection while you are making VoIP calls.

Tip: Remember, you will need to reserve 80-90 Kbps bandwidth for each VoIP user on your connection. If there are three VoIP users, for example, reserve 240-270 Kbps. Uploading or downloading content on your broadband connection, while using VoIP, may affect the quality of your VoIP call.

2. Prioritize VoIP if You Have QoS on Your Router

Some newer and/or more expensive routers have a feature known as QoS or Quality of Service.

QoS allows you to reserve a proportion of your Internet bandwidth for specific types of traffic. You can reserve 80-90 Kbps of the available bandwidth for the purposes of VoIP. This means that VoIP calls will not be affected by other activity on the connection. The reserved portion of the bandwidth is only required when a VoIP call is in progress, leaving all of your bandwidth available at other times.

Tip: Note, popular routers such as those supplied by your Internet Service Provider (in the UK typically Virgin Media’s Superhub and BT’s HomeHub) and the Apple TimeCapsule do not have inbuilt QoS capabilities.

3. Install a Load Balancer in Busy Environments

If you come to rely on your VoIP number, your router does not have QoS, you have a busy home or office and you need to ensure the quality of your calls, then you should consider installing a load balancer or router with QoS functions.

For home users, a sensible option might be a router with QoS functions, though it is possible to to add a load balancer quite cost effectively. For example, the TP-LINK TL-R470T+ Load Balance Broadband Router is affordable at £32.47 Amazon UK / $75.66 Amazon US (prices applicable at time of writing).

A TP-Link TL-ER5120 Load Balancing Router - other makes are available.
A TP-Link TL-ER5120 Load Balancing Router - other makes are available.

A load balancing router allows you to manage the traffic on your network more effectively by assigning QoS, amongst other things, to VoIP traffic and is a particularly effective solution for offices with a number of people. For office environments a TP Link TL-ER5120 Gigabit Load Balance Broadband Router is competitively priced at £137.99 Amazon UK / $329.67 Amazon US (prices applicable at time of writing).

Configuring a load balancing router with QoS (Quality of Service) rules for VoIP traffic.
Configuring a load balancing router with QoS (Quality of Service) rules for VoIP traffic.

How to Assert a Local Presence (Local Dialling Codes)

Telephone allows you to set up multiple VoIP accounts for use straight from your Mac. One advantage of this is that you can assert a ‘local’ presence where your customers are.

You might want to do this to make it cheaper for your customers to call you — especially if your customers are in a different country.

To add a new SIP account, launch Telephone app and go to Preferences > Accounts, then click on the + button to enter the SIP credentials.

Adding a new SIP account in Telephone app - useful to have a country-specific number for customers overseas.
Adding a new SIP account in Telephone app - useful to have a country-specific number for customers overseas.

How to Reduce Your Telephony Costs by Using VoIP

When it comes to telephones, business and costs, using VoIP instead of traditional telephone companies is often a no-brainer.

As a start-up or small business, you will want to stay agile and keep your costs to a minimum. Traditional Telcos wanting to tie you in to a minimum one two or five-year contract for fixed-line copper isn't a good way to stay agile or to minimize expenditure.

Tip: For the purposes of this article I have compared three telephone providers in the UK. You should apply the same comparison for conventional and SIP voice providers in your country or territory.

VoIP allows you to work from any location with a decent Internet connection. If your business grows, you move or you want to work from the beach, then VoIP provides for this flexibility. You can use your London “land-line” number whether you are in London or New York.

If the extreme flexibility of VoIP, shorter minimum contracts and its lower line rental costs have not already won you over, then perhaps the call charges might.

For example, in the UK the costs between the incumbent Telco, BT (British Telecom) and just two SIP providers of VoIP services is startling:

Provider Call Set-up Daytime Evening Weekends
BT 13.87p 8.41p/min 1.11p/min 0.00p/min
Sipgate 0.00p 1.19p/min 1.19p/min 1.19p/min
Gradwell 0.00p 1.5p/min 1.2p/min 1.2p/min

It should be noted that, in some cases, there are additional charges:

  • BT: 13.87p set up fee, calls billed per minute
  • Sipgate: 0.00p set up fee, calls billed per minute
  • Gradwell: 0.00p set up fee, calls billed per second

For all call charges, please refer to the relevant tariff: BT call charges, Sipgate call charges, Gradwell call charges

Frequency BT Sipgate Gradwell
Single call £0.4751 £0.0476 £0.04625
Daily (10 calls) £4.751 £0.476 £0.4625
Weekly (50 calls) £23.755 £2.38 £2.3125
Monthly (200 calls) £95.02 £9.52 £9.25

Based on a call duration of 3 minutes 10 seconds the costs of using VoIP translate, in this example, to roughly one tenth of the cost of a traditional telco call cost, and that is before we even include the applicable standing charges.

Monthly charges:

  • BT: £15.45 plus installation charge £130 plus minimum contract of one to five years.
  • Sipgate: £0.00 Pay as you go.
  • Gradwell: £5.00 Rolling 30 day contract.

All prices include UK VAT at 20% (DE VAT 19% for Sipgate)


Conclusion

Not only is an excellent, lightweight free app able to replace a physical telephone, by using a SIP provider for a "landline" VoIP telephone number, your home-office, start-up or small business can operate from almost anywhere that has a decent Internet connection.

The cost of installing a traditional telephone line for your start-up, business or home-office is huge, perhaps prohibitive. With a VoIP set-up, not only are your start-up costs much lower, the ongoing costs are as well and you retain complete agility.

The idea of having your telephone number tied to a brick and mortar building is anachronistic. Since the telephone number belongs to you, or your business, it should be able to move with you, or your business. What's not to like?

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