Landline and Mobile Convergence Made Easy With a VoIP IP PBX

You might say that VoIP is going "on the LAM". Don't take that literally, as we aren't really going anywhere, we just mean that we are excited about combining our landline and mobile (LAM) phone services into a single VoIP solution. AT&T and Apple have recently removed all roadblocks for allowing VoIP on the 3G network using the iPhone. It's now possible to combine your home or office VoIP service with your iPhone to make VoIP calls from just about anywhere.

While it is possible to have a home or business VoIP account with a provider such as Vonage, and tie a cellphone into that service, it's generally not possible to have several landline phones, and several cellphones (as in family plan) all tied in together using the same account. The best way to bring ALL of your phones together, and use a single VoIP account (or several if desired) is to have a VoIP server running at your home or office. It is now possible to install an Asterisk based VoIP server for very little money. Not only is it fairly economical to install a VoIP server, it brings with it a huge list of calling features, and the ability to easily add as many telephones to the system as desired.

With an IP PBX server, when you add a phone to the system, you set it up as an extension. Similar to a corporate PBX, an extension is given a description, either the name of a person or possibly a department or location, such as "Sales" or "Support". Have a home office? Let's assign that as extension 100. How about the cordless phone base with three handsets? Let's give that an extension of 101. The two kids each have landline phone (lucky kids), so we'll assign them extension numbers 103 and 104. That takes care of the house, but what about the cellphones. Because we'd like to easily distinguish the difference between a house phone and a cellphone, we'll use the 200s for cellphone extensions. All four family members have a cellphone, so we'll use 201 - 204.

To get those cellphones integrated into the server, we need to get a SIP application from the Apple Store (assuming the phones are all iPhones). Once we have the app on our cellphone, we can set up a generic SIP account that will register the cellphone with the server and allow it to make and receive VoIP calls using one of our VoIP provider accounts already on the server.

After quite a bit of research on SIP applications available in the Apple store, to determine which might offer the best experience, we chose the Acrobits Softphone. This application was easy to install, set up, and has a fantastic user interface. It also offers "push" technology, which allows the iPhone to receive VoIP calls without the application running.

Once you get the SIP application set up for registration to your Asterisk server, and have each of the phones set up as extensions as described in the example above, you can now dial the extension number of any phone (including iPhones) to make calls to that particular phone. Bring up the Acrobits application on your iPhone, and you willl get a dial pad as seen in this image to the left. Dial any other extension on your system, or use it just like the normal iPhone dial pad to make calls anywhere your VoIP provider allows.

We've been testing the Acrobits on three iPhones over the last few days, and we can say with some confidence that AT&T will definitely see customers moving from plans with high cellular minutes to the bare minimum plans if folks start using VoIP. These SIP apps have been available for some time, however, they were limited to being used only when there was a Wi-Fi connection available. Now that the 3G network is open for VoIP, calls can be made from anywhere there is 3G coverage, which makes using VoIP much easier and useful.

So how it the call quality? We will say that the quality over Wi-Fi is outstanding, and will depend somewhat on the VoIP provider you are using on your Asterisk server, along with the Wi-Fi signal level. This won't be a problem when you're sitting at home or in the office, or most other locations that offer free Wi-Fi, and your VoIP provider should be a reputable one known for high quality.

VoIP calls over 3G can be quite good, and we would say most have been acceptable although this is a little bit hit or miss. VoIP is heavily dependent on having a decent latency, and getting good latency on an AT&T cell tower can vary greatly. We've seen anything from about 58 ms (milliseconds) upwards of 300 ms. VoIP needs for the latency to be around 150 ms or less to offer good call quality. Once it reaches the 300 ms level, you will start noticing some cut outs, and choppiness. Our testing so far indicates that for the most part, the VoIP call quality over 3G isn't any worse than what you are used to when making a normal cellular call.

So what's the biggest advantage of having a VoIP IP PBX server in the home, home office, or business? tying your landlines and cellphones into one system, you could stand to save a lot of money each month. A family of four with a FamilyTalk Unlimited plan could go down to the FamilyTalk 550 plan and save $60/mth right off the top. If you had an AT&T landline service for around $35.00/mth, you could switch that over to an Unlimited US and Canada VoIP plan for around $19.95/mth and save another 15 bucks a month. Even bigger savings are possible if you make any calls to Canada. Adding Canada minutes to an AT&T plan is very expensive, and can easily add $20-$60/mth to your bill.

In addition to just saving you money, you now have the option of making international calls using your cellphone as well. As long as you have international calling set up in your server, you can make those calls using your cellphone just as easily as you can using a landline. And finally, if you travel internationally, you still have full VoIP calling functionality in any country as long as you can find a Wi-Fi connection. Your phone will function in another country, just as easily as it does here in the US. With all the advantages VoIP calling on a cellphone can give you, don't you think it's time you went "on the LAM" too!