Category Archives: Comms

Five years on: VoIP? No. Well, maybe. But not really.

Five years ago we looked at dumping the POTS and going VoIP to save big dollars. It cost more to use VoIP.

So, recent events have suggested that moving to ADSL2+ is now a good idea. Now that the local loop is unbundled, true competition has smashed into the marketplace, and VoIP has finally gone mainstream. ADSL2+ prices are cheaper than ADSL. There’s dozens and dozens of VoIP providers, you can even port your existing POTS number to a VoIP number (for certain providers, from certain telecoms companies).

Interestingly, there’s a $10 difference between going with Naked ADSL2+ and ADSL2+ bundled with a home phone; typically you also lose some data allowance, for example going from 20Gig to 15Gig, and that 15Gig will have a further (quite small – I’ve seen an estimate of 30Meg/hr) amount consumed by ‘phone calls. So, you get less, and the question is, can you pull in VoIP functionality for less than the $10 price difference?

Well, maybe. If you insist on porting your existing phone number to the VoIP provider, there are charges (say $3/month), plus an upfront charge ($55). You’ll also need to acquire a convertery-thing to turn your Ethernet cable into a POTS connection for your existing phone handsets, or buy a network-connected VoIP phone, or whatever – some kind of connectivity to your network and thus the ISP and thus through to your VoIP provider is required. If you want a VoIP account with a Direct Inward Dialing (DID) number (you might know that as a phone number) they start at $5/month. So, of your $10 price difference, you’ve just chewed up $8. You get to amortize the connectivity hardware and charges over the $2 savings you’re making; if you’ve got the hardware lying around, the $55 port charge is will be clawed back in just 28 months. Did I mention you’re running with a smaller data allowance? And there’s also the cost of keeping the convertery-thing powered up each month. And the fact that if you lose you broadband connection, you lose your phone (POTS have very high availability rates; broadband not so much).

Now, admittedly, VoIP calls are hella cheap compared to POTS calls. If we made many, that might be a factor. But we don’t, so it’s not. Our phone line’s more for people to call us. If we wanted to place calls cheaply, VoIP accounts without DIDs start at $0; we’re looking at replacing the home phone, and the numbers still don’t stack up, even after all this deregulation and vastly increased competition. Which makes no sense.

Or maybe it does. If the costs are approximately at parity for VoIP and POTS, surely that’s showing that the prices are competitive?

Here’s another scenario. You go with POTS and ADSL2+, plus VoIP with a freshly allocated local number which you use for all outgoing calls. You still need the bridge, and now you need a second phone. You retire your POTS number (advise everyone you know of that you’ve changed numbers – doctor, dentist, home insurer, car insurer, friends, family, work’s HR department, your bank, etc etc – shouldn’t take more than a day or two), but keep it alive for, say, six months (this assumes your ISP loves the idea of you starting out with a POTS line and then dropping it after the six months; I haven’t checked, but I can guess what their reaction will be). You’re paying $15/month over naked prices (ignore bandwidth differences), but your call costs are lower. At the end of the six months you’re saving $5 a month, so another 12 months to break even, and then you can start amortizing the convertery-thingy at $5/month – about two years for every $100 it costs. And once that’s amortized, and you’ve recovered the price of the extra electricity you’ve been using, you’re making pure profit.

I can’t wait.

When the phone line is $5, or $8 for your existing number, rather than $30, that’s when it’ll make sense. But it’s almost at that price now, when you get down to brass tacks, it’s $10 plus they throw in a little extra bandwidth. So we’ve got a competitive situation (at least on the connectivity costs), and VoIP, as a result, sucks balls. Interestingly, bundled plans aren’t sold as “naked plus $10, and we’ll throw in some extra bandwidth!”.

Let’s say you were forced to change phone numbers anyway (perhaps an interstate move), so now it makes sense to go without the POTS number at all. You’ve still got to amortize the convertery-thingy at $5/month, but on the upside you’re saving money on your calls – if you make any.

Final analysis: if you’re forced to change you telephone number anyway, you might as well go Naked ADSL2+ and VoIP. Otherwise, not worth the bother.

Communication with pre-vocalisation humans: a review

Earlier I mentioned that Cathy and I were trying to communicate with Owen using sign language. I’m here to report how that went.

It took a while. Our signing was persistent, and eventually we started seeing him signing back at us, although because of his impaired fine motor skills (what with being a baby and all) he didn’t do a good job of making the “correct” or taught signs. But we knew what he meant, and we consistently “corrected” him (by repeating our understanding back using the right sign), and saw no change. Once he’d figured out the sign for something, and he was getting the right response, he was happy. It took more than six months for him to change his sign for Cat from his personal sign (sticking his fingers to his lips) to that similar to the right one (pulling at whiskers on your face). He’s still signing “more” incorrectly, but we know exactly what he means – and he couples it with a spoken “Mor” nowadays.

One thing that I noticed was that his vocabulary was expanding steadily, until it suddenly collapsed. And that coincided with him beginning to vocalise – as soon as he started making distinguishable sounds, it seemed like all the hand signs fell out of his head. They’ve slowly returned, but it was a major disappointment to go from understanding most of his wants to understanding few of them.

A downside of sign language is that it’s hard to read in darkness. So going to a crying baby in the middle of the night and getting him to tell me what was wrong/what he wanted didn’t work so good.

In balance, I’d say that signing helped a lot. Owen’s a very calm child, which I partially attribute to his ability to tell his parents what he wants – and when we’re able to tell him that we understand, but he’s not getting any more chocolate until tomorrow, his frustration isn’t due to a communications failure.

More broadband in Crikey and the ABC

Economist Joshua Gans has taken up my cause of “what the hell do we need fast broadband for?” in CoreEcon More broadband in Crikey and the ABC – he asks, “why should we give money/monopoly rights/subsidization to Telstra to create a higher speed network? If there was some economic benefit in it then it would fund itself.”

Would someone please ask Kevin Rudd that same question? Please don’t spend $10b of my taxes so that pimply-faced teenagers can download porn faster.

Japan and Korea has pervasive 100Mb networks. Has there been a big business uptake? No, they’re using that bandwidth for gaming. Don’t get me wrong, gaming’s great and all, but I’d rather you spent my tax dollars on… I dunno… stopping global warming. If I want to game, let me spend my money on it, not the taxpayers’.

It used to be that TV was the opiate of the masses. Now it appears to be downloadable video is.

Phones are too complex

Mobile phone companies have a problem: price competition is causing dropping call revenue. Solution: push phones that do data services.

Thing is, I use my phone to make phone calls. Oh, and as an alarm clock. Seems that lots of other people are only interested in mobile phones as telephones too. These people are destroying civilisation by being unprofitable consumers.

Handsfree Bluetooth

For those who don’t find mobile phones annoying enough, and don’t find speakerphones annoying enough, there’s now a bunch of Bluetooh Speakerphones on the market, like this one.

Egads.

I understand it’s meant for use in a car, but we all know what they’ll really be used for: “Quick” calls taken in the office, or maybe yammering to your friend on the train about her infectious disease.

Binary Output

Last night Owen started experiencing the symptoms of his first cold, which prompts me to talk about communications with babies. Newborn babies have only one output mode: screaming. Communicating with the world is a somewhat limited experience when joy, fear and hunger are all exhibited using the same mode of operation. From observation, crying may mean:

  1. Please feed me.
  2. I need to burp.
  3. I’m cold.
  4. I’m tired, please put me to sleep.
  5. I wish my nappy to be changed.
  6. The { toy | valuable object | fragile object } that I can’t reach – give it to me. Now.
  7. No, not that one, the other one.
  8. I’m bored. Amuse me.
  9. Ow, that really hurts.
  10. Carry me / lift me up.
  11. Holy crap! Don’t let that happen again! Are you listening?

Often, context will allow distiction between these options. It’s like a computer system saying “Something went wrong.” I’ve seen computer systems, particularly embedded ones, behave in a similar way. Often through design. Like, if they give you one red / green LED, then you’ve got green – all is good, red – not so good. You might get away with blinking them, and maybe even combining them to form orange, but there’s only so far you can take that (“Hmm, 600ms blink rate – that must mean that ethernet port two has a receive failure – because a 650ms blink rate would mean RAM failure”). That BIOSes doing their Power On Self Test use the PC speaker to report error codes prior to the video system coming online, I think the maximum number of beeps you’d get out of that was eleven… better pay attention and count them out. And a lot of Common Object Model errors are along the lines of “COM didn’t work because something failed”.

Interestingly, often babies don’t care too much that you understand them. They’ll keep on with the output, secure in the knowledge that you’re doing everything you can to determine what it is that they’re trying to say. And servicing one system fault may merely unmask another – a wet nappy may be followed by the need for a feed.

Screeching may also mean:

  1. This is great fun.
  2. Ha! You found me!
  3. Look at that guy, he’s funny.
  4. Hello, toy. You’re red.

The point being, the obviously inferior nature of binary output means it’s replaced as soon as possible by something else. Talking, outputing to screen, COM+, whatever. Oh, except COM+.

Cathy and I want to increase the output vocabulary of our son by using Baby Sign Language, mainly as a way of avoiding the expected trantrums: apparently, kids can sign much earlier than they can talk – like, children of deaf parents are signing from six weeks of age. Most excellently, I got given a book on the subject for Christmas, and joy-of-joys it was Australian made, so rather than American Sign Language, it was filled with AUSLAN, meaning it will have some use as a language outside on family communication (6500 Aussies – my perceived use rate is higher, because I work on St Kilda Road – home of the Victorian College for the Deaf). I’m seeing some comprehension from him, but I’m yet to see him generate any signs. Having re-read the Wikipedia article on the subject, I’m going to try to sign with Cathy when he can see us. I’ll let you know how this little experiment turns out.

Dead USB port

So, in building the broadband access machine I’ve found a gift computer (twice as powerful as anything else I owned) that was ‘not working’. After loading XP onto and futzing with it for a while, I figured out that doing anything with the USB port locked up the computer… after a while. I tested the theory by running up a memory/CPU intensive game and letting it run for a few hours. It was happy until I transfered some files off the USB stick. Fault identified. If I want to transfer stuff off the machine, I’ll need to get a USB card, or hook up a network. And I think I’ll do the later.

With fault identification complete, I hooked up the broadband modem (Netcomm NB5) via the ethernet connection (given the USB connection wasn’t going to be working on this machine). Entered the IP of the modem into the browser, and got the modem’s login screen. Everything was good, and I shut down all access other than web via port 80 using the modem’s built-in firewall. Connection to the ISP was established, proxies entered into Firefox (not IE – CERT says there are no secure versions), and Google was available. Connectivity proven.

The web browsing machine got Fedora Core 3 loaded on (a simple process), and the proxy setup was repeated with the same results. FC3 comes with a pre-release version of Firefox, so I loaded up the CD with the .gz for 1.0.4 and loaded that onto the desktop. Then I spent a couple of hours figuring out that I needed to be root to install the browser, and where to install it. Having done that, I still haven’t got it as the default browser – that’s still the prerelease Firefox. But I can run up 1.0.4 from the command line, so at least it’s available, and adBlocker is installed, so well and good.

I figure that I’m going to lock the modem down to a single IP address it’s going to talk to, the FC3 machine. Anything else that wants data from the net is going to have to transfer it from the FC3 machine and won’t be exposed to the big bad internet, because I’m not ready to migrate our entire PC collection over to Linux just yet.

Which means I need to buy a switch.

ADSL breaks even

Well, iPrimus are selling 200Mb/mo ADSL for $13/mo, so that was cheap enough to drag me in. But it’s been weeks and the ADSL modem still hasn’t turned up. Should I buy my own and tell them to sod off? It’s meant to be ADSL2 capable…

Now all I need is a bulletproof OS that can hook up to the net at 256Mb/s without turning into a zombie. I’m thinking that Multimedia PC I’m building has to be turned on all the time, so perhaps to hang the modem off it and have it act as a secondary firewall and NAT. Yet another reason to use Fedora.

Fedora Core 4 is out now – do you think I should go there?

VoIP ain’t gonna happen this month

I’ve just moved houses and thought it would be a grand idea to replace our fixed phone line with a VoIP phone like that supplied by Engin. Save the $30/month fixed line rental, skip the $60 connection fee and also upgrade our net connection to broadband, come out ahead with features and finances. Everything would be great.

What a stupid idea.

The VoIP service offered by Engin is $20/mo, so you are saving $10/mo on connectivity. Our ISP costs $10/mo, so the most we can afford to pay for an ISP and come out equal is $20/mo. But if we pay only that then we are effectively getting broadband for free. The VoIP is $150, but we’ll just ignore that cost. It’s only $90 more than hooking up a fixed line.

Obviously, to use a VoIP phone you need IP connectivity – an ISP. Okay, so we’ll just sign up to one of those $20 / 200meg plans ADSL and that’ll be great; I did some figuring and we’d use nothing like that kind of traffic, even with voice calls consuming 1K/sec (all figuring based on Engin’s figures, supplied in the user forum, which has been pulled – methinks because the users were slagging them off). No problem signing up for a couple of years, no worries, I’ll be in the new place for at least that long.

You can’t have ADSL without a fixed line phone.

You Freaking WHAT?!

Fine. Cable, I’ll have cable. Call one of the two cable providers, the house has been cabled up by both. Except they’ve merged, to increase competition. No worries, I’ll call the only monopolistic cable provider, hook up (ought to be cheap, the house is already cabled up) and away we go. $279 to connect to your cable service?!?! $40/month to stay connected?!?! You Freaking WHAT?!

Fine. I happen to know that although cable and ADSL are widely regarded as your two options for broadband, there’s a third option here in Melbourne – radio. Alphalink provide superfast wireless access for only $33/mo; but connection is $286. But guess what? $33 is greater than $20. So we come out Losers.

So I resigned myself and we got a fixed line. And that’s why VoIP isn’t gonna happen this month, and I suspect won’t be happening for a long time yet.