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Category — Communications

The End of WiMax: What I Did

Since Sprint turned off WiMax last November, I had to make a change.  LTE was one choice.  I’ve done some LTE testing; with newer MiFi units such as the ZTE Z915 device it can be faster than DSL with excellent voice quality for VoIP.

But LTE performance is still much more variable than DSL or Cable Internet, while the cost is comparable to DSL/Cable, and more than WiMax.  With WiMax, I could go cheap, fast, and limited (10G for ~$20/month) with FreedomPop or cheap, slow, and unlimited with Clear (~$35/month).  Average LTE rates are around $40/month for 5GB at decent speeds.

My choice is LMI.net’s PHLO+, which is around $51-$55/month (including all the annoying taxes) for unlimited DSL as fast as you can get, and an analog phone line (I didn’t want the analog phone line, because it’s the reason for all the taxes, but I didn’t have a choice).  It is very similar to Sonic.net’s Fusion service, but since I had already had good experiences with LMI as a previous DSL customer I went with LMI.

I also liked that LMI was open to bringing or buying your own modem, while Sonic emphasizes rental.  So after discussing which modems LMI preferred, I bought a Smart RG SR510N for ~$20 from eBay.  The Smart RG  has worked perfectly so far.  I highly recommend both companies; Sonic does have its advantages, such as more service options (FTTN, FTTH).

My peak speeds are about 18Mbps down and 1.25Mbps or so up using my favorite speed test from DSLReports.

Since PHLO+ comes with a full featured POTS phone line, I bought a ObiLine for my Obi 202.  Some people complain about echoing on the ObiLine; I have noticed occasional echoing but overall the quality has been acceptable.  However, I found I didn’t like how it handles incoming calls forwarded from Google Voice.  (To be fair, I haven’t tried much troubleshooting on these issues, but since I’m happy with my setup, that’s a low priority).

Some other service changes from my last update:

  • I dropped Anveo.  Anveo still has excellent rates for E911 service and unlimited person DID (incoming phone numbers), but I wanted CNAM and didn’t care about Anveo’s features such as advanced call flow.
  • I ported the Anveo number to Ring.to, which was quick, easy, and free.  I’m not using that number a lot, but I value it so it’s a good match for Ring.to with their new usage restrictions (but since Ring.to is free, no complaints from me).
  • I dropped VestaLink after my contract ran out.  VL did work well for me, and since they offered a great deal for a 2-year pre-pay I thought about renewing, but I don’t need it now, and it’s hard to commit to 2 years to a company that isn’t actively looking for new customers.
  • I added CallCentric’s free New York DID, which includes CNAM (Caller ID name lookup).  It’s working well so far, and I’m fine with paying $1.50/month to CC for E911 service.
  • I played around a bit with VoIP.ms; right now I’m not actively using it, but there’s a good chance I will in the future.  I also thought about trying out CircleNet, but decided against it because they don’t offer California DIDs.

So my current Obi 202 setup is:

  • Callcentric DID for primary incoming calls.  Both Google Voice and Ring.to forward to CallCentric, which provides CNAM.
  • Google Voice is the primary line for outgoing calls.
  • Localphone is the backup line for outgoing calls (so I have two outgoing lines).
  • The Obiline (LMI analog line) is used for 911, and backup.
  • One Service Provider is currently empty; I might put VoIP.ms back in here.

The system is working well enough, but my “I’ll do it someday list” includes:

  • Different ring tones for different incoming lines.
  • Automatic switch over (ring on one phone first, switch to second if first line is busy).
  • Maybe add a PBX such as Asterisk.

I know it’s not that hard to do these things, but they just aren’t a high priority.

 

April 29, 2016   3 Comments

DSL Internet Speeds Vary A Lot

I’ve recently moved back to DSL since WiMax is going away.  I’ll have some more notes about my DSL service in the future, but today it’s all about how much my apparent DSL speed can vary, based on running a variety of speed tests.

So what makes my “rated” DSL speed (as rated by a speed test site) vary?  Factors include:

  • The speed test site used; I saw definite differences (in Mbits/sec) between DSL Reports, SpeedOf.Me, and Ookla’s SpeedTest.net.  I decided to standardize on DSL Reports’s speed test (partly because of this)
  • All upload speeds were roughly the same, around 1.25Mb/sec
  • The fastest download speed was direct Ethernet connection to SmartRG SR510N modem: ~18Mbps down (Asus T100TA, USB 3.0 1G Ethernet adapter)
  • Using the SR510N’s WiFi connection, the T100TA speeds varied between 10-15Mb/sec
  • However, when I tried an old but still usable Acer A500 Android 4.0 tablet with the modem’s WiFi, speeds dropped to ~3.0 Mb/sec with a weak wireless signal, and ~8 Mb/sec with a good signal.
  • The A500’s speed with my longer range but slower Netgear WNR1000 via a set of Netgear 85Mb/sec Netgear powerline modems is pretty consistent at ~6 Mb/sec; the T100TA clocks in at 7Mb/sec.  I suspect the bottleneck is the powerline modem.
  • Speeds seem pretty consistent over time when I hold the other variables (test used, PC used, connection used) constant.

BTW, my T-Mobile 4G LTE MiFi can get similar or better speeds.  Its results vary dramatically with the signal type (LTE is much better than HSPDA, and EDGE is painful); typical download range seems to be around 8-18 Mb/sec, and upload around 1-6 MBb/sec.  However, despite the good raw numbers for LTE, VoIP quality is typically much better over DSL (partly because DSL still has much better ping times).  And, of course, there are no affordable LTE options for large amounts of data, while my DSL is unlimited.

September 29, 2015   No Comments

Obi, Codecs,WiMax, and the End of GV XMPP

It’s time for an Obi update.  As I’ve mentioned before, I really like my Obi 202; it’s a nice combination of reasonable simplicity and flexibility.  However, Google is dropping the XMPP interface to Google Voice on May 15, and Obihai isn’t going to try any work arounds, so I’ve had to re-configure my system.

What I’ve ended up with is this:

  • Currently keeping the Anveo DID (incoming phone number) which I’ve had for several years.
  • I’ve added Vestalink as my main service (incoming and outgoing).
  • I’ve also added Localphone, currently on a 800 minute/month subscription for outgoing ($1.60) and DID for incoming ($0.99/month; I’ll probably drop the DID).
  • Both Vestalink and Localphone are set up spoof our Google Voice number for outgoing calls.
  • I’ve set Google Voice to forward to Vestalink for incoming GV calls.

It’s working pretty well, especially by the most important standard: my wife hasn’t been complaining.

Consider I was paying >$20/month for basic metered local telephone service, I’m not worried about saving every penny.  I like having some redundancy, so if say Vestalink is having trouble, we can always use Localphone.

I did not use any install wizards; I prefer to enter the information in by hand, so I can tweak it if necessary, move things around, etc.

Codecs and Wireless

The only big tweak I’ve done is with codecs: I’ve setup both Vestalink and Anveo to only use the G.729 codec (GV and Anveo only support G.711).  The G.711 codec might have slightly better quality than G.729 (according to one study I found, 4.3 vs 4.0) on a fast wired connection, but it doesn’t recover well from lost packets, jitter, etc.

So I’ve been happier running VoIP on FreedomPop WiMax after I’ve switched off the direct Google Voice connection to my new G.729-based services.  I give the credit to the Obi forums; I’ve learned a lot from them recently.

I will also be experimenting with Android SIP clients.  In the past, my experience wasn’t too great, but I think using G.729 might help.  Vestalink provides their own client (a customized version of Cloud Softfone), and allows two simultaneous calls (so if I’m talking on Android, my wife will still be able to call at home).  For Localphone, I am evaluating CSipSimple and Zoiper.  I’m not planning on using SIP for incoming; SIP apps appear to significantly decrease battery life.

Vestalink

Vestalink has had its issues such as a few outages and issues with delays with calls forwarded from Google Voice, so YMMV (your mileage may vary), but I’ve been satisfied.

So far Google Voice forwarding to Vestalink has been great, with almost instant or very short delays.  Voice quality has been fine (considering I’m on WiMax).  It’s easy to set my outgoing Caller-ID.  I like the incoming CNAM (name lookup).  Vestalink does have a 30 day trial period.

Localphone

So far Localphone has been working fine, too.  I’ve tried some Google Voice to Localphone DID forwarding, and it’s been fine, even though the packets supposedly have to go Europe and back.

Other Options

I chose based on my priorities and current usage.  There are a number of other options worth considering, especially if you have different needs, including:

  • The Obi plans.  Current choices include three plans from Anveo and two plans from PhonePower.
    • The Anveo plans have fairly limited outgoing minutes.
    • You have to sign in to see the details.
    • These plans are setup over the internet, so it’s almost as easy to use as Ooma (but still more flexible).
    • I thought about the PhonePower plans, but passed  because I want to be able to tweak settings, including my Caller-ID spoofing (PhonePower doesn’t allow easy spoofing changes).
  • A free Callcentric DID for incoming + Localphone or CircleNet for outgoing.  Note: if provide a US or Canadian address, Callcentric charges $1.50/month for E911.  Localphone is typically about $0.005/minute, with US packages of 800 min/month for $1.60, and 5000 for $5.00.  CircleNet says most calls are under $0.005/minute.
  • Future-9, although you have to check the Obi forums or DSL Reports forums if you are interested in their interesting $5/month plan.
  • Callcentric.
  • voip.ms
  • Skype via a bridge.  I had thought about this, but decided it was too much hassle.
  • I’m sure there are others; I highly recommend participating in the appropriate Obi forum; for North America, it’s here — I have learned so much from there.

Additional Notes (Added Later)

  • Google Voice is currently still working with Obi ATAs, but there is no guarantee how long this will last.  I think it’s better to switch now; I have no regrets paying a bit and getting more (such as a better CODEC for my internet connection and  incoming caller name lookup).
  • With all services, results may vary.  For example, I’ve seen reports that LocalPhone has problems calling some Verizon land line numbers.

Even More Notes (October 2014)

  • After Obi changed the authentication method for Google Voice, it’s now officially supported again.  However, that could change yet again….from what I’ve heard, Google really was planning on shutting down XMPP, but changed their mind.
  • So if you want to save maximum money, Google Voice is probably the way to go.  However, you can get many extra features (such as Caller ID lookup (CNAM), E911, and such) with a SIP provider.  I’ve found I really like having CNAM.

Dec 2014 Notes

  • Looks like Future 9 is out of business.  Vestalink is still in business, and I hope they can find a sustainable business because VL has worked well for me.
  • My Anveo DID seems to be having substantial lag reporting the Caller ID number.  I’d also like CNAM on that number, so I’m considering porting it to another carrier when my pre-paid account gets down to $1 or so (possibly CircleNet.  Yes, they’re another small provider, but I think their business model is sustainable).
  • Newer Obi’s can also use Ring.to  service; it’s likely older Obi’s (like mine) will get it eventually.  I’ve played around with it a bit on my phone (since I’ve had GrooveIP for a long time), and so far it’s been a bit flaky (won’t authenticate over my LTE MiFi, but will over WiMAX).  Opinions on the Obi forums are mixed.

April 27, 2014   1 Comment

FreedomPop WiMax and VoIP

I’ve been on a quest to find the best match for my home internet needs.  At home, we don’t use the internet much, because I don’t have time (too busy doing non-geeky things), my wife only does e-mail, internet radio, browsing and the occasional Youtube video, and we try to keep our kids in the real world as much as possible (Legos! Drawing!  Parks!).  We only use about 5G/month, so I don’t want to pay for a lot of Gigabytes we won’t use.

As I’ve mentioned before, we were on the Clear WiMax basic plan ($35/month for unlimited 1.5M down / 500K up), which helped since I could dump my rip-off of a basic phone plan (~$23/month for metered local calls).  Note that Clear service is no longer available since they are now fully owned by Sprint.

A couple months ago, I finally found a better fit: FreedomPop’s Home plan, which uses Clear (now Sprint) WiMax.  I’m on the top plan, which is 10G of whatever speed you can get for $19/month.  Here are my comments so far:

  • FreedomPop’s website and sign up process really reminds of GoDaddy.  You need to read carefully and know what you want so you don’t pay for unneeded extras.
  • Speed is good; I have maximum signal strength, and can get 12-14Mbps down and 1.3-1.5Mbps up (based on running speed tests a couple times).
  • Latency can still be an issue for VoIP (see below for more).
  • I like the modem’s included 2-port switch.  Its built-in WiFi has good speed, but seems to have poor range.  My Obi 202 ATA is still on power line adapters instead of WiFi.
  • FreedomPop’s plans are niche: if you do much streaming, you’ll quickly pay a lot, good WiMax coverage is limited, and FreedomPop’s LTE plan is way too expensive for my usage (5G/month would be ~$65/month).
  • If I need to change, I’ll probably go to LMI.net’s Fusion service.  It’s a pricier (~$52/month with taxes), but has good customer service, high speed, no usage caps, and unlimited long distance calling.

VoIP Notes

Even with the extra speed, Google Voice on the Obi isn’t perfect.  Most of the time it’s good enough.  I note that Clear was promoting Ooma for VoIP over WiMax, although I think only the newer Ooma models have the wide-band codec that’s better for wireless.

I still really like my Obi; I like knowing I can configure it myself, I like having 2 lines, I like the USB options (Bluetooth, WiFI, analog phone line adapter (FXO/FXS)  and I like having up to 4 service providers.

Initial voice quality using the FreedomPop HomeBurst wasn’t so great.  I made two changes that helped: I changed to  Obi’s configuration so that the Ethernet port was always at 100Mbs, and I paid for the mysterious FreedomPop “SpeedBoost”, which can’t boost my speed, but does seem to increase packet priority (voice quality improved — and even with the added expense, it’s still a deal: the cost is about the same as I was paying for just local phone service).

Sometime I want to try using LTE for VoIP, because it supposedly has much better latency than WiMax.

New Problems

Now the news is out that Google is dropping XMPP support for Google Voice during May 2014, so the Obi will no longer work with Google Voice.  I’m going investigate one or two options (which is easy, since my Obi 202 still has a couple free service slots).

  • I will definitely try LocalPhone.
  • I might try using Skype using the SipToSis bridge (Obi notes here).  This will require having a computer on all the time, but I have an old laptop with a broken LCD that should work.

I will write a new post when I have results.

October 2014 Important Notes

  • Google decided not to drop GV XMPP support (at least, not yet – there is no guarantee how long it will be available), so it’s still available on the Obi (with a better authentication method).
  • I strongly do not recommend getting a FreedomPop WiMax service (Home Burst Hub or WiMax MiFi) now, since there are reliable indications Sprint will be shutting down all WiMax service in November 2015.  The FreedomPop LTE services will still work, but the pricing is higher (and you need different equipment).

November 17, 2013   1 Comment

Obi vs Ooma VoIP Systems

Since it’s been over a year, it’s time for an update on my home phone system.  Although I could use an Android smart phone with WiFi, VoIP app, talking Caller ID app, and call screening app, I still prefer traditional telephone / answering machines at home for a number of reasons, including easy call screening and simplicity.

Last year, I was using an Ooma Hub with DSL and an AT&T land line.  The Ooma is simple to setup and use, worked well, and provides nice features such as CNAM (Caller ID name lookup).  I had two phone numbers, one for the Ooma and one for the analog phone.  I liked that: only our friends knew the Ooma number.

Then AT&T raised their phone line rates beyond reasonable, so I dumped them and moved to Clear WiMax.  That move caused two issues with Ooma:

  1. I got frustrated that there was very little I could tweak on the Ooma unit myself to try to get it to work better on Clear.
  2. I missed having two lines; you can get that on Ooma by paying for Premier, but I didn’t feel Premier is worth it for me.

So I bought an Obi 202, which is a 2-line ATA (analog telephone adapter) designed to work with Google Voice and other SIP services.  I’ve sent my Ooma to a non-technical friend.

I find the Obi to be a great fit: Google Voice is a snap to get setup, it’s pretty easy to setup other services, it’s been solid, I can easily tweak the parameters, and it gives me two lines with up to 4 services.  My current setup is Google Voice plus Anveo (mainly for incoming calls and E911).

Clear WiMax is working OK, once I stopped using my 2.4 GHz cordless phone.  Skype always seems to work well, but SIP services (Google Voice and Anveo) occasionally have noticeable problems such as breaking up.  Eventually, I plan on doing a SIP-to-Skype bridge, but the SIP services are working well enough that it’s not a high priority.

In summary, the Ooma is great for non-technical people, but the Obi is better if you need more flexibility or want to fiddle a bit.

 

January 8, 2013   No Comments

MVNO Cell Phone Plans

I’ve done way too much research on cell phone plans (which are almost as confusing as airline ticket pricing); here are my current thoughts on MVNOs.

What Are MVNOs?

MVNO is an abbreviation for Mobile Virtual Network Operator; in other words, it’s a cell phone company that doesn’t own its own physical network; instead, it pays for (or “rents”) minutes and megabytes on another company’s network; that company owns the real network.  Some MVNOs are quite large; for example, TracFone has over 15 million customers.

Most MVNO plans that I’ve seen are pre-paid; you have to buy the minutes before you can use them.  Pre-paid plans are also offered by the major carriers.

One big advantage of pre-paid plans is that there are no overage fees.  Of course, there are no overage fees on unlimited plans, pre-paid or post-paid.  But it’s a nice feature for normal plans: a typical post-paid plan has a set number of minutes, and if you go over those minutes, you are charged a ridiculous amount, such as $0.35/minute.  With pre-paid plans, you’re paying for service for a fixed amount of time and for a maximum amount of usage (minutes/texts/megabytes).  If you exceed that usage before the time expires, you can simply add another card, at the same price as before.

All the MVNO plans I’ve seen are no-contract plans.  That means if you become unhappy or just want a change, you can leave right away without paying any obnoxious penalty.  On the flip side, that means there are no big handset subsidies, so for example a new Samsung Galaxy SIII will be over $500.  However, if you like to keep your phones or buy used (which I do), the cheaper monthly bills make pre-paid a much better deal.

Finally, MVNO’s often provide plans that the major carriers simply refuse to offer, such as lower rates or more flexible plans.

Disadvantages can include worse coverage (since voice and data roaming is often not included) and limited handset selection (often you have to buy the phone from the MVNO, or certain models such as iPhones are blocked).

My Experience

I am currently on Ting, using a Ting-refurbished LG Marquee.  I used to be on Net10 (my wife is still on Net10).  In the more distant past, I was on T-Mobile and Sprint.

My Net10 experiences were good.  I had to call customer support when I started, and although it took a while, there were able get my phone working with one call — and they gave free service for the trouble.  Net10 is a TracFone brand, and I believe they use both AT&T and T-Mobile.  However, the Net10 website is confusing and not well designed.

My wife is still happy with Net10, and actually likes having a limited number of minutes (it gives her an excuse to get off the phone!).  However, I missed the Centro smart phones I had on T-Mobile and Sprint, so I recently made the switch to Ting.

I bought a Ting refurbished LG Marquee Android phone ($87) plus an extended battery ($13 on Amazon), and like the result.  The Marquee is fast enough, has a high resolution screen (800×480, essential for web browsing), and a SD card slot (great since it use it as a MP3 player), but isn’t too big.  With standard battery, the phone is slim, but I still love the extended battery, since it gives the Marquee great battery life.  Currently, WiFi tethering is disabled, but there is a hack to re-enable it (Ting allows tethering, but the phone was originally for Boost).

I had to call Ting since my phone didn’t want to activate at first, and found support to be top notch, better than any of my past experiences.

What I like about Ting is that I get all the features I want (smart phone, voice, data, tethering, no contract, no overages) at a price I like.  I’m using VoIP when I’m in WiFi range.  I’ve tried both Skype and GrooveIP; I’m using Skype because a lot of the time my WiFi signal is via wireless (e.g. Clear), and Skype seems to work much better over wireless (3G or 4G) than the SIP protocols used by Google Voice.

Since I love my Blackberry Playbook, sometime in the future I might consider getting a Blackberry BB10 phone and switching to SimpleMobile (since Ting does not plan on supporting Blackberry).

Notable MVNO Plans

Here are the current plans I think are the most interesting.  You should always do your own research (including non-MVNOs), and remember that plans frequently change; for example, T-Mobile is rumored to be launching a cheaper pre-paid option.  As always, don’t forget to check out the coverage and phone selection.

  • Want a bit of everything, but your usage is variable or low?  Try Ting, a Sprint MVNO.  Ting offers a wide range of Android phones, including very affordable refurbished models, plus Ting’s BYOD is in beta (BYOD means Bring Your Own Device; of course, there are some limitations).  Ting has a unique, flexible post-paid approach: you pay $6 monthly per device, plus your usage as it fits into their “buckets”, plus taxes.  For example, if one month you talk for 450 minutes, and the next month you talk for 750 minutes, you’ll pay $9 for voice the first month (101->500 minute bucket) and $18 the second (501->1000 minute bucket).  Tethering is included, since your paying per megabyte (and the smallest data bucket is $3 for 1->100MBytes).
  • Want to talk and text a lot on the cheap?  SimpleMobile, a TracFone brand currently using T-Mobile, is offering a $25/month BYOD (they provide a SIM card) unlimited talk and text plan.
  • Want an unlimited BlackBerry plan?  SimpleMobile offers a $50/month BYOD (they provide a SIM card; the BB needs to work on T-Mobile) plan with unlimited talk, unlimited text, and unlimited 4G data.
  • Don’t talk a lot, but like to text and surf the internet?  Virgin Mobile has a $35 plan with unlimited text and data, but limited talk time.  (T-Mobile has a similar pre-paid plan available on-line only).
  • Like Verizon’s network, but not their prices?  Check out PagePlus Cellular.
  • Want great pay as you go rates?  PTel recently switched carriers (from Sprint to T-Mobile), and dropped their pay as you go rates to $0.05/minute.
  • Like mobile broadband and you’re in Sprint’s WiMax coverage?  Virgin Mobile offers 2G of 3G data and unlimited 4G WiMax data for $35/month.

January 6, 2013   No Comments

Ooma Quirks

Overall, I’m still pretty happy with our Ooma system.  However, I have run into a few quirks:

  • If you want to use call screening (where you can hear the caller leaving a message on the answering machine), you either have to pay for Ooma Premier or put an answering machine on Ooma’s output phone line and set it to answer before Ooma’s answering machine.
  • If you have a regular phone line connected to the Ooma, Ooma will use it when calling out all local calls, not just for 911 emergency calls.  This can be a problem if you’re on a metered local plan and make enough local calls.
  • Apparently, this option can be changed, but Ooma won’t make the change anymore.
  • However, everyone on the forums recommends totally splitting your lines: Ooma connected to Internet only, local phone line connected to a different phone.  You do get extra features for free this way, for example, caller ID.
  • Ooma occasionally changes their web interface around.  For example, the connection tone option (Ooma plays a special sound when the connection is made) has been removed.

Some final Ooma notes:

  • The Ooma forums are pretty useful.
  • Broadband options are a pain.  For example, here in Silicon Valley, dry loop DSL costs about the same as DSL + metered local phone service: $40/month or so versus about $41/month ($22 + $19; unlimited local is ~$27).  Cable internet without cable TV isn’t any better.  Clear isn’t a good option unless  I could bundle home + mobile, but their coverage doesn’t work for me.
  • So for right now, I’m sticking with DSL at home + metered phone, with the Ooma and local phones separate: the Ooma is connected to a cordless phone (plus maybe later an answering machine if Caller ID doesn’t work well for call screening), and the phone line is connected to a different cordless phone/answering machine.

October 21, 2011   No Comments