I spend a lot of time on conference calls and am constantly traveling internationally. I've been messing around with various configurations for my personal phone setup. I received requests on Twitter to share the details of setup and why I chose it, and I thought I'd solicit input on improvements as well.

At one time, I was running an Asterisk server at home, on my laptop and at the office and had them connected together. The box at home was connected to my home phone and the office box was connected to the office phone numbers. Asterisk is an open source PBX system that allows you to connect to all kinds of devices that use SIP and IAX as well as service providers that allow you to purchase dial in and dial out services into various countries. I had dial-in and dial-out accounts with a termination service provider, VoicePulse. Also, because it is a PBX, Asterisk itself can do voicemail and conference calls. On Asterisk, I used Zoiper as my client software because it let me used IAX, the Asterisk protocol that I like better than SIP.

Asterisk was super flexible and great in many ways. As I tried to simplify the maintenance, cost and total number of machines that I had, I found that the overhead of running my own Asterisk server and the cost of getting local phone coverage in all of the countries where I need to connect to was too much. I think that if I had a few more people and a physical office in a few more countries, I'd switch back to an Asterisk solution for everything.

After I shut down my Asterisk server, I tried using Skype and SkypeOut to dial into conference call services like FreeConference.com. I found Skype to be reliable sometimes and SkypeOut to be reliable less. It seems to me that SkypeOut has dropped in reliability since I was using it when it first came out, but it might just be the countries I was trying to use it from. What was particularly frustrating was that the DTMF didn't make it through most of the time and I couldn't even get into the conference calls because it didn't recognize the code I was punching into Skype/SkypeOut. Also, as I have begun to communicate with people in countries that have sketchier Internet access and are spread around a lot more, I find that Skype conference calling isn't reliable enough. Since many of the calls involve a ton of coordination to set up and are scheduled for only a short time, reliability is super-important and I need it at approximately 100% for my critical calls.

There are a number of services that provide SIP access to PSTN. In the past I have used Vonage and VoicePulse for dial-out to the US from my Asterisk box, but someone recommended BroadVoice which has a flat rate 35 country plan so I signed up with them to try dialing directly instead of via Asterisk. I'm using EyeBeam, the paid version of X-Lite as the SIP client on my Mac and it seems to be working fine. The connection seems to be basically reliable and stable dialing into the conference call services. I got a script that connects it to Apple Address Book which is nifty. On the other hand, I don't really like the interface on the client itself.

I'm still using FreeConference.com for US only conference calls and using Intercall for calls that require International dial-in numbers. I've used MCI and ATT in the past for these global dial-in services and Intercall seemed to have comparatively reasonable rates. The main problem is that even "reasonable" is not really cheap. Also, Intercall and all of the conference call services except for the expensive MCI (I think it was MCI) system that I used, none of the conference call services seem to have a good web interface to let you do things like mute individual callers, dial out, identify participants, etc.

I've used WebEx and use Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro a lot when I am doing a webcast or have a presentation which has some of this functionality, but I'm really looking or a system more focused on voice and PSTN integration that is low-cost and light-weight, but with a web interface. Any hints would be greatly appreciated.

I use a Mac so the client software I mentioned and Skype reliability might be different for a PC.

12 Comments

Very good insight into the problems of living an international life and trying to juggle calls and providers. It will be challenging to understand the further complications added once you try it from a country that does not allow VoIP !! Will keep a keen eye on the responses to see the knowledge out there. Thanks for the summary, greatly enlightening.

Wrt Web conferencing and phone integration: I use spreed quite often:

http://www.spreed.com

client side you only need the flash player, it integrates webcams, offers whiteboarding, local dial-in numbers etc. at a very reasonable price.

It is a german company based in Stuttgart and you will notive the german discipline and reliablilty of spreed ;-)

Jan

This is not the full-scale solution, but something quite simple for conference calls in Europe and maybe the US - http://www.powwownow.ie/ . The great thing is there's no up-front cost. You don't need to pay them anything to set up the service. However, everyone dialling in has to use a number which they pay a small premium to call (it's not too high, a few cents per person per minute).

This works well if your people are all in the right countries, and if you are relatively small-time. For occasional conference calls, it's great. For the professional conference caller, there are probably better services out there (spreed sure looks good going by the specs).

Vonage seemed to spend more money on marketing than on infrastructure a few years ago when I was looking. I used http://www.8x8.com/ for US-based IP services, and was very happy with it for four years (one in the US, three in Japan). Dropped them when I realized SkypeOut could handle all my (rapidly diminishing) US call needs.
When Skype works, it is great, but it is good to have a backup. On the PC version, when Skype 4.0 came out I (and many friends) had reliability problems for a while, and Skype's attitude is to deny that a problem exists, and then fix it in a few months. If this happens again, I may open an account with 8x8 again.

Unfortunately, WebEx seems to be best in class. Have used them to give developers on different continents night access to a test machine, in addition to the regular meeting things. It even works (more or less) with virtual machines, so I shouldn't complain too much about the bugs.

In the past I have used Gizmo (http://gizmo5.com/pc/) with some success. It's got a slightly more old-school pricing structure (pay per minute) as opposed to Skype's unlimited subscription model, but it is a true SIP/VOIP app, as opposed to whatever Skype is under the hood.

As for Skype, I am starting to become frustrated with the lack of quality in the service and the slow pace of development for the Mac version. And I have experienced exactly the problem Joi described with FreeConference.com, which is intermittent - worse than happening consistently.

I've been looking at similar issues, small scale two-way VoIP on your own device. For outbound I've been using a German company called Betamax which sells through web sites like voip-discount.com, quite cheap, good quality, connect from any SIP device you want, hardware or software, and they have a dialaround service with local access numbers that is handy for calls from one's mobile.

Incoming is a lot harder; the premier inbound vendor is Voxbone but new accounts need at least 500 lines. It was probably me who suggested Broadvoice and they're still the only vendor I know who will sell you individual PSTN numbers that you can terminate on your own device.

I can't tell whether this is a market opportunity, or we're too small a market. A lot of people in similar situations find Skype good enough, although I find it a pain to use being a non-Mac non-Windows guy.

Google's GrandCentral is also promising but at the moment they're between versions and I can't tell what the new version will do.

Broadvoice is indeed quite good. For Australian users (and maybe other countries), Pennytel provides a good deal as well.

InterCall does offer a free web moderator service using Intercallonline.com, the service offers mute, dial out, identify participants, roll call, etc. Additionally they offer InterCall Unified Meeting (web conferencing) integrated with their audio at a small fee per month which gives more moderator functionality and screen sharing.

Joi,

Thanks for sharing! This is invaluable, and so funny..because conference calls, software, etc. is more an art than a science.

I have had success with freeconferencecall.com, fwiw..

VOIP techonoly has developed many years, however still have many problems. I am in a forging factory www.forgingsupplier.com We used VOIP three years for the internal meeting and conferences. It is not stable and easily affected by the network.

All these great tools like VoIP and other collaboration tools are becoming more and more an important part of our day-to-day activities.

Instead of coming into the office and firing up my email (because I carry my BlackBerry everywhere, I already know what emails I have to respond to), I load up my Instant Messaging client and look in my calendar to see what conference calls I have. Of course my next application is Tweetdeck to see what other people are up to in the world...

I can also view all my voicemails in my inbox and just click on the ones that I want to listen to, and get back to those that need immediate replies.

All this, is part of the user experience that unified communications provides and being a mobile worker most of the time, I think this it's great that I can leverage technology to help me be more productive.

As you state Joi, everything is still in 'pockets' and is up to the user to determine where and how to out and seek out these services. I think it's time for an organization (I guess Google and Microsoft are the big ones that come to mind) that will start to consolidate the service offerings and have one portal, with a price point that works for many people.

UCaaS (UC as a Service) is probably a bigger play that many are after, I would love to see where all this goes in the next few years.

Joi, I have been trying to get in touch with you as I finished that Mac OS X GUI for Asterisk of which I installed an early ancestor on your Powerbook in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi a few years ago.

Even though you say you no longer run any PBX software, I still think you'd be interested in taking a look at the Mac PBX. I'd also be interested to learn in more detail about your roaming issues as I believe I can fix those.

Anyway, you seem to be impossible to get hold of these days, so if you don't mind could you get in touch via the contact info on our website

http://www.sunrisetel.net/software/asterisk/a4m.shtml

regards
benjamin

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