Internet phone service - without the service

BigDumbDinosaur
BCS Technology Limited
Web Site: http://www.bcstechnology.net

My wife is one who, once on the telephone, can't seem to know when to stop talking. Accordingly, our residential phone service bill tends to bear a vague resemblance to the national debt. She can't seem to bring herself to change her phone habits, so I finally caved in against my better judgment and gave her the go-ahead to switch our residential service to voice-over-IP (VoIP). After doing a bit of research, a company called TeleBlend was selected to provision the service.

The implementation plan was to route the VoIP service through my business's Internet service and wire the VoIP adapter to an isolated pair that would connect to our residential phone. Nothing complicated, to be sure, and nothing that wasn't technically feasible. This was basic networking 101 joined with basic telephony 101.

TeleBlend's VoIP adapter, which technically speaking is a very specialized type of server, is amusingly referred to as a "Gizmo." It's a good term to use when talking to non-technical types, as well as clueless customer service reps. As I have more than passing familiarity with networking in general, as well as all the things that can go wrong with networks, I wasn't about to assume anything as far as how well the service would work—assuming it would work at all. My company's Internet service is a business-class broadband connection (very high bandwidth), complete with several static IP addresses. A Linux server is the only thing connected to the broadband modem. Anything that gets hooked up around here is on the LAN side of that server, which machine in addition to acting as a router and DHCP server, also takes care of network address translation (NAT).

The question, of course, was whether the Gizmo would be able to work in this environment. Directly connecting it to the broadband modem was not an option, as our ISP doesn't have DHCP running on the segment to which we are connected. I wasn't going to allocate a public static IP address to the Gizmo, so connecting it to the LAN side was the only practical scenario. Accordingly, I had my wife call TeleBlend and ask one of their propeller-heads to call me when convenient. I was surprised when he called back within a few minutes, but reasoned that it was because we were fresh meat—one wouldn't want to lose a potential customer right out of the gate due to mediocre customer service. As you will soon read, my assumption about the quick callback was not totally off-base.

Anyhow, the propeller-head and I had a conversation, the gist of which was, "Yes, it should work fine as long as you are not blocking any TCP or UDP ports." Nothing is specifically blocked in iptables (the Linux service that performs packet filtration and NAT), so we were good on that account. I made it clear to him that there was a pool of 16 LAN-side IP addresses to service local DHCP clients, so the Gizmo should have no difficulty acquiring its very own IP address. With that settled, I advised my wife that TeleBlend said it would work, and to go ahead and order the service.

Upon signing up, TeleBlend sent us a package which included a Gizmo—and wasted no time in debting my wife's checking account for the startup fees. I went to work on making it work and carefully read the setup instructions provide with the Gizmo (basically, "...plug it in and it should work..."). Actually, they present two connection schemes: routed and direct-connect. So, there it was in their literature: a routed connection was okay.

For testing purposes I rigged up a connection from a separate phone here in my office to the "Phone 1" port on the Gizmo, connected the Gizmo to a port on the LAN switch and applied power. Three of the required four indicators illuminated, but not the all-important "Phone 1" indicator, which would indicate that I had live phone service. Understanding that the Gizmo would have to exchange pleasantries with TeleBlend's equipment before calls could be made, I patiently waited for about five minutes, and then lifted the phone, hoping to hear a dial tone. Instead, I was greeted by 60 Hz hum and noise. Hmmm...not good.

"Okay," I thought, "the wall-wart supplied with the Gizmo may be defective." Hardly the first time I have run into this sort of thing. Wall-warts are general cheap pieces of junk that have minimal quality control (especially when the label says "Made in China"—at least it didn't decide to short out and fill my office with acrid smoke), and usually aren't sources of computer-grade power. This particular wall-wart, which has TeleBlend's label on it, is supposed to generate 5 volts DC at 2 amps. My digital voltmeter reported that it was producing 5.17 volts (acceptable), with about 100 millivolts of AC riding on it—the latter explaining the hum and noise I was hearing. It did power up the Gizmo, though, so I wasn't ready to condemn it.

Meanwhile, I decided that before I contacted TeleBlend for support I'd do a little investigating. In order for the Gizmo to talk to TeleBlend's service, it needs an IP address and a route to the Internet. As I earlier explained, our Linux box takes care of all network matters, so I expected that if I looked at various things on the server, I'd see an IP address from the DHCP pool in use ("leased"), which was the case. Out of curiosity, I tried pinging the address, but received no response. That's not necessarily a failure, as devices can be programmed to refuse ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol) packets as a securiy measure. Accordingly. I looked at arp (address resolution protocol) to see if the Gizmo's IP address had been linked to a particular MAC (media access control) address. The Gizmo's arp entry listed "incomplete" instead of a MAC address, so something was definitely amiss. You can't exchange packets with a device if it can't present a MAC address, as ultimately all traffic on a LAN gets to where it is going by inserting the target device's MAC address into the Ethernet frame's header.

With this information in hand, I attempted to call TeleBlend's technical support to request a replacement Gizmo. After wading through a few menus and selecting technical support, I was treated to some elevator music and informed that I was second in line and that the estimated wait time was nine minutes. Nine minutes came and went...and went and went. After being subjected to audio abuse for close to an hour, the call abruptly dropped. I redialed, and now found out I was fourth in line with an estimated 30 minute wait.

"Okay," I reasoned, "it's a toll-free call, so it's their dime." Placing the call on the speaker again, I went on to something else as the strains of more elevator music filled my office, along with periodic announcements that someone would be helping me "momentarily." "Momentarily" stretched into about 20 minutes when, once again, the call dropped. Now I was getting irritated, never a good thing with a Big Dumb Dinosaur, especially one working through the lunch hour on something that should not have been a problem. A little poking around on TeleBlend's website led me to a live chat function, which I selected. After about five minutes of sitting in the chat session with no activity, someone finally connected at the other end. What ensued was interesting:

You are now chatting with TeleBlend Customer Care

BigDumbDinosaur: Hello?
TeleBlend Customer Care: Hello, thank you for contacting Teleblend, how may I assist you today?
BigDumbDinosaur: I'm trying to establish a Teleblend connection for my wife and am unable to get anything to work. I have a suspicion the Gizmo is defective. BTW, when I tried to speak with your tech support last weak, she was rude and unhelpful.
TeleBlend Customer Care: I apologize for this. Can I have your Telblend phone number please?
BigDumbDinosaur: (xyz) xyz-xyzx
TeleBlend Customer Care: Thank You
TeleBlend Customer Care: Are you near the device right now?
BigDumbDinosaur: Yes I am.
TeleBlend Customer Care: Okay. Can you please power cycle the device?
BigDumbDinosaur: Will do...
BigDumbDinosaur: Done
TeleBlend Customer Care: thank you
TeleBlend Customer Care: What lights are on the device now?
BigDumbDinosaur: WAN, Power and Ready.
TeleBlend Customer Care: I am sorry, but what device do you have?
BigDumbDinosaur: AC-211N-SR

One could infer from the above question that the rep wasn't familiar with what TeleBlend had shipped to us. I guess they don't keep detailed records.

TeleBlend Customer Care: You have no dial tone, correct?
BigDumbDinosaur: Correct. Also, the device is injecting considerable noise into the phone line.
TeleBlend Customer Care: I see. Is your device connected directly into the modem?
BigDumbDinosaur: No. It is a routed connection per page 2 of the installation booklet that was shipped with the Gizmo. I have also tested it with a direct connection to the Internet, with the same results.

What I did was take the Gizmo to my neighbor's house, where a standard DHCP type broadband connection is available. It didn't work in that environment either, bolstering my suspicions that the Gizmo is defective.

BigDumbDinosaur: I can give you more technical information if needed.
TeleBlend Customer Care: Thank you for you patience.
TeleBlend Customer Care: Can you make sure that your phone is directly plugged into the Phone 1 Port
BigDumbDinosaur: It is.
TeleBlend Customer Care: I see. Maybe it might be the Gizmo, [emphasis added] let me check something be right back
BigDumbDinosaur: Okay. You should know that the Gizmo seems to be unable to acquire an IP address from the router. I see that an attempt was made, but the IP address that was presented doesn't have a corresponding MAC address.

Obviously, that information went right over the rep's head.


TeleBlend Customer Care: Are you still connected to the Linux?
TeleBlend Customer Care: What is a good contact number we can reach you on?
BigDumbDinosaur: Yes. You can reach me at (xyz) xyz-xyzx.
TeleBlend Customer Care: You will need to bypass the Linux server, then your service will work
BigDumbDinosaur: Scroll back to the part where I said I connected the Gizmo directly to the Internet. It was an unrouted connection. In any case, before my wife signed up for the service I had a conversation with you company about how I was going to set this up and was told as long as the Gizmo can acquire an IP address and be routed to the Internet, it would work. The Linux box has a pool of IP addresses that are available to DHCP clients and there is no filtering on any TCP or UDP port.
TeleBlend Customer Care: I apologize for the inconvenience, I will have to have someone contact you directly about this issue.
BigDumbDinosaur: Please do. Otherwise I will suggest to my wife that she cancel this service and ask for a full refund.
TeleBlend Customer Care: Yes. Again, I apologize for the inconvenience, and will have someone contact you directly to fix this issue.

At this point, I got a call from a TeleBlend representative, who turned out to be the same obstreperous individual who had previously fielded a call from my wife about getting the service up and running. She (the rep on the phone) obviously has minimal technical training, and even less customer service training, as it was the typical "shut everything off and start over" advice, carefully garnished with a blatant "you are stupid" attitude. Internet pseudonym notwithstanding, I do know a little bit about how this stuff works and usually have no trouble determining when a piece of computer hardware is malfunctioning—that's how I earn my keep around here.

Meanwhile, the chat session was still opened to "customer care." As I earlier said, irritating a Big Dumb Dinosaur is bad practice, especially one that is hungry and, well, irritated.

TeleBlend Customer Care: Is there anything else I can assist you with today?
BigDumbDinosaur: No. I got the same rude person on the phone again. My wife is going to cancel the service and will be expecting a full refund. I'm angry with the treatment we have gotten on this. If a full refund is not received we'll get the legal system involved.
TeleBlend Customer Care: Again, I apologize for this. One solution I may have is that you try and bypass the server when no one is in the office?
BigDumbDinosaur: I ALREADY DID THAT!!!

That was the end of the chat session. Nearly two hours of my time had been expended—wasted, actually—attempting to get TeleBlend's VoIP to work. My wife, who is as much upset by not having working phone service as she is about my time being wasted by this substandard excuse for a phone company, is out (by my estimate) 100 dollars, and is now completely gun-shy of VoIP. At this point in time, if TeleBlend happened to be the only source of phone service around, I'd go with tin cans and strings. They'd be no less reliable, since TeleBlend's VoIP doesn't want to work and their customer service is below the level of that of the average cut-rate airline.

Incidentally, after being on hold for close to an hour with TeleBlend, wanting to cancel the service, my wife finally gave up. She went to the bank to formally terminate TeleBlend's authority to debit her checking account. I'm sure we'll hear from them the next time they attempt to withdraw funds and are blocked from doing so. As for the money already paid out, several of our clients are lawyers...



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Thu Jul 14 11:26:19 2011: 9614   TonyLawrence

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At least she didn't say "What's a Linux?"

Credit where credit is due.. :-)



Thu Jul 14 16:30:12 2011: 9618   DaveGillam

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Several years ago, I signed up with SunRocket for VOIP service. The ramp-on experience was totally painless. Teleblend bought them, but since I already had working service, I didn't experience any issue.

My service fee did go up from $14/mo to $18/mo, though. I now also have Skype Premium (in/out/Canada-US/etc) for all of $8/mo.

The only reason I've kept Teleblend around is the 911 service. To be honest, I also rather liked keeping my ages-old phone number, but have now decided that's not a good enough reason to be double-spending. I also have a fax machine plugged into the Teleblend line, but I've discovered that I never actually need to send or receive faxes anymore--everyone just emails PDFs. Lately, I've begun to realize the 911 service on my iPhone will work just fine. I might look into canceling my Teleblend service to save money.






Thu Jul 14 21:55:44 2011: 9619   BigDumbDInosaur

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After much discussion with my wife, it was decided to stick with wired phone service (POTS). Although not as economical as VoIP, POTS in North America is very reliable and service outages (at least in our area) are so infrequent any hassle involved in dealing with customer service is not a consideration.

This experience with TeleBlend reminds me of an old adage: "The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of the low price." In dealing with these people, it quickly became clear that "poor quality (of service) would be an ongoing problem.



Thu Jul 14 22:03:13 2011: 9620   Jeff

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I've been using VOIP for about 5 years.Overall I've had positive experiences. The worst part being the customer support part of their business. 2 or 3 years into paying for a regular landline and voip, I cut the cord and have never looked back. The gizmo route is a a good route for those with no experience, but with your abilities, I would suggest with your abilities that you buy your own sip device, and investigate Asterisk (run your own free pbx) via pbx in a flash, or else an OBI (obitalk.com). Both work well with your voip provider, and give you great mobile/home phone flexibility. I've had good luck with lingo (Lousy support) and viatalk (Good support, asterisk support, but less fun features). Friends have also used vonage (little flexibility, cookie cutter support for their setup only)



Fri Jul 15 02:28:23 2011: 9622   TonyLawrence

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I should also pont out (for those running their own hardware) that I sell Kerio's Operator product: (link)



Fri Jul 15 04:32:20 2011: 9625   anonymous

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Be there, done that. My first unnamed Voip service provider took six days to send out a troubleshooter to the home. Their office is one mile away. The next day after repair, the Voip failed and again I was given a 6 day appointment. I did not wait and signed up for Vonage. Happy camper!



Fri Jul 15 17:22:44 2011: 9626   NickBarron

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Ah quote of the day...

'it was the typical "shut everything off and start over" advice, carefully garnished with a blatant "you are stupid" attitude'



Sat Jul 16 18:44:20 2011: 9632   BigDumbDinosaur

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...I would suggest with your abilities that you buy your own sip device, and investigate Asterisk...

Thanks for the compliment.

From my perspective, Asterisk would be gross overkill. Asterisk is designed as a virtual PBX, which makes no sense for use with a residential line. Also, Asterisk has some pitfalls, not the least of which it is run on a server. I am already tripping over lots of computer hardware around here and am pretty much running out of room to install any more. Also, I really don't need to have yet another server to maintain.

VoIP's fundamental weakness, whether through a "Gizmo" or a SIP link and Asterisk, is its use of the Internet. While the Internet backbone itself is quite reliable these days, local ISP connections vary widely in performance and stability. Virtually all residential Internet connections are via CATV (generally poor reliability in many areas) or ADSL (better reliability but lower bandwidth). Due to these constraints, VoIP has a long way to go to match the reliability of POTS.

POTS failures in North America are very rare -- almost all are caused by cable damage, which would also affect local Internet services (especially DSL). CATV outages are fairly common, especially following storms. If your phone service is via VoIP over CATV, you stand a good chance of experiencing loss of service on a regular basis.

About all VoIP really has to offer is lower cost on inter-LATA calls. However, is that cost really lower? After all, you have to have Internet service in order to use VoIP, and I don't know anyone who gets free Internet service.

In a cost-benefit study I did a while back when looking at switching my business service to VoIP, I concluded that the savings would be vanishingly small. My business continues to be on POTS and will remain there for the foreseeable future. I'm more concerned that the phones always work than whether I can save a few nickels and dimes on phone calls. After all, if the phone service is on the fritz, my clients can't contact me when their computer systems go on the fritz.



Sat Jul 16 18:52:42 2011: 9633   BigDumbDinosaur

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Incidentally, I posted a comment about the supposed advantages of VoIP some five years ago (see (link) for that comment). Just about everything I covered still applies.

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