I recently had my first SIPphone experience. For those unfamiliar with the service, SIPphone is Michael Robertson’s (mp3.com founder) new VoIP venture, firmly focused on providing Internet telephony to the masses. I found it a solution that, despite initial configuration issues, provides a good low-cost entry to the world of internet-based telephony.
SIPphone resells BudgeTone phones from Grandstream Networks, and host the necessary proxy and directory servers that provide the core of their VoIP telephony service.
SIPphone pitch their offering as a ‘just plug in’ experience – however my experience, within a corporate network environment, was a little more complicated. Given the average uPNP-enabled router commonly found in home and small business networks, I would foresee the process being a little easier in those environments than what I experienced.
The phone was, initially, behind a firewall. This particular firewall implements some pretty restrictive rules and, unsurprisingly, the SIPphone did not want to co-operate. It would obtain an IP address from the local DHCP server, but would not allow any outbound or inbound calls. We did not want to relax the rules for the firewall, so we decided to continue the test by allocating the phone a public static IP address. Assigning a static IP address requires you to program the phone – either through using the keypad, or through accessing the administration interface offered up by its built-in Web server. For anyone having difficultly with either of the interfaces, I’d suggest downloading a copy of the user manual from Grandstream. Also, SIPphone hosts an active community forum as part of its support offerings.
Once the phone was reconfigured with a static IP, along with the necessary DNS server information, we were up and running. However, before running a voice test, I had to unplug the phone and move it to a different location. Upon restoring power, I noticed that my settings had been reset to their defaults. This was a little confusing, as I had not forced a reset of the configuration parameters. It materializes that the phone was contacting a SIPphone-hosted TFTP server and downloading a configuration update that was overwriting my IP settings. It seems like the centralized provisioning and management service for these phones does not allow a local override of the IP settings. When the phone downloads configuration from the TFTP server, any local updates to the IP configuration are overridden. I’m sure SIPphone could set our IP configuration within the phone’s file on their TFTP server, but I’d like to have the flexibility to make these changes locally. I’m sure their support team has had to field a few calls regarding this problem. In the end, set the TFTP address to 0.0.0.0 within the phone’s configuration, disabling the remote configuration update.
Once the IP issues had been resolved, I finally got a chance to make some calls. SIPphone has some carrier agreements in place that allow you to dial 1-800 calls from the phone. This is great for access calling card services, and I could see this being a real cost-saver to people working overseas who need to contact people not connected to the VoIP network. SIPphone also has routing agreements with other VoIP initiatives, such as Pulver’s Free World Dialup.
Now, on to the phone itself. The BudgeTone phones are cost-effective VoIP terminals. They’re comparable to a $20-$30 POTS telephone in terms of build quality, so at $60 it is more than reasonable for a VoIP equipped phone. As far as sound quality goes, the clarity was good, with little or no jitter. There was some minor echo, although I think this is more due to the design of the phone rather than the underlying connectivity. One of the test calls was to a person also using a BudgeTone phone; the call had noticeable echo when the remote user enabled the speakerphone. I tried both national (USA) and international calls with a good level of success.
My concerns? Not too many. The hardware is flexible enough that if you had to switch from one provider (SIPphone) to another (e.g. FWD), it would require a simple reconfiguration. My only real concern is the number allocation scheme chosen by SIPphone. They’ve decided to issue numbers within the 747 area code of the North American Numbering Plan. NANPA currently indicates that this area code is geographically assigned, but not in use. At some point in the future numbers within the area code could be assigned to an entity not associated with SIPphone, potentially affecting existing SIPphone users.
All in all, SIPphone provided a good telephony experience. I’ve just noticed from the SIPphone site that they now offer free voicemail, which brings them into line with the free service offered by FWD. The cost of the hardware is very competitive, and they’ve recently announced a product that’ll let you VoIP-enable an existing phone – great for adding a cordless phone to the network. VoIP offers a number of advantages, including, of course, the low (bandwidth-dervied) call cost characteristic. SIPphone provides a low-cost way to start experiencing the benefits of Internet telephony.