The usual way for consumers and small businesses to obtain VoIP service is to select a provider -- such as Vonage, Lingo, or Packet8 -- and sign up for a plan. You typically pay a setup fee, the company sends you its hardware, and you plug it in and start talking.
If you decide a few months down the road that you want to switch to a different provider that's offering lower prices or more features, the box you bought from your current VoIP carrier is useless. You can't use it with a new provider's service because it's "locked."
However, for the technically savvy, there's a different route you can take that gives you more flexibility. Generic, unlocked VoIP boxes are available from vendors such as Linksys (Cisco).
The Linksys PAP2T-NA is a SIP-based ATA (that's Analog Telephone Adapter) that you can configure to work with the VoIP provider of your choice. It replaces the more expensive and less functional PAP2, which Linksys officially retired last month. Like the ATA boxes supplied by VoIP companies, you plug it into your router and connect your analog phones (or a fax machine, if you like) to its ports.
In addition, since it has two completely independent ports, you can even set it up with two different VoIP lines from two different providers. This is one way to have some fault tolerance in case one provider has an outage; you'll still have phone service from the other provider.
Unlike the provider-supplied boxes, you can continue to use the same device if you decide to change providers. You also have more control over the configuration of the device since you enter your own dial plan and have administrative access to the device's settings.
It's compatible with all of the advanced telephony features offered by VoIP providers, such as the ability to add virtual phone numbers in other area codes, voice mail, distinctive ring, caller ID, call forwarding, three-way conference calling, callback on busy, music on hold, and so forth. For secure calling, it also supports SRTP encryption.
Configuring an unlocked device
You might be thinking, this is all well and good, but how do you configure the device to work with the provider you've chosen? Your VoIP provider should be able to give you instructions for configuring the device to work with its service.
You can also use the Configuration Wizard provided by Voxilla. However, you'll still need a SIP username and password from your VoIP provider; you'll also need to know the IP address of the Linksys box on your LAN.
In fact, Voxilla provides wizards for setting up a number of different VoIP devices in addition to the Linksys PAP2T-NA. You do have to register with the site and agree to the rules in order to use the wizards. Registration is free, and the rules are very basic (you agree not to post offensive or illegal content to the site's forums).
Unfortunately, Voxilla's wizard doesn't list all VoIP providers. If yours isn't listed, it may not support open device configurations.
Probably the most difficult part of the configuration is entering a dial plan. The Voxilla wizard does include a generic dial plan that will work with most providers, but you'll still need to do a little tweaking. Once you complete the wizard in a browser on any LAN computer, you can upload the configuration information directly to the device.
One way to expand the usability of this or any ATA is to plug a cordless base station that supports multiple handsets into the box itself; then you can use your VoIP line from any of the handsets anywhere within the cordless range. If you get a two-line cordless system, you can plug both the VoIP box and your landline into it -- and access either VoIP or PSTN from any handset with the touch of a button.
This is particularly handy if there are some numbers you call where VoIP doesn't work as well, which sometimes occurs through certain corporate telephone systems. When you call those numbers, use the landline; for other numbers (especially long distance), use the VoIP line.
Or you can check out a cordless system such as the AT&T EP5632, aimed specifically at the SOHO market. Although it's a single-line system, it's special in that it supports Bluetooth connections.
You can use a Bluetooth headset to make calls from the base unit, or you can pair up a Bluetooth cell phone with it. Then, as long as your cell phone is within a few feet of the base station, calls that come in on the cell line will actually ring on the AT&T system. An added advantage is that it supports more remote handsets than most cordless systems, up to 12. And because it uses 5.8-GHz technology instead of the more common 2.4 GHz, there's less chance of interference with other devices such as your wireless networking components.
For most VoIP users, the box that you get from your VoIP provider will do the trick. Setting it up is quick and easy, and it already works with the provider's network. Sometimes it's even free.
But if you're a bit of a do-it-yourselfer with decent networking skills and you want the fun of configuring your own device as well as complete control over its settings and the ability to continue to use it if you switch providers, you might want to consider an unlocked ATA such as those from Linksys.
Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.
Want more tips and tricks to help you plan or optimize your VoIP deployment? Automatically sign up for our free VoIP newsletter, delivered each Monday!
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.