Complete Business Phone System that fits in your Pocket
Even though they are far less complicated than computers, telephones have been somewhat of a modern mystery. Oftentimes even people who feel confident upgrading the memory in their laptop are stymied when it comes to installing a simple phone system. That’s because for years, our phone systems have been managed for us by giant government-sanctioned monopolies who didn’t want you messing around with “their” systems.
But those adamantine castles have come tumbling down, shattered by a series of legal decisions and technological innovations, most notably the Carterphone Amendment (1968), the Asterisk open telephony project (1999), and commercial VoIP service (2004). Over the past three decades, the same technology breakthroughs that have slashed the price of computers from tens of thousands of dollars to just a few hundred have brought the price of a business telephone switch down from $100,000 to just … wait for it … $45. The rack of equipment that used to fill the phone closet now fits neatly into your shirt pocket and can be powered off a USB cable.
As a reformed phone “enthusiast” (hacker), I couldn’t resist building one myself. It took about half a day and has been running my office flawlessly for weeks.
The Hardware and Software
The hardware that makes this little miracle possible is the BeagleBone Black, a full-featured Linux system shrunk to the size of a bar of soap. Inspired by the famous RaspberryPi educational platform, the BeagleBone black is about twice as powerful for a mere $10 more.
The software is a combination of Ubuntu Linux and FreePBX that was put together in a shotgun wedding by the folks at http://www.beaglebone-asterisk.org (based on an earlier, underpowered port to the RaspberryPi).
On Your Desk
So much for the server side of things. What do you actually use on your desk?
The bad news is that you can’t use your existing telephone company phones. Those phones are designed for analog signals, but this system is fully digital. The good news is that you don’t really need a phone at all. There are dozens of free “softphones” that run on PCs, laptops and on smartphones. Also, because the system is digital, you’ll be really surprised at the sound quality. Compared to a regular phone system, there is virtually no noise. Calls sound like you are right in the same room.
If you want a “real” phone, there are a lot of very good inexpensive models to choose from, including the Polycom IP-310, which at $55 is one of my favorites.
These devices plug directly into your Internet connection, just like a PC would, so you don’t need two kinds of wiring. Also, because the phones are addressed digitally, all you need to do to move an extension is just move the phone. If you are on extension 117, it will still be 117 no matter where you plug it in. (Even if you take it home and plug it in there, although you will have to make a few modifications to your LAN to ensure that the phone can reach the server.) They can even operate wirelessly with the addition of a small wireless access point.
A Service Provider
Now that you have a phone server (or “switch”) and some phones connected to it, the last missing piece to this puzzle is a service provider. Since your devices are on the net, they can call each other without any help from a phone company. They can even directly call other digital phone systems like yours, one in your office in Australia or Cincinnati, for example. But to reach regular phone subscribers on their desk phones or cells, you will need a gateway that routes your digital traffic over the PSTN (public switched telephone network). The FreePBX software running on the BeagleBone has the ability to connect to multiple service providers simultaneously and route your call based on the time of day, cheapest routes, who dialed the number, whatever.
You can buy unlimited VoIP gateway services from companies like Vitelity for $8/month. You can also use your Google Voice number to reach US phone numbers for free.
What does all this mean to You?
It means that you can put a bunch of phones in your home or in your office, complete with extension numbers, automatic attendant, music on hold, voice mail, conferencing, international dialing, even wake-up calls for as little as $50. How many is a bunch? Somewhere between 3 and 10, depending on how you use them.
Setting up a system like this is not trivial. There are a lot more options involved than, say, setting up your home WiFi network. But it is totally within the grasp of even an average computer programmer or electronics hobbyist and can give you all of the benefits of a professional business phone system for thousands of dollars less. It’s a modern world.