ADSL, VOIP and other communication animals

BTLawrence Williams looks at alternative telephony and internet access systems which may be of interest to some Barbican residents from a totally non-IT speak standpoint.

This article has been prompted by some major difficulties I have been having with telephone and internet systems recently – which have together prompted me to consider ditching my BT line and my Sky broadband internet access altogether in favour of an alternative system.  I hope my experiences with so doing may, if not necessarily the only alternative, suggest other options to Barbican residents to a terrestrial phone system and wired broadband internet.  This may be the way of communications of the future.

Let me start at the beginning.  Like most of us I have had a BT telephone line and phone number since I moved into my current Barbican apartment some 11 years ago.  I was able to keep my previous telephone number and for most of this period the service has been satisfactory.  For my broadband internet I have used ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line for those of you who want to know what this stands for) systems which required a BT line – for the past few years with Sky with speeds up to around 10 Mbps without any problems beyond the normal which most of us experience with internet connection.

This all seemed to work reasonably well over the years with my BT line largely used for incoming calls – seldom do I make calls on that line as BT charges for both call duration and connection in addition to line rental and various other ancillary services.  While the call charges are hardly exorbitant given I make so few, I choose to use my mobile phone for most of these as far more call time than I tend to use is included in my mobile contract.

But all this reliance on BT for my main incoming line/internet service has largely been due to inertia on my part and it is only now, having experienced a loss of phone line for almost two weeks and, as an associated occurrence, seemingly permanent loss of my internet connection with Sky, that I have taken the trouble to investigate alternatives.  I wish I had done so years earlier although some of the services I am now implementing may not have been around then.

The phone fault saga with BT and Sky

A few weeks ago now my phone line went down on a Friday, which of course took my internet out with it.  As this coincided with a big outage in the City which took out the Barbican Estate’s phone lines too I (mistakenly as it proved) assumed that my phone would come back on when this problem had been fixed, so went away for a long weekend without informing BT of the fault.  Mistake No. 1!  When I returned on the Tuesday my phone line was still out so I reported the fault.  It seems to take BT engineers three days to do anything at all as a matter of course and then they came back to me saying there was nothing wrong at the exchange and they’d send an engineer out and he’d come the following Monday afternoon.  He didn’t.  I called up again and this time they promised an engineer would call the next day which appointment was duly kept.  He was efficient, courteous and ran tests on my line to be able to ascertain that the fault was 2 km away (i.e. back in the exchange!).

SkyBT then appeared to manage to fix this fairly quickly and I got my phone line back – but still no internet connection.  Call to Sky.  Sky got on the case quickly, but then informed me they couldn’t run the necessary line check as the system was still showing a fault at the BT end.  Back to BT.  Another 3 days before anything happens.  They tell me it’s fixed.  Sky says it isn’t.

It then turns out, according to Sky, that there’s a major problem with a whole section of the BT Moorgate exchange and that my line is in this part of the exchange and it would be reconnected into a part of the exchange that actually works properly.  Even so, I’m still waiting for internet to be reconnected and that is after well over two weeks from the original outage.  I’ve been running my internet off my mobile phone – with a somewhat erratic connection – and having to purchase extra data to stay on line – but since my main line of business depends on communication over the internet this was necessary.  At last, after days of frustration in trying to get my broadband reconnected I decided to investigate alternatives that wouldn’t involve a BT line or ADSL internet.

My alternative solution

I had been reading (on barbicantalk) about a completely wireless system called Relish which operates like a mobile phone connection on the 4G spectrum.  Because mobile reception in my flat is poor I was a little dubious, but a phone call to Relish convinced me I should give it a try, but could return the system with no charge within 14 days if there was a problem.  I signed up over the phone and remarkably – after my experience of dealings with BT – a Relish technician was at my door inside 3 hours flat with the Relish router.  This just required plugging into the mains and a new password entered into my computer to access the Relish system and internet was up and running.  Just like that!  It took about 5 minutes.

Relish, which only currently operates in London, Reading and Swindon, claims connection speeds of up 30-50 Mbps in the Barbican area – true fibre connection speeds but without the fibre, but that would have to be in a peak 4G reception area.  The poor mobile connectivity in my flat does mean I’m getting speeds far below that level (mostly between 7 Mbps and 20 Mbps) but still virtually always better than my old Sky broadband.  It’s therefore not perhaps 100% with speeds rather variable and it’s a little more costly than Sky at £20 a month.

After a few weeks’ experience I have found though that Relish does tend to be somewhat erratic in  my flat with occasional dropouts of the line itself which is frustrating.  These are seldom prolonged but with Murphy’s Law they always seem to happen at the worst possible time.  I am also finding uploading speeds slow to non-existent.

Relish router connected to my portable phone system  via an Obi 100 ATA box.

Relish router connected to my portable phone system via an Obi 100 ATA box.

But at least I did get back online with incredibly little hassle and thus had the freedom to disconnect from BT altogether and use a phone system which connects via the internet known as VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol).  This can even be completely free as a system for receiving incoming phone calls, on a dedicated new London number, but charges (you need to prepay by credit or debit card) for outgoing calls, but at far lower rates than BT (especially for overseas calls)  and without any connection or line rental costs. Let alone charges for any ancillary services one needs.  As someone making only a few calls over my landline this seems to be more than ideal assuming it works well and call quality is adequate, although the erratic Relish connection can cause problems.

At the time of writing I’m in the process of trying out just such a free service called Sipgate and I now have a new London number – 020 3355 9088 for anyone who needs to call me.  But I can use that number to make and receive calls at these same low rates virtually anywhere in the world where I have a computer with the system installed and an internet connection just as though I’m at my desk in London.  I do carry a computer with me when I travel so this appears to be an ideal system for my personal and business use and will save me around £70 a quarter in BT charges.

I’m not specifically recommending Sipgate – so far it works for me.  However a disadvantage is that I will have to drop my old BT line number as I can’t port this across into the Sipgate free system, although there are subscription VOIP services like Vonage, Voipfone etc. which will allow you to do this.  Indeed Sipgate also has a subscription service which allows you to port across a number from most existing line providers but at a cost, although still less than BT line rental charges and it gives you free UK calls.  Most VOIP providers also include a number of services within their offerings which BT will charge you for.

The free CounterPath X-Lite Softphone dialling screen offered by Sipgate.

The free CounterPath X-Lite Softphone dialling screen offered by Sipgate.

Systems like Sipgate won’t work with your existing telephone handsets without an additional piece of gear (an Analogue Telephone Adapter (ATA) box), although Vonage will with some phones as it provides a dedicated box to which you can plug in a DECT phone system.  Sipgate gives you free access to download what is called a Softphone onto your computer(s) so you can dial up and receive calls that way using your computer’s sound system.

Some of the permutations and combinations with VOIP phones seem endless – indeed many businesses are using VOIP systems nowadays to drastically cut phone costs.  A disadvantage though is that if electrical power, or internet system goes down, then so does your phone line and then it’s back to your mobile to communicate.

There are a large number of VOIP system suppliers out there – most aimed at business usage – but several supply fairly low cost personal phone systems.  None of the systems noted above should be considered recommendations – if you are looking at changing internet or phone systems I suggest you do your own due diligence.  I’m happy to talk through my experience to date with any Barbican resident who is looking at implementing a new system like this – by the time this article comes out I will have had about a month’s experience with what I have chosen to date – just call me on my new number!

Of course, in the Barbican, we are supposedly having a high speed fibre system installed by VFM – at a cost, but the rollout of this seems to be suffering rolling delays.  Latest information is that Shakespeare Tower will be connected up in October and the other tower blocks by the end of the year – and the low rise blocks at some unspecified dates beyond that.  We wait in hope.

The publisher would like it known that, owing to problems with Sky broadband this morning, this article was published using the free Wi-Fi in the Barbican centre.