If you read more than a few articles in my blog you’ve probably figured out that I’m pretty much a public cloud Luddite: I run my own cloud (including my own email server) and don’t really have much of my data in any public cloud. I still have public cloud logins: everyone wants to share documents with Google nowadays, but Google regards people who don’t use its services “properly” with extreme prejudice and I get my account flagged with a security alert quite often when I try to log in.
However, this isn’t about my public cloud phobia, it’s about the evolution of a single one of my services: a cloud based PBX. It will probably come as no surprise that the PBX I run is Asterisk on Linux but it may be a surprise that I’ve been running it since the early days (since 1999 to be exact). This is the story of why.
I should also add that the motivation for this article is that I’m unable to get a discord account: discord apparently has a verification system that requires a phone number and explicitly excludes any VOIP system, which is all I have nowadays. This got me to thinking that my choices must be pretty unusual if they’re so pejoratively excluded by a company whose mission is to “Create Space for Everyone to find Belonging”. I’m sure the suspicion that this is because Discord the company also offers VoIP services and doesn’t like the competition is unworthy.
I’ve pretty much worked remotely in the US all my career. In the 90s this meant having three phone lines (These were actually physical lines into the house): one for the family, one for work and one for the modem. When DSL finally became a thing and we were running a business, the modem was replaced by a fax machine. The minor annoyance was knowing which line was occupied but if line 1 is the house and line 2 the office, it’s not hard. The big change was unbundling. This meant initially the call costs to the UK through the line provider skyrocketed and US out of state rates followed. The way around this was to use unbundled providers via dial-around (a prefix number), but finding the cheapest was hard and the rates changed almost monthly. I needed a system that could add the current dial-around prefix for the relevant provider automatically. The solution: asterisk running on a server in the basement with two digium FX cards for the POTS lines (fax facility now being handled by asterisk) and Aastra 9113i SIP phones wired over the house ethernet with PoE injectors. Some fun jiggery pokery with asterisk busy lamp feature allowed the lights on the SIP phone to indicate busy lines and extensions.conf could be programmed to keep the correct dial-around prefix. For a bonus, asterisk can be programmed to do call screening, so now if the phone system doesn’t recognize your number you get told we don’t accept solicitation calls and to hang up now, otherwise press 0 to ring the house phone … and we’ve had peaceful dinner times ever after. It was also somewhat useful to have each phone in the house on its own PBX extension so people could call from the living room to my office without having to yell.
Enter SIP Trunking
While dial-arounds worked successfully for a few years, they always ended with problems (usually signalled by a massive phone bill) and a new dial-around was needed. However by 2007 several companies were offering SIP trunking over the internet. The one I chose (Localphone, a UK based company) was actually a successful ring back provider before moving into SIP. They offered a pay as you go service with phone termination in whatever country you were calling. The UK and US rates were really good, so suddenly the phone bills went down and as a bonus they gave me a free UK incoming number (called a DID – Direct Inward Dialing) which family and friends in the UK could call us on at local UK rates. Pretty much every call apart from local ones was now being routed over the internet, although most incoming calls, apart for those from the UK, were still over the POTS lines.
The beginning of Mobile (For Me)
I was never really a big consumer of mobile phones, but that all changed in 2009 when google presented all kernel developers with a Nexus One. Of course, they didn’t give us SIM cards to go with it, so my initial experiments were all over wifi. I soon had CyanogenMod installed and found a SIP client called Sipdroid. This allowed me to install my Nexus One as a SIP extension on the house network. SIP calls over 2G data were not very usable (the bandwidth was too low), but implementing multiple codecs and speex support got it to at least work (and is actually made me an android developer … scratching my own itch again). The bandwidth problems on 2G evaporated on 3G and SIP became really usable (although I didn’t have a mobile “plan”, I did use pay-as-you-go SIMs while travelling). It already struck me that all you really needed the mobile network for was data and then all calls could simply travel to a SIP provider. When LTE came along it seemed to be confirming this view because IP became the main communication layer.
I suppose I should add that I used the Nexus One long beyond its design life, even updating its protocol stack so it kept working. I did this partly because it annoyed certain people to see me with an old phone (I have a set of friends who were very amused by this and kept me supplied with a stock of Nexus One phones in case my old one broke) but mostly because of inertia and liking small phones.
SIP Becomes My Only Phone Service
In 2012, thanks to a work assignment, we relocated from the US to London. Since these moves take a while, I relocated the in-house PBX machine to a dedicated server in Los Angeles (my nascent private cloud), ditched the POTS connections and used the UK incoming number as our primary line that could be delivered to us while we were in temporary accommodation as well as when we were in our final residence in London. This did have the somewhat inefficient result that when you called from the downstairs living room to the upstairs office, the call was routed over an 8,000 mile round trip from London to Los Angeles and back, but thanks to internet latency improvements, you couldn’t really tell. The other problem was that the area code I’d chosen back in 2007 was in Whitby, some 200 Miles north of London but fortunately this didn’t seem to be much of an issue except for London Pizza delivery places who steadfastly refused to believe we lived locally.
When the time came in 2013 to move back to Seattle in the USA, the adjustment was simply made by purchasing a 206 area code DID and plugging it into the asterisk system and continued using a fully VoIP system based in Los Angeles. Although I got my incoming UK number for free, being an early service consumer, renting DIDs now costs around $1 per month depending on your provider.
SIP and the Home Office
I’ve worked remotely all my career (even when in London). However, I’ve usually worked for a company with a physical office setup and that means a phone system. Most corporate PBX’s use SIP under the covers or offer a SIP connector. So, by dint of finding the PBX administrator I’ve usually managed to get a SIP extension that will simply plug into my asterisk PBX. Using correct dial plan routing (and a prefix for outbound calling), the office number usually routes to my mobile and desk phone, meaning I can make and receive calls from my office number wherever in the world I happen to be. For those who want to try this at home, the trick is to find the phone system administrator; if you just ask the IT department, chances are you’ll simply get a blanket “no” because they don’t understand it might be easy to do and definitely don’t want to find out.
Evolution to Fully SIP (Data Only) Mobile
Although I said above that I maintained a range of in-country Mobile SIMs, this became less true as the difficulty in running in-country SIMs increased (most started to insist you add cash or use them fairly regularly). When COVID hit in 2020, and I had no ability to travel, my list of in-country SIMs was reduced to one from 3 UK largely because they allowed you to keep your number provided you maintained a balance (and they had a nice internet roaming agreement which meant you paid UK data rates in a nice range of countries). The big problem giving up a mobile number was no text messaging when travelling (SMS). For years I’ve been running a xmpp server, but the subset of my friends who have xmpp accounts has always been under 10% so it wasn’t very practical (actually, this is somewhat untrue because I wrote an xmpp to google chat bridge but the interface became very impedance mismatched as Google moved to rich media).
The major events that got me to move away from xmpp and the Nexus One were the shutdown of the 3G network in the US and the viability of the Matrix federated chat service (the Matrix android client relied on too many modern APIs ever to be backported to the version of android that ran on the Nexus One). Of the available LTE phones, I chose the Pixel-3 as the smallest and most open one with the best price/performance (and rapidly became acquainted with the fact that only some of them can actually be rooted) and LineageOS 17.1 (Android 10). The integration of SIP with the Dialer is great (I can now use SIP on the car’s bluetooth, yay!) but I rapidly ran into severe bugs in the Google SIP implementation (which hasn’t been updated for years). I managed to find and fix all the bugs (or at least those that affected me most, repositories here; all beginning with android_ and having the jejb-10 branch) but that does now mean I’m stuck on Android 10 since Google ripped SIP out in Android 12.
For messaging I adopted matrix (Apart from the Plumbers Matrix problem, I haven’t really written about it since matrix on debian testing just works out of the box) and set up bridges to Signal, Google Chat, Slack and WhatsApp (The WhatsApp one requires you be running WhatsApp on your phone, but I run mine on an Android VM in my cloud) all using the 3 UK Sim number where they require a mobile number confirmation. The final thing I did was to get a universal roaming data SIM and put it in my phone, meaning I now rely on matrix for messaging and SIP for voice when I travel because the data SIM has no working mobile number at all (either for voice or SMS). In many ways, this is no hardship: I never really had a permanent SMS number when travelling because of the use of in-country SIMs, so no-one has a number for me they rely on for SMS.
Conclusion and Problems
Although I implied above I can’t receive SMS, that’s not quite true: one of my VOIP numbers does accept SMS inbound and is able to send outbound, the problem is that it doesn’t come over the SIP MESSAGE protocol, but instead goes to a web page in the provider backend, making it inconvenient to use and meaning I have to know the message is coming (although I do use it for things like Delta Boarding passes, which only send the location of the web page to receive pkpasses over SMS). However, this isn’t usually a problem because most people I know have moved on from SMS to rich messaging over one of the protocols I have (and if one came along with a new protocol, well I can install a bridge for that).
In terms of SIP over an IP substrate giving rise to unbundled services, I could claim to be half right, since most of the modern phone like services have a SIP signalling core. However, the unbundling never really came about: the silo provider just moved from landline to mobile (or a mobile resale service like Google Fi). Indeed, today, if you give anyone your US phone number they invariably assume it is a mobile (and then wonder why you don’t reply to their SMS messages). This mobile assumption problem can be worked around by emphasizing “it’s a landline” every time you give out your VOIP number, but people don’t always retain the information.
So what about the future? I definitely still like the way my phone system works … having a single number for the house which any household member can answer from anywhere and side numbers for travelling really suits me, and I have the technical skills to maintain it indefinitely (provided the SIP trunking providers sill exist), but I can see the day coming where the Discord intolerance of non-siloed numbers is going to spread and most silos will require non-VOIP phone numbers with the same prejudice, thus locking people who don’t comply out in much the same way as it’s happening with email now; however, hopefully that day for VoIP is somewhat further off.