man wearing brown suit jacket mocking on white telephone

Getting rid of your cranky phone system for a VOIP PBX

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If you have a business or even a large house with an old PBX from the last century, then you know how expensive and complicated it is. We have a Panasonic system and it is really complicated to maintain. There are ports that don’t work. It has proprietary Panasonic handsets and also a wireless set. In the days of IP and open standards, there must be a better way.

It’s all a little complicated if you have an older business that may have gates and other devices that are controlled by dial tone. it would be nice not to have to replace them too. Although they should all get to IP at some point.

Here are the steps that you can take to get into the 21st century:

  1. Ok the easiest first thing to do is to get rid of your POTs service where you are paying $20-30 for a landline. One great solution is using Obihai, this is a simple box that converts from Google Voice into an RJ-11 connection. There is even a two channel box (technically called FXO) which let’s you have two phone numbers tied to your old PBX system.
  2. The next big step though is to start to replace your PBX. One of the nice things about this is that you can install a new switch (see below) and then just migrate a few lines over). This is just a dumb phone system so there is no problem running in parallel.

Most folks don’t need all this univeral messaging stuff (particularly since Google Voice does all this in the cloud anyway), so what’s needed is a simple way to take old phones (POTS or plain old telephone service also called analog telephones) and then plugging in new IP phones that cannect via your Ethernet. The modern phones use Power over Ethernet so you can just connect it all with RJ-45 and it works.

Here are the parts that you need to pick if you are rolling your own, the main thing to learn from this is that the main reason for keeping a PBX is for the low-use or for dedicated analog control devices (like gates) that you don’t want to replace quite yet. The long term future is with all this smart home stuff where you just get a call terminated into your smart speaker from your mobile device.

  1. PBX Box. While you can run this on a Raspberry Pi if you want, having a rack-mounted appliance that you can manage is going to be way better and having an appliance that is a dedicated box means it is nicely tested.
  2. Dedicated lines to control gates. This means you need some ATA gateway adapters for this purpose which convert RJ-11 to Ethernet.
  3. Just enable existing low use phones. Yes there are still some of these around older buildings, so you need an ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter) which converts from RJ-11 to IP on RJ-45.
  4. Dial-out lines for security systems. Same here or better yet get a dedicated Ooma device and don’t switch it through a PBX. It is just dialout and you can have a dedicated number for this.

The big question is what is going to be the main way that phone calls enter a business or a home. This seems to be changing dramatically:

  1. Most people are just going to be using their mobile phones. That’s kind of reality. The main problem is that if you have local control systems, then there is no way for instance to open a gate if it is controlled by dial tones. Soft phone on your iDevice. The ideal is to use the “soft application” that PBX systems now have and have them send dial tones from an existing device like an iPad or your own iPhone. This is a huge advantage because then you can use that iPad as a general home device, intercom and everything else
  2. If you do have a “home” or “main” number then using Google Voice to forward that automatically is a nice solution. You don’t need anything local and it just appears in an email account in the cloud.

So if you can get this “soft phone” to work that is standard for all these IP PBXes. Then you won’t need to add dedicated VOIP devices which are primarily:

  1. VOIP wired phone. Main use with IP Phones that can then dial inside lines to control gates and other devices. This means that you need a simple device that can send dial tones simply to analog outputs.
  2. DECT Wireless Phones. These are dedicated wireless phones and ideally if you can use a soft phone then you don’t need it. This uses its own dedicated frequency set, so it would be ideal not to have to have this and just use your existing wireless network.

Picking the right PBX

Ok there are basically three different choices here for hardware: Grandstream/Asterisk (harder to use but powerful), Sangamo/FreePBX (easier to use) and Yeastar (really inexpensive and pretty easy but proprietary) and IP Phone Warehouse, Reddit, Asterisk PB Systems, all have a good comparison of the hardware and software. It would be nice to have a simple to use, hardened rack mounted system:

  1. Sangoma PBXact UC40 or UC60. This is a little more expensive, but is the recommended hardware for freePBX which is a nice graphical interface on top of Asterisk. It comes with a 25-year long license for enterprise features (which is pretty funny, I can’t imagine what telephony will be like in 2045!). These start at about $600 for the appliance and it uses PCI slots to install cards which is nice as it is really just a PC. They even offer SLAs if you want to make sure it works. The low end unit is the UC 40 with no FXO ports (this shouldn’t matter if you are willing to pay for a SIP provider). The UC60 is rack mounted and has FXO. It will need an ATA devices to connect the dumb phones. And is supposed to be easy to setup as a result. The FreePBX 60 (the Sangoma) license is 1U and has two PCI slots for $845 so pretty expensive, but it’s a real piece of Intel hardware with a real SSD. They offer their hardened commercial version call PBXact that adds several commercial modules (none of which a normal small business needs like extension routing).
  2. Yeastar MyPBX SOHO for $239, S20 or S50 for $460 or S412 for $220 but it seems to have a hard limit of 12 analog and 8 VOIP users. This is a modular PBX with its own custom software and it has a much easier to use UI. They also have Lincus mobile application. They use a set of small cards for $70 that you put into the device to enable FXS and FXO ports as well as GSM backup. That’s a little neater than having a bunch of external boxes like the GRandstream. The MyPBX can accept an FXO module and an FXS as well. The S412 is not a bad choice with 4 FXO, and then 12 FXS right in a single box where you buy 2FXO module. There is even an FYestart YST-OXO/FSO dual module which works when powered down for $60. Yeastar YST-O2-2 are two FXO ports for $90. The Yeastart YST-S2-FXS is $63 for two FXS ports. The S50 is rack mounted and can support more concurrent calls (not really needed in a small office) and it has room for 8 modules. The S412 has the most connecting but the lowest capacity, so great for low utilization systems but has 4 onboard module slots (but there are limits, 3 slots are S2 only, then two slots are non-S2). They have an extra box ATA Gateway called the FXS VOIP Gatey that is the TA-series form 4 to 32 ports with the YST-TA800 8 port costing just $185 so cheaper than the modules which $30 a line but much neater.
  3. Grandstream UCM 6204, Grandstream UCM6208 8 Port IP PBX Phone System for $550 or the UCBM 6510 (which is rack mounted). This handles 45 concurrent calls, it has 4FXO ports (to connect to your Obihai), 2 FXS to connect to your gates and other control systems. If you need more FXS then you can buy Grandstream HT8 adapters so HT818 which is 8 ports for $115 It also has a free softphone and uses Asterisk which is open source. Or $45 for a DECT base station. The main issue is it is harder to setup. But it is a bit hard to setup some folks are saying.
  4. 3CX. This started as Windows software but now runs on Linux. They have a more restrictive license set though. There don’t seem to be any major hardware providers so you need to find a simple computer to run it. Normally it would be great if you could get someone who protests the hardware, but 3CX is more roll your own.

The net of all this is the Sangoma looks like it has the best of open source and also of support but it definitely more expensive. While the Yeastar is cheap and has lots of capabilities but is proprietary. A tough choice, but at least with the Yeastar S412 at $220 (plus modules probably another $120 or maybe a ATA gateway) if it doesn’t work you can throw it away. With the Sangoma, I guess you do end up with a small Intel server 🙂 but it isn’t going to be cheap to just get POTS service back!

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