As I write this, I am in South America setting up an engineering office. I have been traveling globally for about 12 years now, and remember just ten years ago, when doing business here was very difficult, and very expensive. Now, it took me a matter of days to set up shop, and will take less than a month to have an office up and running. With Asterisk and Gizmo, we were able to build a truly global PBX, and to completely axe the requirement to buy an office phone system of any sort. We now have a business phone system that is accessible via a local call in 30+ countries, and that costs virtually nothing to operate and maintain.
Now granted, we are not a typical company. We build a global conferencing and group communication platform, using Asterisk as a key component, so we’re experienced with open source telephony and VoIP in general. Our experience is not representative of, say, an accounting firm, at least not today, but technology evolves quickly, and I’d say within 3-5 years if not sooner, this will be a common scenario.
Our new phone system, which piggybacks on our commercial product, runs partially on Asterisk, which we use for basic telephony and interactive voice response. With it, we built a VoIP PBX that is accessible via a local call in 30+ countries (you can call any of the access numbers for our conferencing service to reach our offices, and then dial a user’s extension instead of a conference code). We use several VoIP trunk providers, such as Voxbone, to transport calls into our system. Voxbone and other providers sell VoIP trunks in many countries for a fixed monthly rate based on the number of call paths (maximum number of concurrent callers), usually somewhere between $7 to $25/month depending on the country.
The calls arrive into our Asterisk system via SIP, which plays a series of voice prompts, and to ask the caller for a conference number or extension. If the caller enters a 4-16 digit conference code (these are mnenomic codes like BRIANSCHAT or 2742672428), the call is routed into our conferencing/telecasting and group messaging environment. If the caller enters a 3 digit extension, the caller is routed to someone’s Gizmo number.
Rather than use Asterisk to manage users, host voice mail, etc, we decided to simply forward incoming calls to their Gizmo numbers. Gizmo is a smart service, and becomes moreso by the day. It’s easy for each user to set his call forwarding and voice mail preferences in the Gizmo client, and to use Gizmo Out to place outgoing voice calls. While we could centralize management of these features in Asterisk, ease-of-use is not one of Asterisk’s strong suits. So we use it as a fairly dumb call router, and let an intelligent endpoint (e.g. Gizmo) decide what to do with calls once they arrive.
We also decided to use Gizmo as our internal intercom system, mainly because of the tight integration of IM and voice communication. Being able to seamlessly switch between IM and voice is a big plus, as is the ease of maintaining a company contact list rather than having to remember who’s on what extension number, the usual paradigm for an office phone system.
This is seriously cool stuff, and it really changes the economics of setting up operations anywhere that you can get a reliable broadband connection, which these days is most of the developed and semi-developed world. I remember the days when it cost nearly a dollar per minute to call South America. Now I can get 5Mbit banda ancha service for roughly $30/month, no landline, and do everything I could do back in Silicon Valley where everything from land to hires are outrageously expensive.
What do you need to set up a global phone system?
It’s a lot easier and cheaper than you might think. The main requirement is that you know Linux, and that you’re good at learning new apps such as Asterisk. It’ll get easier with time, but for now, be prepared for a learning curve. Apart from that you’ll need:
* A hosted Linux server at a place like Server Beach or EV1, cost $100-400/month depending on server and bandwidth plan
* An Asterisk installation, either DIY or a turnkey version such as Asterisk Business Edition (free for the build your own option, about $800 for the turnkey version with auto-install etc)
* Some Voxbone phone numbers in the countries you need inbound access in, unless you need a lot of trunks, total cost will be $50-200 per month
* Gizmo software with Gizmo Out credits, software is free, Gizmo Out is sold in $10 and $20 units at the moment.
* Some time to configure the Asterisk box, mainly to create an IVR script and dialplan to route calls to different users’ Gizmo addresses
The other thing I really like about Gizmo is that it enables you to either use Gizmo’s free softphone, which is very nicely done, or buy an ATA or VoIP handset and configure it to log into Gizmo via SIP. Each option appeals to different types of users. Developers obviously are fine with using their computer as a phone, either with a headset or USB handset. Less computer oriented people, your secretary for example, may prefer a conventional handset that someone has preconfigured to log into Gizmo for them (so as far as they’re concerned they’re just using a plain old telephone).
I am still kind of amazed at how easy it was to get things set up down here. Instead of fighting with getting telephone and internet service, I am now busy thinking about what kind of flooring to order, where to put our desks, and what kind of art to hang on the walls. It’s a nice change really. It’s great news for small businesses, who can expect to see turnkey products derived from the type of thing we’re doing (and bad news for PBX vendors who, as far as I can see, have pretty much nothing to offer except to the call center market).
I’d say the PBX as we know it has gone the way of the typewriter.
PS - I’m working on another article about the impact of technologies like Asterisk on small businesses that do business internationally, and will include a follow up to this piece along with some cut-and-paste configuration information.