Low-end, Low-cost PBX for Skype

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted May 10, 2006

Actiontec Electronics Inc. was one of the first companies out of the gate with hardware products aimed at Skype customer market, which the company hopes will be huge. I recently reviewed the VoSKY Call Center ($70). It's one of several new Actiontec products, all of which are in one way or another designed to integrate Skype into existing home or office telephone systems.

A device not much bigger than a deck of playing cards, the VoSKY Call Center lets you make and take Skype calls with the same phone set you use for PSTN or Vonage-style VoIP calls. It also lets you make Skype calls from any phone, including a mobile, when you're away from home or office. You can also set it up to forward incoming Skype calls to a remote phone, and will even call out to a remotely to notify you when a Skype contact becomes available.

In my tests, the product worked well in most respects, but for reasons I'll explain, it's not practical to implement literally all of these alluring features.

The Call Center has three jacks on the back — USB, phone and line — and three lights on the front. The USB jack connects the device to a PC running the Skype client software. You plug your regular phone into the phone outlet on the VoSKY box and run a second phone cable from the line outlet to a wall jack. You'll also need to install the VoSKY software, a memory-resident program on your PC, and assign speed dial numbers to contacts in your Skype client.

Hardware setup is as easy as it sounds. The VoSKY software, however, didn't work the first time I installed it on my main test system, apparently because another VoIP softphone product was running on the same PC. As soon as I uninstalled the other softphone, the problem disappeared.

The basic features work brilliantly. To make a call, you pick up the phone, press the number sign key twice, and a recorded voice prompts you to enter a telephone number. This could be a full 10-digit PSTN number if you're making a SkypeOut call, or a speed dial number if you're calling a Skype contact. Answering calls is even more intuitive. The Call Center emits a ringing sound; you pick up the phone and answer as you would any call.

The Call Center even has a call-waiting feature. If you're on a Skype call and a regular call comes in — or vice versa — you hear a beep. Pressing the number sign key twice will switch you to the new call. Pressing number sign twice again takes you back to the original call.

The Ready light on the front of the box is on all the time after the host PC has booted. When you pick up the phone, the Regular Call light comes on by default. If you key in the code to switch to a Skype call, the Internet Call light comes on. When a Skype call comes in, the box switches automatically to Internet mode and the Internet Call light comes on.

Skype contacts at the other end of test calls reported, and I can corroborate, that sound quality isn't quite as good as when you use a good computer telephone headset attached to the PC. This is because the phone set is designed for lower-quality PSTN calls and can't deliver the full-spectrum sound Skype does. Unless voice quality is crucial to your business, it's probably a downside you can live with, however.

Can You Compromise?
The Call Center's advanced features also work as advertised, but some of them force compromises in how you set up and use your regular PSTN (or Vonage etc.) phone system.

With the Remote Calling feature, when you're away from the office, you dial the number of the line to which the Call Center is attached — from any phone anywhere — and the VoSKY box answers after the number of rings you designated in its software. A recorded voice prompts you to leave a voice message but if you key in your VoSKY remote calling password instead — which you also set up in the Call Center software — you get a message prompting you to dial a Skype number. After you do that, the VoSKY box patches your call through. The Call Center in effect behaves like a conference bridge.

This could be very useful for avoiding high-priced long distance calls from a cell phone when you're out of the office but in the same dialing area as your land line. Rather than calling your party directly from the mobile, you can use Remote Calling to place a SkypeOut call, which costs less than two cents a minute.

The problem is that when you set up the box for remote Skype calling, it must answer the line ahead of your regular voice mail or answering machine. Actiontec solves this problem — sort of — by including rudimentary voice mail functionality in the Call Center software, which records and stores messages on your hard drive. But it is very rudimentary. You cannot record a personalized voice greeting, and the default greeting is not very professional: "Please...leave…a…message," in a zombified female voice.

With the Call Return and Call Forward features, the box calls you on a remote number that you pre-designated in software. If you have Call Forward enabled and a Skype call comes in while you're away, the Call Center dials your call forward number, which could be your mobile, and patches the call through. The box again functions something like a conference bridge. This feature works without enabling the problematic Remote Calling features and may be useful if you receive a lot of Skype calls.

Call Return is mostly only useful when you're also using Remote Calling. If you make a remote Skype call and it turns out your contact is not available — which you can't see, of course, because you can't see the Skype client software — the VoSKY box will in effect "camp" on that contact for you. When the person does become available, it calls you at your call forward number and prompts you to place the Skype call again.

Bottom Line
The VoSKY is an impressive little gadget, but unless Actiontec improves the voice mail functionality, the Remote Calling feature, one of the most attractive of the advanced features, is really not of much practical use.

Adapted from voipplanet.com.

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