Voice Over IP Options – "Talk, Talk, Talk"

This is not a “Best Of” by any means. It’s simply an account of my own personal experiences with voice over options.

I’ve been enthralled with voice over options as they provide more and more for less over time and with competitive quality. Everyone has seen the transition away from the POTS lines to cellular. Why then do you want a VOIP line?
For the same reason you have multiple e-mail ID’s. You can have a different number for specific things (i.e. the “public home” number you get spam calls on, the “private work” number you do all your business from, the “personal filter” number for screening calls). Not to mention the vast array of features and functions you just can’t get from POTS or cellular without breaking the bank.

Here are what I have personal experiences with: AT&T CallVantage, Vonage, MagicJack, and Google Voice.

With all of these I consider my cell phone as part of my overall voice plan. Why? I try to never leave home without it.

Here are my experiences in a nutshell.

CallVantage – soon to be defunct. It used a dedicated router that had SIP protocol and limited router access/control. I was never happy with this option. I lived in an area with a limited bandwidth broadband provider with several pc’s on a home network. I found the SIP protocol never worked cleanly when cascaded behind another router and severely limited bandwidth when other routers were cascaded behind it. Network lay out and configs had to constantly be tinkered with to overcome issues (dropped calls, slow data response, etc.). And AT&T priced it at double Vonages prices. I could never use it for Fax service. Frankly, it’s tainted my thoughts of any VOIP with SIP required in the solution.

Vonage – http://www.vonage.com – Overall a really good experience. It uses a dedicated router that can be cascaded or used as a primary and has never negatively impacted quality. It has an industry standard of features and functions (call forward, simultaneous ring, conference calling, voice mail with forwarding, E911, Bandwidth saver to name a few) that come included in the flat rate per month with other features that can be purchased for small added fees. The flat rate fee is just that, flat rate. No nickel and diming you to death. They have several international locations covered at no cost or very low cost. The router I have has a second port that can be activated for an added monthly fee. I regularly used the Vonage line for faxing successfully and provided the audio quality that met my needs for a business line for the past seven years. I would recommend this service as a primary always on number.

MagicJack – http://www.magicjack.com – Inexpensive, functional, rudimentary. This solution works with a special USB fob or dongle. It’s cost first year is less than $40 and subsequent years is less than $20. I like this as a secondary number. It’s limitations make it impractical as a primary number. It has some basic features (call forwarding, voice mail, voicemail forwarding, E911) with little to be added on. International calling is available by paying in advance. I’ve used MagicJack as a backup for making calls and have been pleased, however it can’t be used without being plugged into a pc that is up and powered on AND you don’t want any heavy traffic happening on your pc (like antivirus updates, file transfers, heavy e-mail refresh, etc.). Using it with call forwarding to my cell seems entirely practical. I would recommend this (for now) as a secondary personal phone line.

Google Voice – Currently in beta and FREE – I’ve only just signed up for this, so more to come. My initial look is very optimistic although not likely as a primary number. The features and functions are pretty nice looking with the same look and feel as Gmail and a new feature called SMS texting. There are menu format challenges (pop menus that show up outside of the browser view without being moveable) but all of this I’m sure can be addressed with coding over time. By the way, did I mention the price is free? I intend to try this service more in the near future to really look at the functions.

Conclusion: If it weren’t for my need for a primary (always on) phone number to support my telecommute /virtual office I would use a strictly secondary VOIP number service with my cell phone and save $$ every month.

Fighting Cabin Fever with Telecommuting –

For those who’ve read some of my old blog entries, you’ll know I’ve been working in my home full time since mid-2001. It’s always been a challenge to socialize with other human beings that had things in common with me while full time working from home.
Since that time I’ve maintained a sense of staying busy with single parenting my kids, community organizations, military and what dating I could accomplish. Yes, the calendar was somewhat busy but revolved around very little selfish social interaction leaving me with a sense of emptiness amplified by the constant cabin fever of working from home.
Now, one child is an adult with her own transportation and the other on the cusp of adulthood. They no longer desire to participate in things to be driven everywhere, with the exception of work for the youngest until he has his own vehicle.
What’s a dad to do with all this suddenly empty time, a deep seated sense of loneliness and no strong core of friends? Well, let’s recognize that the workplace is the number 1 place that nearly every American socially interacts with others and develops friendships and cameraderie. So, start by getting back in the workplace. Reconnect with any old acquaintances, start new acquaintances, participate in company sponsored charitable events. That’s the new goal, working in the office at least one day a week. It appears most telecommuters that do visit the workplace in my area migrate in on Wednesday, so that seems like the best.
Number 2, continue to grow a circle of acquaintances based on things in common. I’ve joined several calendars through MeetUp.com. Basically a social calendaring web site with groups that have interests all over the spectrum that also allows anyone to start their own group if they don’t find what they want.
Number 3, community organizations through work and the local area. This is generally an area where friendships develop over time based on your ability to participate of course.
Number 4, don’t be afraid to try new things. If you have the option and can work from a wi-fi cafe you enjoy, do it. Becoming a regular can provide interaction you might not be able to get otherwise.
These are my ideas of how to expand my circle. If you have other ideas, please share.

Hope this helps someone else trying to fight the cabin fever of working from home.

Isolation is a disease – Get the cure

As a telecommuter one of the potential downfalls is a feeling of isolation. The conventional work place where we spend 8 or more hours a day puts us in a position not only to instantly and constantly communicate about the function of doing the work, it provides an incredibly necessary opportunity for us as human beings to interact and fulfill foundational portions of Maslow’s Heriarchy of Needs.

As telecommuters what do we do about it? Well, first we have to recognize this true need for our emotional well being. Each of us is different so this is highly subjective. In me I went through periods of mood swings. I realized that as a military reservist I felt closer to people I’d been around for two days a month than those in my workplace I communicated via phone every single day. I recognized that in the past I socialized at least two or three times a week in one way shape or form with people in my conventional work space. My kids recognized how moody I was. I recognized that I filled the void with video games, TV or working on other solo tasks. Although they were fun things they weren’t fulfilling, leaving me in a funk and only moderately helping with the real issue.

So what do we do to overcome the isolation? When you’re in the “funk” of isolation, you may not recognize that there really are a lot of options. You may feel trapped with only those in your immediate household so you have to reach beyond them. The local old fashion newspaper is still a great resource. Check into a church or community service. Take a class or join a martial arts school. Ask around with the few people you do know.

How did I overcome it? Get out there and do it. Through acquaintances I was sponsored to join a local Rotary club. From there I’ve met a number of individuals, learned about charitable efforts locally, enjoy casual coffee with a number of them and the club calendar provides more opportunities. Pursue a special interest. I’ve been checking out local boat clubs over the past two years and joined some. Nearly every publication has a web version. I’ve also found there are those web sites like MeetUp that use the web as a chance to get people together in real life who have all kinds of shared interests. [I’ll blog at length on MeetUp in another entry].

Will this cure everything? Well, you may still pine for the days when life was filled with the conventional office drama of who is interested in who and who stabbed that guy in the back. But having other circles of people to back fill that in your life can be just as intriguing and safer for the career.

Disby Widget – Go Ahead – IM Me

The Digsby Widget ROCKS! On my blogs main page it takes up a little space and is a virtual IM screen. When someone views my web site, they are automatically given a virtual Digsby session and can IM me anonymously. For my low volume sites, that’s very cool. IF I ever reach a significant volume I may withdraw it. For now, it might be fun.

This is the rest of the post

Messaging from Heaven (aka Digsby)

I’ve been a tech head since Commodore 64’s were the mainstream method of dialing into a BBS.

Over the year’s I’ve accumulated a few e-mail and instant message addresses. Some are clearly the primary source of keeping in touch with the world. Others, for subscribing to more questionable world or communicating with people on another service as a spam mailbox.

One day I was browsing techsupportalert.com to check out their instant messengers. After trying a few out, I quickly fell in love with
Digsby.

So what does it do that’s so special? First it provides a single interface for logging into all the different IM ID’s that I have. AIM, MSN, Google Talk, Yahoo! messenger with the capability of logging into more than one ID on each.

An ADDED feature is it’s ability to status you on multiple web mail accounts. So I no longer have to log on to each messenger or each web mail site just to find out if there is anything new in my inbox.

I kick off Digsby and there it goes. All my IM’s in one screen, in one place, with a status of my web mails if anything new shows up. Click on any new arrivals and it opens your default browser to the correct web mail service.

OH, there’s more you say?! Yes there is. It also has the capability of tracking status of social networking sites like Twitter and Myspace. I don’t have accounts on either of those, but its a neat feature for someone who spreads themselves further than I do.

There is even MORE. On my blogs main pages are Digbsy widgets that allow someone to anonymously IM with me with no log on needed.

Summary: 1 – Browse http://www.techsupportalert.com/ by Gizmo. You never know what little kernel of goodness you’ll come across. 2 – Try Digsby to simplify your complex techie life. 3 – If you blog, use the Digsby widget. A neat feature.

Telecommuting – Its Your Infrastructure Now!

Telecommuting, work at home, virtual office all mean essentially the same thing. Having an employee perform a portion or all of their work from home with the assistance of simple office equipment like a computer and phone line. One can argue its driven by economics more than the beneficence of the powers on high.

The argument would hold a lot of weight. With commercial square footage, power requirements, networking hardware infrastructure, facilities, furniture, liability insurance etc. etc. employers could easily be averaging $100 a square foot and be nowhere near a prestige footprint in a major metro area. Easily $1500 an employee at the low end. In step with the modern age of widely available broadband, vpn networking, instant messaging and there you have a formula for a new workplace in your home. For less than $4000 initial outlay and less than $150 a month the employee is set up in their own home with no excuse for being late for work.

Vunderbar we all say. You get to work from home, you get to keep your job, you save on the commute, the corporate costumes and the dining out that inevitably comes from being away from home.

However, you are also now faced with the logistical challenge of ensuring you have a viable space to work in, productively, effectively and provide your own infrastructure. Someone out there is saying, ‘Huh?!’. Yep, you now have to provide everything your employer provided in you new work environment.

Granted, much of it you have to provide for your own home anyway. Water, food, shelter, heat, air conditioning, and power. All of that will now, to varying degrees, increase. You’ll be running the heat and air, using lights, and running pc’s for 40 plus hours a week(for full time telecommuters), not to mention any dedicated sqaure footage you may use. This should be a minor increase in the total cost of a home, especially when weighed against the savings of daily gas, corporate costumes and the dining out. It’s an upfront cost that can be accounted for with your annual taxes. Its something to be aware of.

Then there is making sure you have a good connection for data, whether it’s via a cable internet, ISDN, DSL connection, using wireless or old fashion phone lines via modem. These will ultimately be your responsibility. By this I’m not necessarily talking about the service provider, but the connections from your provider to where ever you will be working in your home. Whether it’s dsl jacks, lan connector ports or wireless adapaters for your computer it’s something you need to plan on. Where in the home will you work? What kind of construction is your home? Do you have pre-existing network connections or nothing at all in place? Will you be installing the connections yourself? Definitely stuff to consider.

Then there is the more technical stuff. Any outage or difficulties with communicating to your corporate applications and you’re not walking down the hall to the on site IT guy. You’re on the phone with whatever support will help you best. Whether its your PC support group, your broadband provider, your phone provider, the know it all nerd that you used to hang with, you need to know who to call and when. Nothing is more irritating than calling multiple support groups only to find out you’ve wasted an hour with someone that can’t help you. So this is a two point tip. 1) Write down all the different organizations you get support from in one place 2) learn the basics for each element as best you can.

Here in the lightening belt of the ‘Sunshine State’ and host to an annual six month long event called hurricane season continuity of power becomes a challenge. Not to mention if you happen to be a part of any neighborhood that has any level of construction. So, as good corporate citizens, it behooves us to find a quality UPS (un-interruptable power supply) to fall back on for just such occasions that may last for 20 to 30 minutes, enough power to allow you to save that critical document you were churning away on all morning, a last e-mail or call to inform whoever that you are off line and then power down. Ensure it has enough outlets with battery backup to power the laptop/pc, the broadband modem, and any power needs for your phone.

Do you have a choice of what phone service? If you do, I would strongly recommend considering a VOIP (voice over internet protocol) service. You should shop around with the more established ones and monitor reviews and consumer reports. Although still in its infancy as far as large industries go with some of the VOIP providers still learning the ropes and getting their corporate formula solidified VOIP can provide flat rate service with long distance throughout the United States with unlimited calling and losts of extras. They include a large variety of bells and whistles included in their normal costs, that can cost a ridiculous amount with business line services provided by your local phone company. Things like caller ID, automatic call logging, call forwarding, three way calling, on line feature control, voice mail alerts and voice mail audio sent to the e-mail ID of your choice.

An item on the list that I haven’t seen employers provide, a quality phone. The phone must have a mute. You have to have some way to mute out all the background noise of the neighborhood lawn workers, garbage trucks, passing emergency sirens and the occasional Scotsman bagpipes. Other nice to have features cordless (that doesn’t conflict with your wireless network), a speakerphone, memory for saving phone numbers, a voice mail waiting indicator (that work with supporting phone services), and a quality headset for hands free multitasking.

These are key infrastructure elements that can be easily addressed if thought about. Or they can prove to be continuous irritants that cause constant time loss and distractions.

Telecommuting – A Two Edged Sword

Whenever you meet someone for the first time the subject invariably rolls around to what you do for a living and where.

I’m a telecommuter (aka working virtual office, work at home, etc.) Working for an IT organization over the past fifteen years I’ve been blessed with the experience of telecommuting part time from 1998 to 2002 and then full time from 2003 to the present.

Almost all of the reactions I get are ‘That’s fantastic for you’ and they get that envious look in their eye. But they become baffled when I tell them it’s truly a two edged sword.

They all day dream of waking up, avoiding the long drives to the office and working in their PJ’s. Yes, it’s true you can work in your PJ’s and allow your personal hygiene to slip for as long as you want and spend no money on gas.

On the other hand, there is the total isolation. You only communicate with another human being when your on the phone or via the already impersonal means of instant messaging. You can never truly judge the other persons reaction through all of this.

Not to mention you really have no friends through all of this. Sure, you may have one or two people you work with that you develop a rapport with and can talk more candidly with, but when your entire strata of work relationships is scattered across the eastern seaboard, your opportunity for developing a true camaraderie is slim if at all. You can’t just strike a talk about the game passing in the hall for thirty seconds. Meeting for lunch and after work for drinks or maybe the Monday Night Football game are gone.

And, as much as everyone says they would love the isolation, (like marriage) that honeymoon feeling fades and you settle into a grind that is much easier to get through when you have other people around for the simple recognition that you are a good person no matter how hard the corporate grist mill grinds because no one passes by your cubby on the way to the water cooler to recognize your new hair or how much weight you lost or how well you handled that jerk in accounting.

Then, there is the work environment. You have to own a home thats conducive with residents that are cooperative with working at home. Working at the dining room table while the wife or kids or noisy large dogs or lawn mowers are going is not the best way to focus on what you’re doing and produce for the team. Trying to use a master bedroom when a mate wants to sleep or watch tv or have that discussion you’ve been putting off doesn’t fly either.

Then there is mental self discipline. You need the self discipline to ensure that you stay focused on your work rather than doing all the chores in the house to avoid that project you so dread. And you also need the self discipline to tell yourself enough is enough, you’ve slaved from 8am to 11pm on nothing but coffee and chocolates for the past week and you need to walk away, take a break and visit the land of the living.

Here are some tips for telecommuting sanely and successfully:

  1. Have a room dedicated to use as an office, preferably with an insulated door and a normal interior door lock to isolate yourself from the live-at-home distractions who invariably believe that if you’re at home, your free whenever they are. If it has a limited number of windows, all the better for noise dampening in the suburban setting when the lawn warriors are out in force and it sounds like the deck of an aircraft carrier.

  2. Set a schedule and try to keep to it as best you can. Start and end your day at a given time each day. And for heavens sake include a lunch break in your schedule. Just because you’re working at home doesn’t mean you have to be inhuman. A little break from work is a good thing. It allows you to regroup and finish out the day more refreshed. Healthy alternatives like exercise will definitely generate endorphins to combat cabin-fever. Or meet a friend for lunch. Or run a few errands. Or satisfy some self serving whimsy, just take that break.

  3. Avoid distractions in the schedule. Don’t think you’ll be able to concentrate on leading a conference call while sorting the laundry, doing the dishes, starting the roast, scrubbing the bathroom and cleaning the pool all at once. The distractions will take away from your ability to focus on the quality of your work. Try to limit all non-work related activities to non-work hours or at least to times of work when there is little or no demand for your attention. Additionally, don’t get caught in the middle of something you can’t stop easily if the boss calls and needs your undivided attention.

  4. Get the cooperation of those you live with. When you first start telecommuting, those immediately around you will have to be trained that just because you are at home does not mean you have all the time in the world to get things done for them. Getting a honeydew list from the spouse with a ‘before I get home’ deadline doesn’t fly. Things will have to wait until the work day is done. You’re time is supposed to be dedicated to working. On the other hand, using that ‘commute time’ that got freed up to contribute before and after your working hours will win kudos with the significant other.

  5. Telecommuting (aka virtual office) implies you will be using a few technology solutions. This post won’t discuss details. From my personal experience, keep it as simple and flexible as possible. I’ll cover more details in the future.

As for the conversation with those that ask about the two-edged sword of telecommuting, it’s up to you whether you decide to gloat or put a picture of reality out there for them. So for those exploring, consider the possibilities. For those with no choice, take heed. There will be more to come.