July 18th, 2003:

packet8 review

Update: Please read my second review made after having the service for about one month.

Now that I’ve got my packet8 phone fully functioning, I thought I’d give a review.

The call quality is excellent. The people that I’ve spoken to can’t tell that I’m on a IP based phone at all. While the call is in place, both Jess and I are able to use the Internet normally without any noticable degredation in call quality. My ears, apparently, are super sensitive, as I notice more LAG when I’m talking to someone. The amount of time between my questions and the person I am calling’s responses seems to be a little bigger. But, like I said, no one else noticed. At one point, during a call, I decided to upload a large file to an internet server. Because I have a 128kbps upload cap, my upload maxxed it out. When this happened, I was able to hear the person I was talking to perfectly. However, my words were garbled and could not be understood. More upstream bandwidth would certainly solve this problem. However, in a world where that can’t be changed, the best option is to ensure that no large uploads or downloads take place while you’re on the phone. Geekier users might find a way to devote bandwidth to the phone while it is in use. I believe it supports QoS which means, if your router understands this, it would handle packet prioritization on its own.

The service comes with a DTA310. This is a small box that you hook up to a phone on one end, and your internet router on the other. It handles all of the translation making it possible to use a standard telephone with the service. The box has a web interface, however, there is very little information on the web about this item, and it came without a manual, so most of the options there are useless since there are no instructions to help you configure them.

An email to their tech support confirmed that you cannot use a softphone with their service. I’m not sure if there is special code in the DTA310 that allows the service to be used, or if it IS possible to use a softphone as long as you know the proper configuration. Either way, my attempts at using it with a softphone have failed.

The phone comes with an unpublished SIP address as well. It is your phone nu,ber (including a 1 at the beginning) This should allow other softphones to reach you without travelling over the PSTN.

The phone supports multiple CODECS, however, G723 is the default. Most softphones don’t support G723 (due to patent issues, I believe) which makes it more difficult to contact via softphone. The CODEC can be changed via the web interface, however, I haven’t tested doing so. I read somewhere online that changing the CODEC makes it impossible to receive calls. Again, I haven’t tested this, so I don’t know for sure.

It works mostly like a regular phone. I pick up the handset, and I hear a dial tone (simulated, of course). If I have voicemail waiting, the dialtone is stuttered, as it would be on a conventional phone. The DTA310 is also capable of activating the MWIL (Message Waiting Indicator Light) on my phone to that I also get a pretty blinky light when I have a message waiting. No one has left me a voicemail, so I don’t know if this works or not. But supposedly it does.

When dialing phone numbers, 11 digits must be dialed (with the exception of a few internal numbers not useful for normal calling). This means you must dial a 1 plus the area code, plus the phone number in order to make any call.

Called ID is supported. However, only the number is sent… no name. Additionally, the Caller ID sends a “1″ in front of the number, therefore causing most Caller ID displays to believe that is the first digit in the area code and, also, causing the Caller ID display to drop off the last digit of the number. I’ve emailed tech support about this and, supposedly, a fix is on the way.

Call waiting is not supported, but supposedly, that is coming as well.

The box can be moved to ANY internet location ANY where in the WORLD and it wll function properly. This means that, when I travel, if I take the DTA310 and a phone with me and I have internet connectivity, I can make calls for free all day long and I can still receive calls as though I were at home. I haven’t tested this either.

The account comes with voicemail. It seems to work okay. But, as I said, no one’s left me a voicemail yet, so I’m not sure.

You can’t dial 911. If that’s important to you, you’ll want to keep a cell phone or a regular landline phone lying around for those purposes.

Supposedly, more than one DTA310 can be purchased and setup on the same number. This will allow one call to ring in multiple locations. Howver, once the call is answered, the other locations would be free to receive another call or place a call. Picking up another extention will not allow that phone to hear the call you are on.

Currently, only one phone number can ring each phone. However, packet8 supposedly plans to roll out a “Virtual Number” service which will allow you to purchase additional numbers in other area codes and have them point to your phone as well.

The DTA310 seems to do some sort of black magic. I found a Powerpoint presention online by its developers describing how it works, but, it is incomplete. Right when they are about to explain how the magic works, the document ends. Somehow, the DTA310 is able to inform my router that all packets bound for port 5060 (the standard SIP port) should be directed to it. As a test, I told my router to forward all packets destined for port 5060 to another IP address. When doing this the DTA310 takes about 10 times as long to boot, and, after it does, the phone gives a fast busy (indicating that it is broken) when you pick up the handset. I really wish I knew how this worked. Somehow, it’s getting around NAT and its not using an Outbound Proxy (as best as I can tell) as many other SIP providers do.

Whatever magic they are doing seems to work like TURN. Other SIP phones use similar technology. I can tell because, when trying to use them behind the same NAT firewall as my DTA310, they don’t work. However, once I change the SIP port for 5060 to anything else, they work just fine. I’ll have to read up more on this.

All in all, the service is good. Despite is downsides, for $20/mo I have a phone that works all over the US and Canada without any additional charges. I can make and receive calls with a minimum amount of effort, and it worked the first time without any complicated setup. If they manage to fix the few bugs I’ve found, and implement the features they are planning on adding, the service will be that much more valuable.

Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll keep researching.