Monday, August 27, 2007

Internet Telephony with Skype, VoSKY IPW, and a Cordless Phone

I was moving to a new place. I wanted to see if I could use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as my only phone, instead of paying to install and run a land line or buying mobile phone service. I didn't use the phone that much these days -- I was supposedly busy studying in grad school -- so all I needed was basic functionality. The place I was moving to, like the place I was moving from, had broadband Internet access, so it seemed like the basic potential was there. A month or so before the move, I began to take steps to put a VoIP setup in place. I cannot document all of those steps because some predate this writing. I will try, however, to describe the ones I remember. After doing that, we will be caught up, and I will continue describing the VoIP transition process in more detail. My first steps involved hardware. My first installation would be on my laptop, which was ready and waiting for software and hardware installation. I would also install software and hardware later on the desktop machine, and that would ultimately be the machine through which I would do most of my phone calling. I had headphones with a microphone, though at the beginning they were in storage and I would not be using them until later. I also had a cordless phone, which was the device I wanted to use for most of my phone calling. That way, I could roam around the apartment and do other things while continuing in the occasional long phone conversation. It was apparently possible to connect your traditional phone, cordless or otherwise, to the computer, so as to use VoIP. All you needed was a VoIP phone adapter device. After shopping around, I decided to get the Actiontec VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard. This device was affordable and had relatively good reviews. It arrived, and I installed it on my laptop as instructed. Unfortunately -- and this is the point at which we are up-to-date in this account, so I can begin blow-by-blow descriptions of my efforts -- it was not an easy matter to get it up and running on the laptop. But before describing what was happening at that point, I will mention that the VoSKY is designed specifically for use with Skype, a popular provider of VoIP services. VoIP itself is free, and there are a number of freeware programs that you can use to get you going. I chose Skype because it offered the things I needed in my particular situation. Getting those things was a bit confusing, though. As it turned out, I needed to spend almost $100 per year for my "free" Internet telephony. That's because I had to buy SkypeIn, so that I would have a telephone number that people could call, and SkypeOut, so that I could make unlimited and otherwise free phone calls anywhere in the U.S. and Canada (with low rates for calls to the rest of the world), and Skype Pro, which basically reduced the cost of SkypeIn and gave me voice mail and some other features. It took a fair amount of time to figure this all out and make it happen. Skype did not provide a single webpage that explained all of its services, and did not allow me to buy all of my needed services at once. Instead, in what felt like a confusing, nickel-and-diming approach, I had to purchase each service separately, going through the credit card process three times. It was a little irritating. With that in place, though, and with the VoSKY installed, I was ready to begin VoIP. Problem: I got an error message that said, "VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard application was unable to communicate with the VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard device." They told me to reboot and try again, which I did. Then, after some additional screwing around, I came across a VoSKY forum FAQ posting that said, "Can I unplug and replug Internet Phone Wizard into different USB ports on my computer? No. You must replug Internet Phone Wizard into the same USB port you used during installation. Or, you can reinstall Internet Phone Wizard on the new port." I couldn't remember which of the laptop's three USB ports I had used for the initial installation, and of course I wanted the option of using any of them, so I tried reinstalling. But when I inserted and ran the installation CD setup for that purpose, I got, "Are you sure you want to uninstall VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard?" So apparently what they meant was that I could use the VoSKY on any USB port, but only one -- and if I wanted to change the port, I had to uninstall and reinstall. Instead of doing that, I unplugged the VoSKY's USB cable from the first laptop port and tried it in the second one. Once again, I tried "Launch VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard" from the Start > Programs menu. Again, the "unable to communicate" message. I tried again on the third and last USB port. This time, the computer popped up a "Found New Hardware" notice. I didn't know if this meant that I had had the VoSKY plugged into both the first and second USB ports previously, or if the system was just now waking up to the existence of the VoSKY, or what. But after the laptop did its little USB-recognition process, it asked me if I wanted to reboot so that the thing would work. So I did. On reboot, the Start menu icon couldn't find VoSKYApp.exe. I searched and found it in, of all places, a TMP folder. Of course, TMP folders are the first to be cleaned out by various kinds of Windows system cleaning programs. It spooked me, so I quit and thought about it. I realized, who knows, maybe this was part of a larger plan. But when I tried again, Windows offered to delete the shortcut, and I thought that was probably the wiser approach, so I said yes. So now I had to uninstall and reinstall VoSKY again. This time, I could tell the installation was different. It seemed like I went all the way to the end of the process. (Still no VoSKY icon in the system tray, though.) The program offered to check for updates, and it downloaded one. It was prepared to download another, an update for "VoSKY IPW," but it said I had to uninstall the previous one. So I went ahead with the download, then the uninstallation of the old, then the installation of the new. Unfortunately, it still didn't work. At this point, some time passed. I had to deal with some other, more pressing problems with my system. I switched from the laptop, where I was not getting VoSKY to work, and tried installing it on the desktop instead. There, I thought I had installed the latest version of the VoSKY IPW software, but during installation I got a message indicating that there was a more recent version, and that I would have to uninstall the old before installing the new. So, OK, I downloaded the new. But when I tried to uninstall the old (using either Add or Remover Programs or the supplied uninstall link), I got an error message as follows:

VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard >SetupDLL\SetupDLL.cpp (462) PAPP:VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard PVENDOR:Actiontec ( PGUID:57FEC470-439D-48F8-A024-0B4DF3D8B545 $ @Windows XP Service Pack 2 (2600) BT_OTHER 0.64
When I clicked OK on that, I got another message:
InstallShield Wizard Setup has experienced an error. Please do the following: - Close any running programs - Empty your temporary folder - Check your Internet connection (Internet-based Setups) Then try to run the Setup again. Error code: -5001
I got the same error message even if I tried to install in Safe Mode, so I didn't think active programs were interfering with installation. I was installing from a downloaded file, not through an Internet connection, so that didn't appear to be the problem either. And I had emptied my TEMP files. So I took a look at the VoSKY IPW forum. Already, frankly, I was sorry I had bought the product, and sorry, too, that by now 30 days had passed, so I could no longer return it to Newegg for a refund. I wanted this product to help me become more efficient, not to spend valuable hours on what might be a futile effort to make it work. I was willing to settle for the older version that I had already installed on the desktop computer, but I was not sure if that was an option. Each time I tried to start it, I got a message indicating that a newer version was available, along with a message as follows:
VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard application was unable to communicate with the VoSKY Internet Phone Wizard device.
Then I remembered that I had unplugged the USB cord when trying to uninstall. So I plugged that back in and tried again. And, well, oops, but that took care of the error message. I still got the invitation to download the latest version, but I ignored that. We were talking, after all, about the difference between versions (installed) and (available). Uninstallation and reinstallation seemed unnecessary. So now I had a dialog whose tabs were About (telling me the version) and Option (offering "Smart" dialing). I clicked OK in the About tab. Nothing happened. Did this mean I was connected? I picked up my cordless phone. A dial tone! Also, the "Internet Call" light (and not the "Regular Call" light on front of the IPW was lit. Using the phone, I dialed the number for the landline in the place where I was living, starting with the area code, but the landline didn't ring. (I had another phone connected to the land line, but not the cordless phone from which I was trying to make this call.) I tried again, starting with 1 before the area code (because the SkypeIn phone number I had selected was in another area code), but that gave me a busy signal too. Same thing when I tried dialing 800-555-1212 or 1-800-555-1212. What seemed to be the main Skype program window had opened up. I clicked Help > Getting Started. This gave me a Getting Started wizard, or whatever you would call it. I started through its steps. It told me to go to Contacts > Skype Test Call. But I didn't have a Skype Test Call contact in my Contacts tab. I tried dialing 800-555-1212 in the provided space in the "Call Phones" tab. That gave me an error message, "Skype Cannot Hear You Talking." I tried searching for "Test Call" in the SkypeFind tab. That gave me an error message, "The service you are requesting is temporarily unavailable. Please try again in a few moments." In the Skype program window, I clicked on Help > Contact Customer Support. This gave me a Contact Customer Support webpage. There, I went to the Knowledgebase and searched for "Test Call." This gave me 40 or 50 items, but none appeared to be specifically on the topic of test calls. Apparently the Knowledgebase was pulling up all items containing either of those two words. So I searched for just Test. No luck there, either. I went to the Troubleshooter webpage. This started with four options, none of which applied to me. Going to the next item on the list of help options, there on the Getting Help webpage, I came to the User Guides. I chose the Make a Skype Call guide. It seemed to indicate that anyone I wanted to call had to appear on the Contacts tab in the Skype program window. I didn't have any Contacts at present. So I tried to add my landline. This opened the Add a Contact dialog, where I was invited to add people who use Skype. My landline did not use Skype. So evidently I still had the wrong concept. But then I noticed this window had the option to "Add an ordinary phone numbers as a SkypeOut contact." I tried that. Now I had my land line as a Contact. I clicked on the green button to dial it. It said it was Connecting. It rang. But I didn't hear anything in the cordless phone. We were getting closer, though. I could feel it. I went back to the Troubleshooter and chose the third of its four options, "My mic is not working, no one can hear me." The Troubleshooter pointed me, first, toward the Sound Setup Guide. Using that, I clicked to call the Testing Robot, identified as echo123 (though I wasn't sure what that meant). When I did that, I got a dialog box reading as follows:
External Protocol Request An external application must be launched to handle callto: links. Requested link: callto://echo123 Application: Skype. Take a deep breath If you were not expecting this request it may be an attempt to exploit a weakness in that other program. Cancel this request unless you are sure it is not malicious.
I was sure I was not malicious, so I said "Launch application." It seemed to dial. I noticed that, when it started to dial, it would give a short ring on the cordless phone, prompting me to pick it up and prepare to speak. This seemed like a nice feature. But I didn't get any further than that. The calling window said, "Skype cannot hear you talking. Click here to select correct Microphone and speaker." This made me realize that it was looking for a microphone plugged directly into the computer, which I did not have. So now the question was, how do I make it work with a cordless phone? This seemed to be the purpose of the VoSKY, which was doing its job insofar as there was obviously some kind of working link between the cordless phone and the computer; but something was still lacking. It seemed that I needed info from VoSKY, not from Skype. I started back at VoSKY's FAQs page. One FAQ that caught my eye was the one about how I had to plug the IPW into the same USB port each time. On the desktop machine, I had plugged it into a hub, not directly into the computer. I wondered how this rule would work on a hub. So I unplugged it from one port (which I would not have used, if I had remembered this rule, because this was the most conveniently accessible port and was therefore the one I kept open for flash drives) and plugged into another port on the hub. This, it seemed, might not work: the system immediately started going through its "Found New Hardware" routine, and concluded by informing me that my new hardware might not work until I rebooted. But then it did seem that I had achieved the same level of dysfunctionality as before, despite the new port: the cordless phone did ring when the call to the Test Robot started, and the call ended on the screen when I hung up the cordless phone. So it did seem that I might have latitude to unplug and replug in different ports on the hub, at least. So the Ready light on the IPW was lit. According to the FAQs, this meant I had a successful connection. I went on down through the FAQs until I came to this one:
When I make a phone call I cannot hear the other party. Make sure the Internet Phone Wizard's sound card is set to an appropriate volume level. Go to Start -> Settings (2k or XP Classic Mode) -> Control Panel -> Sounds and Multimedia (2k) or Sounds and Audio Devices (XP) -> Audio -> Sound Playback* ->Volume. *When adjusting the volume, make sure the Preferred Device in the Sound Playback tab is either USB Audio Device or Actiontec Internet Phone Wizard. When you have finished adjusting the volume for this device, change your Preferred Device back to the default Windows sound device.
That asterisk looked like it might be the issue. My default sound device was Realtek HD Audio output. I didn't have USB Audio Device as an option, so I switched to VoSKY IPW and clicked Apply. It still wasn't working, so I turned up the volume control all the way and tried again. This time, I made a connection with the Test Robot. I realized that I might have done so before, but I was listening in the wrong place. Instead of hearing her on the cordless phone, the sound really came blasting out of my headphones, which were connected to the computer. So the VoSKY wasn't directing the audio through the cordless phone instead of the headphones and nonexistent computer microphone. I saw that there were some complaints on the VoSKY forums -- which I thought was pretty cool. It seemed to me that a company that was open and honest about criticism must be trying to make things better. I was also impressed by some of the postings from Charles, who appeared to be an Actiontec VoSKY programmer who was trying hard to update drivers and so forth. Now the trick was just for me to figure out whether Charles or someone had already solved my problem, or how I should proceed. Well, if all else fails, RTFM. It seemed I had exhausted the available online sources and would therefore have to resort to paper, or what would have been paper if the manual didn't exist in PDF format. To call a regular telephone using SkypeOut, the manual said that you could call a domestic SkypeOut number by dialing 0 + Area Code + number. I hadn't tried that. But this didn't explain why I had succeeded by dialing 1 + Area Code + number -- had succeeded, that is, to the point of making the landline ring when I dialed it. Anyway, when I tried editing the SkypeOut Contact for my landline, by right-clicking on it, so that it began with a zero rather than a one, the "OK" button went grey and did not become functional again until I replaced the zero with a one. It also remained functional when I removed both the zero and the one and just used the area code plus number. But when I saved it that way, the program told me that my landline was now in Japan. So I changed it back to 1 + Area Code + number. That was all TFM had to say on the subject. So, there was no joy in paper. I saw that the Skype Getting Started wizard was still up, so I went a bit further in it. It didn't offer any troubleshooting suggestions, so after advancing another step or two in it, I went back to the VoSKY tech support pages for more ideas. I was going to post a question in the forum, but it told me my account was inactive and that I had to talk to the administrator. So I included that new issue with my main question about making the thing work, in an e-mail to, as indicated on their contacts page. I tried to call them, but they were requesting that I enter a code, and I had no idea what that was about. So that was a third question to include in my e-mail. I wasn't actually sure whether to send it to the address just shown or, instead, via their Technical Support Request Form, but I decided to err on the formal side and used the latter. Here's what I wrote:
I have three problems: 1. When I tried to call you at the phone number indicated on your webpage, I received a recording instructing me to enter a code. Please tell me what code I should enter. 2. When I tried to post my question in your forum, I got a message indicating that my account was inactive and that I should contact the administrator. It is a brand-new account. Kindly tell me how to rectify that problem. 3. The substantive issue: Setup: I have a regular phone connected only to the IPW (i.e., not to a landline). The computer has headphones but no speakers or microphone. The Ready light is on, on the IPW. I dial a Contact in the Skype window. The Contact that I am dialing is a separate phone, connected to the landline in my apartment. The IPW-connected phone rings, indicating (I think) that a call has commenced. The landline rings. I pick up the landline phone. I have audio working only from the receiving phone (i.e., the landline) to the computer headphones (that is, not to the actual IPW phone). In other words, if I speak into the landline phone, I can hear my voice on the computer headphones, but not on the IPW phone. I am basically getting Skype service, but nothing from the IPW. Thanks for your help.
The VoSKY people got right back to me. They weren't going to waste words. They got right to the point:
The IPW allows you to use an analog phone opposed to the computer speakers and microphone. It will not support both at the same time.
This called for a response:
This is my second attempt to obtain answers to the following questions. You did reply once, but your reply did not answer any of these three questions: [Three questions, and VoSKY's reply, repeated from above.] I appreciate that reply, but I do not know how to make the phone work instead of the computer speakers or headphones. And I would still appreciate an answer to the two other questions.
* * * * * Some weeks passed after that posting. Unfortunately, I did not keep notes during that time, and therefore cannot explain exactly how I managed to get the VoSKY working. But I did. I was now on to a new problem. I found that Skype's quality was pretty poor. I could not conduct a single conversation without dropped connections and breakups in phone conversations. The system also seemed to display too much sensitivity to noise on my end. If I made even a small noise, the system would assume I was talking, and would mute anything that the other person might have been saying. Skype was not entirely useless. I could carry on some conversations with it. I also thought I might learn some new tricks, if I had time to research it more carefully, and might thus overcome these problems. I also thought it might make sense to acquire a TracPhone or some other pay-as-you-go cellphone, to use in emergencies and so forth, while continuing to rely on Skype to the extent possible. This plan threatened to increase the overall cost of the Skype solution. My investment thus far included about $100 for Skype (including a SkypeIn phone number) and $45 for the VoSKY, and I did not yet have reliable, acceptable telephone service. A regular land line or cell phone would have cost me at least $35-50 per month. So we weren't at that stage yet. But we were getting closer, pricewise, and of course a land line would have offered the advantages of call quality and emergency dialup Internet access, and a cell phone would be mobile. So I was becoming less happy with the Skype option. Then Skype stopped working. It wasn't my phone. I had two separate phones on the line from the VoSKY, and whereas both of them had been working two days earlier, now neither of them was. The VoSKY was still showing one green light, "Ready," but its "Regular Call" and "Internet Call" lights remained dark. After about two days of being without phone service, I discovered that the problem was that my telephone cord was not staying firmly plugged into the VoSKY. Feeling a little foolish, I plugged it in, and now it worked. But it did not work better than before. There were still too many blackout periods, lasting from roughly two seconds to five or more, as well as outright lost connections. For example, I got disconnected four times while attempting to make a simple call to set up a doctor's appointment. It was not a useful option for me. I probably would have given up immediately -- would, indeed, never have fooled with Skype in the first place -- if the alternatives had been more appealing. But in addition to the cost factor just mentioned, there was also a quality issue. With cell phones in particular, I was reading that about half of all cell phone users were dissatisfied with their cell phones and/or their cellular service. Even though it seemed like everyone had a cell phone except me, I was not excited about bringing yet another source of hassle and frustration into my life. An acquaintance suggested trying Gizmo. The problem, there, was that I had invested in the VoSKY, which was designed to work specifically with Skype. I had done that because I wanted to be able to wander around the apartment and do mindless tasks while talking on the phone. The VoSKY theoretically made this possible with my old cordless phone. Without the VoSKY, I was tied to the computer. I did notice that Skype functioned better after hours. I noticed this, however, in connection with calls from a friend who also had MSN Messenger. Since MSN was free and offered good quality (and, to my knowledge, didn't work with the VoSKY), there seemed to be no reason to continue with my Skype setup. As I thought about this, however, I realized that both Skype and MSN were cutting out at times. I wondered whether the blame might be, not with Skype or the VoSKY, but rather with the wireless connection that my roommate had set up, or with the cable TV connection that linked us to the Internet. I wondered, that is, whether I would get better results, with Skype and the same hardware, if I were connecting through some other network. There was also the possibility that the problem was with my computer. My new system used an Intel Core 2 Duo E4300 processor. It was faster than the Pentium 4 I had been using previously. I also noticed, however, that sometimes it would hesitate when I was multitasking. Unlike the Pentium, it did not have hyperthreading. As described above, the laptop had not worked happily with the VoSKY; but I thought that perhaps I could test Skype using the headphones connected directly to the computer, as I had just been using them with MSN on the desktop machine. Alternately, I had recently decided to invest in a KVM switch and a backup computer. [add link] The parts for that machine would be arriving any day now. Even if I couldn't make it work with the laptop, which was very slow, I might have some luck with the secondary desktop machine. It was about midnight at this point, so I felt confident that I could call the local post office on a test call from the laptop, using the headphones (as distinct from the cordless phone and the VoSKY). I just wondered whether that call would drop out or act up in any particular way. But their number was evidently connected to a fax line. I called the 800 number for the Post Office, and there seemed to be no dropping out as I led the automated voice lady through a labyrinth of nonsensical answers to her perfectly reasonable questions. I did the same thing with Julie, the automated agent at the Amtrak 800 number. Their voices were compressed, and since I knew Julie's voice I could tell that the treble had been trimmed out, making it flatter; but there was definitely a solid connection. In subsequent weeks, using the VoSKY with the laptop, I experienced no problems of the kind that I had experienced with the desktop. Calls were of decent quality. They were not as good as with a land line, but the functionality of the cordless phone was otherwise about the same as it had been with a land line. This is not to say that I enjoyed all the benefits of a land line. First, I was not sufficiently confident of the technology to justify installing outlets around the house, and anyway I wasn't supposed to do that in the place I was renting. So I did not have the option of having phones anywhere other than the computer room. Even if I had installed the outlets, I would still have needed to go back to the computer room to dial (though not to pick up incoming calls, which I think would have rang on all phones). Dependence on the computer also meant there was no phone service when the computer was not up and running. Skype warns users not to rely upon their service for emergency calls. That made sense to me, both because of the dependence upon a running computer (would you want to boot it up during a fire in the middle of the night?) and because the computer could be in only one place (what if you were cornered somewhere else in your home?). So ultimately I went to Wal-Mart and bought