Saturday 18 April 2020

Using secondhand VoIP phones

As part of our work to support the local Covid-19 support group we are lending VoIP phone handsets to some of the organisers. The handsets are programmed to use the special range of distinctive numbers allocated by us to the team. To ensure good quality voice on the phone we are using Polycom desktop handsets, these are business quality devices designed for office use.  Once programmed by us, it should be just a matter of plugging the devices into the the RJ45 LAN outlet on the broadband router in the home and, after power is supplied, the devices automatically connected to the Sipgate service. The organiser team then obtain the full facilities of a distributed office PABX in their own home. It also protects the personal phone numbers of the organisers from general public exposure. There always are some weirdo's who would want to exploit personal phone numbers.

When purchased new, these handset have a price of circa £75 - £100 as they have quite powerful micro computers embedded in the device. In order to keep costs down we've purchased secondhand units from Ebay. These are fully functional older units no longer required by businesses, but look like new devices. They cost less than £20 to purchase including delivery.  The particular model we are purchasing have dual power options. You can either buyer dedicated mains power supply units delivering 24V, or they can use PoE (Power over Ethernet cable) which has power delivered via the network cable. The PoE option greatly tidies the cabling associated with using the phone, all that is needed is a single CAT5e network cable plus, in the home environment, a power injector unit close to the Broadband Router.

When used in conjunction with the Sipgate web browser interface you get "click and call" facilities from the VoIP phone with no need to dial the phone number via the handset keypad. You just click on the number and your handset rings. As soon as you pick up the phone handset, or press the speakerphone button, Sipgate will connect the call.

Well, that's all of the theory, now for the practice. When we received the secondhand devices, we found the units still had their programming from their previous owners. Some the previous programming was quite specialised. Normal configuration programming by us did not allow the phones to function correctly and connect to Sipgate. After a lot of research, we realised we had to completely wipe the memory on the phones, not just a standard "factory reset", we had to reformat the memory using a well hidden function on the phones. We then set up a FTP software server to hold the appropriate historic version of the software and basic configuration files. We were able to track the software and files down on the Polycom support website. It took quite a lot of Google research and the downloading of multipage administrator manual pdf files. Normally telecoms engineers go on training courses to learn these processes, we didn't have that luxury and spent about five hours hard work and experimentation to getting it done. Now the phone automatically visit the servers via the Internet, to pick up the latest configuration when they are powered up or restarted.

However once we'd "cleaned" the handset memory and reloaded the phones with new copies of the software they work just fine. Now that we understand the process, it is quick and easy to remotely program the handsets. It was time well spent. We're about to handover the devices to the volunteers, plus network cables and power units, all suitably sterilized with isopropyl-alcohol wipedown and exposure to UV-C disinfection lamp. 

We already use VoIP phones in the holiday cottage, but there we'd installed a brand new handset so we didn't have any configuration problems.

Edit: 21st April 2020
The only remaining problem is get the recipients of these VoIP handset to plug them in and to use them  So far the reprogrammed handsets have not been connected following delivery. There are no reported problems.

Edit: 26th April
The recipients of the VoIP phone have called in an engineer to sort out network problems in their own home.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Doing our bit for Wirksworth

We don't live in Wirksworth, but we do own a holiday cottage here, so we do feel some sense of community with the people whose homes are in the town. We live just eight miles down the road in Belper.  To keep in touch with what's happening I keep an eye on the main Wirksworth Facebook group. I noticed a local group had formed to coordinate volunteers to help others during the Covid-19 outbreak. They were looking for people to help with their phone communications. By sheer luck I've a lot of experience of setting up Information Technology Infrastructure for large organisations around the globe. Part of that work used to involve supervising the provision of office phone systems, so while I'm not a telecoms engineer I do have some depth of understanding of the capabilities of the technology. I've also set up telephone systems for my own company during major projects.

Over in Belper, a couple of weeks previously, I'd helped the local Covid-19 Mutual Aid Group by setting up a phone system complete with voicemail for them, including a distinctive easily remembered contact phone number I'd acquired a couple of years ago for the cottage.  The system made life a lot easier for the Belper organisers who had previously struggled with just three mobile phones.

I made contact with the organisers of the Wirksworth Group, and after some discussion about their requirements set up a similar phone system for the team. It provides seven phone lines, each with distinctive phone numbers, a central help line (01629 888112), a voicemail system and the ability to redirect calls at a moment's notice. The whole process took just a few days to become operational, including me giving some training sessions by video conference. It is relatively low cost and can be easily expanded or contracted at short notice. Their system is based around Sipgate.

Monday 13 April 2020

UV-C Sterilising Holiday Cottage

Our rental holiday cottage is closed at the moment due to the Government legislation to reduce the spread of Covid-19 infection. So no bookings are being accepted by Sykes. We've been planning for when bookings are once again allowed. Holiday makers will no doubt be nervous about using premises that will have been used by strangers just a few hours before. We'll be planning on having a minimum of a one day gap between bookings. This will give us the chance to give the property a good wipe down with  good disinfectants. We're also purchasing an Ultraviolet lamp (UV-C) to help sanitise the property. 

We've had one on order from China for some weeks now and a package arrived a few days ago. Unfortunately they sent the wrong device, a small USB 5 watt lamp, which is not suitable for sterilizing rooms. We've reordered an even more powerful lamp. This one will be 60w and should be able to treat each room in less than an hour, though we'll need to ventilate the rooms for a few hours to vent the ozone produced by the lamp.  We've already purchased some UV-C safety goggles as this light can severely damage unprotected eyes.

Edit: 26 April 2020

The re-ordered bulb has arrived and is undergoing trials (it turns out to be a fake, see below). It has multiple small UV-C LED chips on it's surface giving a total of 60W (230 VAC) of light.The cost including shipping was less than £30. In terms of electric lighting it is very bright and powerful, given that normally we might have only 4 x 5 watt LED bulbs lighting a room. The UV-C lamp we've obtained has a remote control switch which makes it a lot easier to use safely, but we always wear protective goggles if power is connected to the unit even if the lamp itself is "switched off".  It is a very easy way to sterilise keyboards and mobile phones without causing damage.

Combining UV-C lamp with wiping down key surfaces with disinfectant, we should be able to make our cottage safe for new guests within a couple of hours. According to the manual it only needs 15 minutes exposure in a room, but we take 2 or 3 sessions with the lamp located in different positions to avoid shadows.

Edit: 20 May 2020

It turns out the 60W UV-C light is a fake and produces no UV-C light. The classic Chinese supplier using Ebay to distribute goods. We're still investigating, so more on this later.

Edit 26 June 2020

We found a genuine UV-C lamp with a UK supplier. Details here.

Edit 6th July 2020
We now have a proper UV-C meter to check exposure levels. Details here.

Edit 25th July 2020
We've located and ordered some UV-C dosimeter labels to help us check the correct ultraviolet treatment has been delivered to the rooms.