Build a VOIP Phone System for $167.69 – VOIP on the Cheap


Telework (Photo credit: Peter Kaminski)

I’m a web guy for an an ecommerce company in Iowa, and we got hit by hurricane Sandy.  Not physically – but virtually.  The big storm that hit America’s East Coast also took out a huge part of our business in Iowa…How you ask?  Our phone system.

Our internet service is via a provider which supplies much of Iowa with service – netINS or Iowa Network Solutions (we go through a local co-op, but the main system comes from them).

We have a nice chunk of bandwidth and our phone system piggy backs on that.  We rent/lease our SIP from a bigger company who has been very reliable for in the past – pretty much since we started in 2005.  No problems – right?

Along comes Sandy.  The big storm clasted the East Coast and took out or provider’s data center, no warning – just gone.  We got the biggest trick or treat surprise ever – Boo! you have no phones.  After a couple hours of no phones – we needed a plan.  Plan A was to get us up with something – read that below.  But we needed to figure out how we could do VOIP on the cheap, and fast.

Phase 1 – SIP Down:

We needed to get back on the phones quick.  All the digital phone service was taken out – but, we did have 2 analog lines coming in the building.  We use one for a fax line and one for 911 service.

We hijacked the fax and routed it to the conference room, took a quick trip to the local Alco store we were in business.  We jumped on our website (US Cargo Control) and changed the phone number from our regular number to the local fax number…boo-ya, we were in business.  It wasn’t pretty, we could only handle one call at a time – but we were back.

Phase 2 – VOIP on the Cheap:

Plan A was good – but temporary and very clunky.  We knew we couldn’t keep this up for long – we could only have one caller at a time and it was not a toll free number.

The biggest issue is our primary provider had our numbers locked down with no way to port or forward them, heck – we couldn’t even get a hold of them.  We need a new, temporary toll free number.

We brainstormed and decided what we need is soft phones.  That’s a great solution – but how?  Could we use Skype?  After calling in a couple favors to some phone-smart friends, they gave us a lead on some solutions.

This would have probably been fine if you were a phone guru – but, we’re web guys.  Not really all that smart.  We’re 6 hours into the crisis at this point – and need a better solution quickly, but what – how?

Ironically – we had messed around with a web based phone system the week before.  From my developer channels there were rublings of Twilio in the past, Twilio is a company who help developers integrate phones into their apps.  It works very slick and they have a solid API and code to roll your own system…but we had never used it before.  They did have one more option, a tool they created called Open VBX and it comes as a prepacked website.  We had downloaded it and installed it…it was kind of primitive, but at the time – we did’t know if it would really work as a replacement.

We were in deep, no phone service for an ecommerce company is not good and the current provider was not communicating very well.  We had talked to them once – but they said “we’ll get you back online this afternoon.”  It was 2:00pm – there was no way they were getting us back up today.  We had to get more serious – we took a look at the Twilio stuff again, grabbed an API so we could make and receive calls via a phone number.  It worked, we could spool-up phone numbers, this would allow us to get a new toll free number on the site…one that would allow our customers to call us.

We needed some hardware…where else do you get emergency VOIP supplies – Wal-Mart.  We needed to get the CSR’s a way to answer the phones.  We’d be using browser based phones – so they would need headsets for the computer.  (We went with some Logitech – but these are similar on Amazon – affiliate link)  Most people has headphones, but they need mics to talk on the soft phone.  That was my big expense – early morning purchkase and we were set.

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t quick – but about an 1 hour of “testing” we had a working VOIP phone system.  If we would have figured out the softphone worked better in IE than Chrome sooner, it would have been much quicker.  We added everyone to the group, which would allow multiple calls to route though a path and we were set.  It was working – a VOIP on the cheap…$167.69 to be exact.  :)

All in all – it was a total of about 15 hours from nothing to functionality.  There was about 3-4 hours the week prior (this could have been done easily during the “crisis”).  Two hours to figure out how to get Twilio working and configured.  Another 2 hours to get all the people in the system and in their respective groups.  One hour to record all the different lines.  The Wal-Mart run was a total of about 2 hours – if you do this, don’t forget to grab some extension headphone cords, (here is a link to Amazon, much cheaper here than local) – affiliate link) -sometimes the headphone jacks on the computer is a long ways away for a comfortable seating position.  Then the hour or two it took to get everyone “trained” on the new system…which was mostly trial and error.

We ended up being on the budget system for about 5-7 hours.  It wasn’t perfect – but worked very well in a pinch.  We took about 125 calls and also rolled over some voicemails – well worth the $16.75 in Twilio fees.  $9.71 in phone charges, $6.00 for phone number monthly charges and $0.45 in transcription and SMS.  (Yes – the voicemails get transcribed.)

This was a weeks worth – I couldn’t get the daily to show me just that day.


The Open VBX is good – but out of the box its probably not a replacement for our current phone system – but it did work wonderful in a pinch.  It was truly a VOIP on the cheap.  To Open VBX’s credit, it was 15 hours from google search to phone calls, I’m not sure that would have happened with any other phone system.

At the end of the day – the money was well spent and if we would have been thinking, we should have done it on Wednesday.  Now we know and have a backup plan.

It would be nice if we could forward the current toll free numbers to these lines…then we’d be golden.  If you have a solution for that – let me know.

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