The Case for the Home PBX
I run a PBX at home.
I acknowledge that’s not normal – PBXs, or private branch exchanges, are normally associated with enterprises, and they enable users with extensions to call each other, and to call the outside world. They power the interactive voice recordings you know (and likely hate) when you call a large company (like “press 1 for sales”).
Yes, I have a landline in 2021.
But, if you’ll give me a moment, I think I can convince you it’s a good idea (or at least, not as outlandish as you probably think).
But Seriously, Why A Landline in 2021?
This is a valid point – many of us already have phones in our pockets that travel around with us. Why would I, or any reasonable person, want a landline?
The reality is our phones, for many of us, aren’t phones. They’re mini computers running dozens of apps constantly vying for our attention. Between email, Slack, Twitter, Discord, and [new app here], our phones most often notify us of things other than calls.
That can get irritating, especially when we’re out and about or around others. So, if you’re like me, I suspect your phone is on vibrate, and has stayed that way since the first time you turned it on. This means our phones don’t actually ring. Additionally, many of us (like both myself and my husband) rely on do-not-disturb to silence the phone completely while we’re working.
That’s how this all started for us. My husband doesn’t always keep his phone at his desk, meaning that when I call, sometimes there’s a faint noise… in a room where he isn’t. Or he’ll forget to turn off do not disturb. Or something else.
I wanted a reliable way to reach him in the event of an emergency (or if I went out to walk the dog and forgot my keys and he was working upstairs with headphones). We agreed having a house phone, or a thing that only handled calls — and would ring — would be a good idea.
But then we ran into the problem with phones – they ring.
Are You Sure You Don’t Need A New Car Warranty?
Although we wanted something that could ring if we needed to get each other’s attention, we didn’t want telemarketers buzzing the house every night (and, if my own Google Call Screening is any indication, there are a lot of people who want to sell you an extended vehicle warranty).
We considered using whitelisting, or only allowing the phone to ring when one of us called it, but that had its own problems. If it was for emergencies, maybe one of our phones was out, and we were using a friend’s phone. Maybe we’d want to call for more than emergencies in some cases.
The good VoIP (internet phone) providers have offerings that have robust anti-SPAM measures, and a lot of customizability. For a while, that looked like the best option. Then we discovered problem number two.
VoIP (SIP) Phones Aren’t Exactly Like Normal Phones
Our house is old, and we don’t trust the phone lines in the walls, so we decided we’d use SIP phones to go with our VoIP service (SIP is the protocol used by most VoIP providers). These phones would connect directly to the ethernet jacks we have in every room (which we installed). But SIP phones work a bit differently.
On a normal phone, all phones in the house are the same line, and are connected. This means that if one phone is active on a call, picking up another phone will add the second phone to the call. For us, that was desirable – I wanted to be able to pick up a phone at my desk, shout “it’s for you,” and let my husband pick up his phone.
But you can’t do that on a SIP phone – once you answer, a connection is established to that specific phone. This has some benefits: It’s possible for multiple phones to be in use on different calls, even with a single line. At the same time, that means if you answer in the bedroom, you’re having that call in the bedroom, or you’re hanging up and redialing.
And we didn’t want to take long calls in the bedroom.
Enter the PBX
We needed a system that could block telemarketers, and we also wanted the ability to transfer calls within the house. We were fine with it running over the internet (we were planning on doing that anyway)… so why not use a PBX?
The PBX gives you all the things you’d expect from a business phone system. Want to transfer a call? Easy. The phones all have extensions, so tap the transfer button and another phone will ring. You can even use the phones like intercoms to call other locations in the house. You can have custom hold music. You can also block telemarketers, without blocking your friends.
Telemarketers use automated dialers – you may have noticed this if you got a voicemail where it sounds like the automated voice started talking when your voicemail picked up, and not when they heard the beep. Those dialers aren’t very smart. So while we don’t need “press 1 for sales,” we can have a “press 7 to ring the house.”
And we’ve received 0 spam calls.
Not to mention the cost of running a PBX is dirt cheap. Large business providers like Twilio and Telnyx are happy to sell you “SIP trunking” services by the minute, instead of a monthly plan. We pay $1/mo for the number, $1/mo for the E911 service, and then $0.005/min. And that’s it. If we don’t use our phones, we pay about $2 a month. We can have unlimited simultaneous inbound and outbound calls, no second line required.
Note: You can actually do this if you don’t use a PBX. There are providers like Voip.ms that do per-minute billing and you can connect SIP phones directly to them.
Give it a Go
If you’re curious how all this works, and are interested in maybe setting it up for yourself, it’s not too bad. You’ll likely chose between one of the big free PBX tools: Asterisk - the class open-source PBX (use this if you’re comfortable editing text-based configuration files), FreePBX (which is a graphical frontend for Asterisk) and 3CX (a commercial product that offers a free tier if you run it yourself, and is likely the easiest to setup).
Redhat’s blog has a great series on setting up Asterisk, and there are additional resources for it like the ArchWiki. 3CX offers a general tutorial to get their software setup on a new machine, like a Raspberry Pi. Many providers like Twilio, Telnyx, and Voip.ms have guides for the various PBX software. You have options!
Addendum: A Note About Call Security
I’m thinking about writing a more detailed setup guide, but just in case I don’t, I have a small warning here.
SIP, the VoIP protocol, is old. Really old – it was standardized in 1999. That was before encryption was common online. While you can encrypt your calls, it’s technically optional, and many providers don’t offer call encryption.
Now, this might not bother you – your email isn’t encrypted, after all, so maybe you don’t care if your calls are (or aren’t). And your calls on the old copper network aren’t encrypted either. If you forgo encryption, your setup will be much easier, and you can use quite a few more providers.
But tapping your calls on the copper network historically required someone to be physically nearby. Tapping an internet phone call is considerably easier, and can be done from anywhere.
Not to mention, if your calls aren’t encrypted, your login between your PBX and the provider isn’t encrypted either – meaning, depending on how your account is setup (if you’re only using password-based authentication instead of IP-based authentication), someone who really wanted to could potentially place calls as you, and run up your bill.
All this is to say, if you’re like me and you’re paranoid about security, choose a provider that offers TLS connections – the ones I’ve mentioned in this article (Twilio, Telnyx, and Voip.ms) all do, and provide instructions on setting them up for the various software PBXs. If you use 3CX, it will even automate much of the process by getting an encryption certificate for you (though their encryption implementation only seems to work with Telnyx).
This is the downside of doing your own enterprise phone setup – it’s a project, and it’s one that may require a bit of research and tweaking for your needs. For many people, that might be OK, but it is something you’ll need to spend a weekend working on to get the setup the way you want it.
All that said, I think it’s well worth the effort to have real phones, a reliable way to reach my partner, and to never have spam calls. While it’s doesn’t get the same amount of use as our cell phones, that landline is not as useless as you might think!
The image used with this post was taken by Ian Sterling, and is used under a Creative Commons license.