You can buy everything in the supermarket these days. Last night I was doing our grocery shopping in Tesco (I hate the fact that they make so much money, that they are alleged to be anti-competitive, that I find their customer service to be appalling, and that the shelves are half empty after the weekend, but for some reason I still shop there for the grocery items that we don’t buy locally – generally in person rather than online) and I came out with two Tesco Internet Phone voice over IP (VoIP) handsets…
…So there I was, back home, groceries packed away, with some new toys to play with. I’ve been avoiding VoIP up until now but the Tesco deal included two USB handsets and Â£10 of call credit for Â£30 (i.e. Â£20 net), with promises of 2p a minute call charges to fixed phone lines and selected international calls, free calls to other Tesco Internet Phone subscribers and just 10p a minute to mobile (cell) phones. I reckon that at those rates we ought to be able to save some money on our daytime calls (probably not in the evening though) and my wife should be able to call me for free, whenever I’m at my PC and connected to a broadband Internet connection (anywhere in the world). I’m sure Skype is just as competitive but I was put off Skype a few years back when I used it for instant messaging (in addition, SkypeIn and Skype Voicemail are subscription-based, whereas the Tesco Internet Phone offering includes a land line number and voicemail with no ongoing fees, just pay-as-you-go call charges).
Installation of the software was easy, although I found it strange that the phone software was downloaded from the Internet even when installation was launched from the setup CD. One minor complaint would be that I needed to change the capitalisation on the default foldername and program group names but apart from that I just needed to decide whether or not I wanted a desktop icon.
Upon launching the phone software, I needed to let my firewall unblock tescoip.exe but that was a simple click when prompted by the firewall software (the two PCs I used had either Windows Firewall or Zone Labs Integrity Client installed) and then (somewhat confusingly) register online (not as part of the setup wizard) to get a phone number and a password. Although the instructions had led me to believe that I would get a choice of numbers with a local area code based on the supplied post code, in practice it’s not quite that straightforward. Tesco don’t yet support multiple numbers on a single account, so I had two separate account registrations running in parallel to get consecutive numbers for myself and my wife. That worked but, for some strange reason, the process provides four-digit area codes (UK area code prefixes are generally 3 or 5 digits) and none of the towns local to me (Northampton, Wellingborough, Bedford or Milton Keynes) were offered. The closest I could get was Luton (normally 01582, but 0158 according to Tesco), which I believe is still classified as a local call from our area (Bedford – 01234), but not for my family and friends in Northampton (01604). Once the registration process was complete, the account required activation, using a link in an e-mail, following which I could finally complete the setup wizard and connect the USB handset.
Everything looked good until I made a test call between my two Tesco Internet Phone accounts and spent the next hour trying to work out why I could make a call and hear the phone ring, but then there was no-one there when I picked up the call. After playing with firewall settings on the client and my ADSL router (creating various rules to allow UDP port 4569), I found that the issue was much simpler than that – the setup routine had simply left the volume for the soft phone turned right down to zero! Once I had sorted that out, I successfully connected to the test line (*70001234) and set up my voicemail (*123) but was still having problems when I tried calling between my two Tesco Internet Phone accounts (the phone stopped ringing at the receiving end but was still ringing for the caller). That turned out to be a mismatch on my voicemail settings, where the delay before diverting is set both in the phone software and in my online account details.
The Tesco Internet Phone service is based on Firefly from Australian VoIP operator Freshtel (not to be confused with Firefly mobile). Using the system is relatively straightforward and calls can be made using either the soft phone on the PC or the USB handset. Status can be set (online, busy, away or invisible), notifications shown when contacts come online (as for many instant messaging clients) and contacts can be either other Tesco Internet Phone users (with status), or normal phone numbers (invisible status). The phone software itself is actually Virbiage Cubix, skinned to Tesco’s design and I’m sure there are other themes available as Virbiage have published a Cubix Skinning Guide.
From my point of view the jury’s still out on Tesco’s VoIP service. The installation routine could do with some work, the online help is patchy (at the time of writing) and the call quality seems a bit tinny (but that happens with cheap handsets on fixed phone lines too)… we’ll see how I get on over the next few weeks. Right now the first disappointment is that my Vodafone
mobile (cell) phones report connection errors when dialling my VoIP number (it works from a BT fixed line though).
For those who want to know a bit more about VoIP, the BBC has an article on making calls over the ‘net. For the more technically inclined, try the general VoIP information and reference. Finally, here’s the press release from last months launch of the Tesco Internet Phone service.