Earthquake Phones and Nerd Answering Machines

IMG_8773I live in earthquake territory, and we want as many phone options as we can in an emergency.  And yet the wired home phone seems like it’s useless – it’s become just a vehicle for sales calls. And yet my wife and I have elderly parents nearby….

About 4 months ago I set out to do something weirdly nerdy. I put free pbx software on a raspberry Pi (a very small, low-power-consuming computer), I removed all but 1 of our analog phones, purchased a device to connect my phone line to the pbx (Obihai obi110), and purchased 3 cisco IP phones. I put all this stuff together and after some frustration, the system works remarkably well. I  was able to eliminate some services from my local phone and we were able to eliminate the long distance carrier (ECG).

So the old solution was a telephone in every room, an answering machine in the laundry room, and local phone coverage from AT&T at $41.50/month with about $4/month for long distance from ECG.

The new solution is running freepbx (free) on a raspberry Pi (about $75 dollars including an SD memory card, case, and plug). An OBI110 ($47) from amazon, 2 cisco 303 phones ($77 each), and 1 cisco 301 phone ($52), a cisco 3102 ($58) voice gateway, and we kept the existing wireless telephone and base. I signed us up for an outgoing local and long distance VOIP carrier, Vitelity, which charged me $35 up front. We’ve been using about $1/month so that will last a while. When we could route outgoing calls away from the phone line, we could reduce the features on the home phone to just caller ID, eliminate local calling and eliminate our long distance carrier.

With the new PBX, I created an initial menu that asks you to press a number to pick the person you’re trying to reach.  Then, it will ring at our desks, and if we fail to pick up, it will ring the whole house and our individual cell phones.

The Good News:

  1. We have almost completely eliminated junk calls
  2. We each have voicemail at our desks and each voicemail is emailed to us
  3. The system is very flexible


  1. The raspberry Pi crashed and didn’t have an effective backup strategy (the SD card failed), and it took a few weeks of going back to an answering machine until I had time to fix everything. We now have a back up plan.
  2. Buying the cisco 3102 was a mistake. It doesn’t work very well.
  3. Buying cisco phones was unnecessarily complicated. Grandstream does a better job and is cheaper and easier. Loyalty has a price.

The Future:

  1. I have a stash of non-powered analog phones to use in an extended power outage due to earthquake or anything else.
  2. I will program time of day and specific incoming numbers, so the phone next to our bed can be accessed by our parents in the middle of the night.

I’d rate this project a success although it challenged the areas I’m not very good at. You need networking skills, phone skills, and unix skills: I’m very good at networking and phone skills, but I found my unix skills to be rusty and challenged.

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