This article was originally posted in June, 2010.
I recently had the experience of trying to help someone make a Sangoma USBfxo device (model U100) work on a server that runs FreePBX and Asterisk. The advertised features of this device are as follows:
- Dual FXO ports
- Easy installation, no need to open up computer to install PCI/PCIe card
- Supports up to 2 simultaneous calls
- Compact plastic enclosure
- Low power consumption, takes power from USB bus
- USB 2.0 compliant (compatible with USB 1.1)
The first thing I would note is that although you don’t have to open up the computer, it’s definitely not “plug and play.” At the very least you have to install driver software, and on an Asterisk server you will also need to install and configure DADHI or ZAPTEL (unless this has already been done). Depending on your level of expertise, this might be easy, or quite daunting. I would certainly take issue with the claim of “easy installation” although I can understand how a true Linux geek might consider it a walk in the park. It wasn’t so much that there were any major hitches in the installation as that it was time consuming and required quite a bit of mental effort to figure out what needed to be done — someone who has just set up a PBX using a “load and go” distribution like Elastix, PBX in a Flash, AsteriskNOW, Trixbox, etc. might not find it all that easy to get this thing working.
The major issue we had was with the performance. We initially discovered that it was “clipping” speech severely, causing audio artifacts that are difficult to describe in print, but unpleasant to hear. We got in touch with Sangoma customer support and finally traced the problem to the built in hardware echo cancellation. By disabling the hardware echo cancellation, the speech was clear, but of course we then had mild echo. Enabling echo cancellation in Zaptel fixed that on a temporary basis, but about a week later Sangoma customer support e-mailed us and suggested that we try OSLEC, the open source echo canceler. We might have actually done that had we not discovered another issue in the meantime, that made us decide we didn’t want to mess with this unit anymore.
This new issue was that initially, it did not pick up incoming caller ID on incoming calls. We discovered that this could be fixed by changing the gain settings in Zaptel, but even when we did that it still wasn’t 100% reliable (I’d say it worked about 90% of the time). And, the downside of that was that we had to reduce the incoming gain, so that it was harder to hear callers.
We’ve used Sipura SPA-3000’s before for this same function, although they are only single line units (they have one FXS port and one FXO port) and have never had any of these issues. The main reason we tried the USBfxo was because we wanted two FXO ports, and also liked the idea that it was powered off the USB cable, and didn’t require us to have yet another device with a “wall wart” to plug in. But the difficulties with Caller ID, volume levels, and the fact that Sangoma had apparently given up on getting the hardware echo cancellation to work without distorting the audio led us to get frustrated with this device fairly quickly. The non-techies that had to make and receive calls that went through this device were not very understanding of the issues, especially since the SPA-3000’s (now superseded by the Linksys SPA-3102, which is essentially an updated version of the Sipura SPA-3000) had always worked much more reliably. We finally gave in and found another Sipura SPA-3000 on eBay and put it into service, and within a relatively short time (part of which was spent locating and installing updated firmware) it was working like a champ. Unlike the Sangoma, it detects the Caller ID 100% of the time, and we can tweak the transmit and receive gain to comfortable levels.
My personal opinion is that Sangoma should be ashamed to put their name on the USBfxo. The hardware echo cancellation, in a word, sucks. And one of the big reasons you’d buy a brand like Sangoma in the first place is because of the supposedly superior echo cancellation. Echo cancellation is supposed to cancel echo, not make it sound like your words are clipped. My guess is that the hardware echo cancellation is far too aggressive and they don’t give you any way to “tune” it — you can either enable or disable it, but that’s all. The USBfxo is a great idea, but it needs to go back to the drawing board. Sangoma’s motto (shown on their Wiki pages, etc.) is “Because it must work!”, but apparently that motto does not imply that it must work well!
Also, a note to Sangoma customer service — next time a customer is dropping hints that they’d like you to take your defective unit back and send a replacement, you might want to be a bit more responsive to that request. We were willing to work with you up to a point but the message came through loud and clear that you really didn’t want to replace this dog of a device unless you absolutely had to. We didn’t sign up to be beta testers, we just wanted the damn thing to work. Given Sangoma’s (perhaps undeserved) reputation we really thought you’d be more agreeable to making sure that we got a unit that worked, not making us try a bunch of different things and then ultimately told to try OSLEC, effectively giving up hope that the hardware echo cancellation would ever work properly.
Another suggestion to Sangoma (or any other manufacturer that may be listening) — most of us who did not cut our teeth on Linux would probably prefer not to have to mess with ZAPTEL or DADHI. The nice thing about the Linksys/Sipura devices is that they sit out on the network and appear as just another SIP-based device, and in FreePBX you configure them pretty much as you would any other SIP trunk. I’m not saying that installing any of these devices is the proverbial “piece of cake”, especially if you have never done it before, but when you have to start installing and configuring drivers, that goes outside of the realm of what I would consider easy to install. What someone really needs to come out with is an inexpensive four to six-port SIP based FXO device that sits out on your local network, like the SPA-3000/3102.
If you are in need of one or two FXO ports for your Asterisk server, my advice would be to first try one or two Sipura SPA-3000 or Linksys SPA-3102 devices (following these instructions if you are a FreePBX user) — if those do not work the way you’d like, you can always resell them on eBay and then try a more expensive solution. If your server doesn’t have card slots (as is increasingly the case, as users turn to small computers like the Acer Aspire Revo to use as small, power-efficient PBX’s) then your choices are limited to external devices such as the aformentioned units. However, if your system can accept internal cards, then you can buy cards that provide FXO ports from several manufacturers, including Digium and Sangoma (if you need eight or more FXO ports than I believe there are other external options, but they are quite a bit more pricey and I have not really investigated them, so I won’t comment on them at this point. However, if any manufacturer would care to send a review sample, I’d be more than happy to give it a try!). 😉
The one caveat I will add is that not every device will work on every line. If you have a very long line from a traditional telephone company, your requirements (and experience with a particular device) may be quite different from someone who is sitting 500 feet from the central office, or someone who’s trying to take the output of a cable company’s VoIP adapter and pipe it over to the FXO card or device using twenty feet of copper wire. Just because the Sipura devices have worked better for us does not mean they will for you. I’m guessing that some people have purchased the exact same Sangoma device that we tried and were able to get it working well enough for their needs, but I just cannot recommend this device — at least not until Sangoma fixes the echo cancellation, and makes it read the incoming Caller ID reliably 100% of the time, preferably without having to change the incoming gain in DADHI or ZAPTEL.
EDIT: For more comments/opinions on this device (and on this review), see this thread on the PBX in a Flash forum.