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The Ooma Office Business VoIP Phone System: Trials, Tribulations, Frustrations, Fiascoes, Success (sort of), Or, Our Review


After two months of frustration, we’ve finally figured out how to get the Ooma Office VoIP system to successfully send and receive faxes. Here’s the hack, which works with a HP LaserJet Pro M521:

You must have a fax machine that allows users to change the fax or “baud” speed. Most newer fax machines default to the v.34 fast standard. Change this to v.29 slow. Next turn off ECM (error correction mode). Then connect the fax machine phone line directly to the Ooma desktop device, not a Linx wireless device. Voila, faxes work, albeit slowly. You’ll have make some effort to find the speed and ECM settings, which will be buried in your fax machine’s menus. In my case, the info is not in the project manual, but I found a 160 Trouble Shooting Guide for the M521 by googling, which explains how to do this. Our previous fax machine, which was about seven years old, a Xerox 4250 Workcentre, does not have controls for speed and ECM that can be changed by the user. My guess is that newer fax machine have these changeable settings, due to the increasing popularity of VoIP, which is not inherently compatible with the high speed fax protocol, but sometimes work with the slowest setting and ECM turned off.

The Ooma Office VoIP system works well for people in single offices who don’t need a fax machine. If you have more than one office and need a fax machine, Ooma Office may be a nightmare to set up, maintain, and get working consistently and properly (as it has been for us). Still, it does mostly work as of this writing, and we ended up teaching Ooma about a segment of their market that they didn’t know existed—so maybe they’ll improve over time.

About two months ago we decided to finally replace our fairly old, but very reliable, Avaya Partner Mail VS PBX POTS phone system with a VoIP system. Based on a very positive user survey from a large tech magazine, we picked Ooma Office.*

Ooma boxAlthough many of you will feel your eyelids get heavy around the time you finish this sentence, we’ll start by saying that replacing our Avaya landline phone system with Ooma Office turned out to not be one of our better equipment/vendor decisions. Several times during the setup process I screamed with total primal rage (not a good thing). Our tale likely won’t interest you unless you’re a) trying to pick a VoIP system for your small business, or b) starting a startup, in which case the company-client interaction dynamic should interest you greatly. We’ve written before about the “Small Business Blues: Trying to Get and Keep the Attention of Equipment Vendors is a Challenge.” This post is in its own way a continuation of that saga.

First, the good.

Ooma Office’s sound quality is high, albeit it after much struggle to find the right phones. In addition, the initial hardware costs are modest and our monthly phone bills are much lower than the old Verizon, landline-based Avaya system. A cautionary note is that the Ooma Office basic service (not including 800 number changes, other frills and taxes) is $10/line or extension, while telcos only change per line, often with unlimited long distance bundled. A complex Ooma system can easily get fairly expensive quickly compared to landlines.

The design of the Ooma Office desktop box is also excellent. So excellent that I have little to say about it apart from the fact that it could be made by Apple. The design of the wireless “Linx” devices that plug into wall outlets to extend the number of extensions, is similarly excellent, as is the Ooma Office Manager administrator web portal.

Ooma’s customer support is very good if you have a common problem that their front-line people can handle and is pretty good if you know how to work your way into the real support people found at “Level 3.” We’ve spent an incredible amount of time on the phone with Ooma’s tech support as we attempted to get our system working correctly.

To finish off “The Good,” Ooma has a fairly reliable iPhone app that allows an employee without an Ooma box in their office, or any employee on the go, to receive and make Ooma calls, without call forwarding. While the app is a little buggy, we view it like the dog playing the piano: It’s not that the dog plays well, it’s that he plays at all. In addition, software can be rapidly improved through updates, and we expect the app to get better over time.

The challenges.

Most of the online reviewers of Ooma Office have a single office, which might be home-based or not. If you have a single central office, with up to 20 employees/extensions for each Ooma box, Ooma Office should work well for you. Most online reviewers aren’t set up like Seliger + Associates: we have two offices, one in Santa Monica and one in New York City, as well as other staff who never come into either office. But we need a single system dispersed across two separated offices and roaming staff, so that anyone who calls any of our numbers can get any of us. Ooma Office doesn’t do that by default because of arcane telephony regulatory rules. It’s possible through dark arts to make this work by “merging” or remote linking of two or more Ooma boxes, but it’s not easy. It’s not possible for a user to set up more than one Ooma box, unless both boxes are in the same location, without a lot of Level 3 tech support.

Let’s talk too about the phone instrument issue. Most VoIP providers either sell compatible phones or provide a list of phones that have been tested with their system—RingCentral, for example, has a page with dedicated phones listed. For no apparent reason, Ooma does neither. Most VoIP systems also use modern IP phones, but Ooma Office is oddly incompatible with IP phones and instead only supports analog (or POTs) phones.

In a low moment after tech support struggles I sent this to Ooma’s support and to Ooma’s CEO (some cursing to follow, but hey, that was my mindset at the time; I like to think I’m moderately eloquent even when frustrated):

We’ve been trying to get an Ooma system set up properly, and the process has been, charitably speaking, a fucking nightmare. I’m sitting here and seething with rage and frustration at the latest problem.

We bought two generic random Panasonic landline phones to use with Ooma. They sound terrible. Consequently we’re trying to find phones that don’t sound like OEM equipment Alexander Graham Bell might have used. Ideally, that equipment should also have a 3.5mm headset port, but that is apparently impossible with this class of phone. Even a 2.5mm headset port would be an improvement.

Unfortunately, finding phones that aren’t terrible is itself like searching through a needle in a proverbial haystack. There are hundreds of phones, all of which appear to have been designed in 1980 and made for people who are more than willing to buy the $21.96 phone over the $22.23 phone because one is seven cents cheaper than the other. That is not us. We want phones that actually work. Trying to find phones that actually work has proven to be a gigantic hassle. At one point, many moons ago, Avaya was the standard. Or AT&T. Now there is no standard.

What I’d really like is a page on that says, “These handsets aren’t terrible.” Do you notice how, if you go to, say,, you’ll only find stuff that actually works? That’s what I’d like. Digging through these fucking Amazon reviews for phones all of which appear superficially identical is making me nuts. The word “curated” has been debased by millions of bloggers and morons on Facebook, but it is nonetheless what I seek in this domain because I know nothing about the domain.

I called a support person who suggested I find something at Wal*Mart or Target. I live in Manhattan. This is not a helpful suggestion. You deal with phones every day. What I’d like is for someone to sort through the crap on the Internet, give us three or five good options, and then let us pick between them.

Let us consider Ring Central by comparison. There is a page, right here, that lists phones, none of which are (allegedly) shit. I could find a list of phones here, but only after much work. This shouldn’t be so hard. I can’t even find a support email address. At the moment I’m tearing out my hair and yelling at my computer in frustration. I don’t want to become a professional phone reviewer, buying and returning these things. I’m already a professional writer. One occupation is enough.

One page, with five good phones. That’s it. I can’t find it. Not on, not anywhere. Any ideas?

(A side note about companies and organizations: In medium and large companies the head of the organization often doesn’t fully know what’s going on at the feet of the organization. A CEO and other C-level people also only have so much attention. Sometimes politely and intelligently bringing a problem to the CEO’s attention is a way to get that problem fixed not only for the person sending the note but for everyone else who is having the problem.)

We know that Ooma is aware of the phone problem: conventional analog phones are stuck in the 1990s, when real companies and engineers were last interested in selling analog phones. Today is 2015 and the models still being sold are going to grandmas and legacy users and very occasionally to small business users like us. The people at Ooma are smart enough to realize this and smart enough to realize that they need to get their system working with IP phones or lose customers. IP phones are really just specialized computers, much as your iPhone is a specialized computer.

Analog phones, as I said previously, have not been of interest for a long time; one model we tried is so old that its default date is 2002! Think about the world of 2002 and the world of 2015 and you’ll quickly see the problem. There are no good modern analog phones. Zero. Zip. They don’t exist. Not anymore. All the R & D and product development today goes into IP phones. We did eventually find some Panasonic phones that aren’t offensive and that claim to support “HD Voice,” which is important because the increasing digitization of the phone system means that we’re moving towards a world with better audio quality.

Audio quality is more important to us than price because garbled or messed up words can cause us to lose important jobs. We’d rather spend more for quality than get the cheapest possible system.

Then there are fax issues. We heard an enormous amount of BS about faxes from Ooma support. The simple truth is that Ooma is not compatible with any fax machines. Virtually no VoIP systems are. This has to do the fax protocol itself, baud rates and other arcana. To use a physical fax machine, one needs a device called a Fax Bridge or ATA that converts the incoming and outgoing faxes to VoIP. Ooma Office does not support a Fax Bridge or ATA, so reliable and easy faxing remains an unsolved problem for us. Ooma finally gave us a free Virtual Fax extension, which is worth about what we pay for it. Like the Ooma app, the Virtual Fax software more or less works, but is very hard to use (I won’t bore you with the details).

Essentially, Ooma support told us to use their Virtual Fax, install land lines for our existing fax machines or buy a cloud-based fax solution from some other vendor. As of this writing, Ooma Office does not offer a reliable integrated fax solution. This is really hard to fathom as many small offices, like doctors and CPAs, still need faxes. Don’t even think about Ooma Office if you send or receive more than a couple of faxes a weeek.

Ooma and the modern tech world.

Working on the Ooma Office problems is a reminder of Apple’s tremendous influence over the last decade of change. I’m just old enough to remember portable music players before the iPod. They were terrible, and they were terrible in the exact same way the Panasonic phones we bought are terrible. They were designed by someone more like me—that is to say, with no design sense—rather than someone like Jonathan Ive (that linked article is great, and if you get lost reading it and don’t come back I wouldn’t blame you one bit).

The amazing thing about contemporary life is not how many products work incredibly well but how many work shockingly poorly, or, even more commonly, almost well. That “almost” is a key factor in frustration and is probably the driving force behind consolidated review sites like The Sweethome and The Wirecutter. Just figuring out what the good stuff is can be a full-time job. The Internet has in some ways made this better—everyone starts with a Google search—and in some ways made it worse—how authoritative is the person on the other side of that search? Among Amazon reviewers, the absolute worst products tend to get trashed, but almost every other product has a mix of positive and negative reviews. Crapware like analog phones are a great example of this.

Ooma Linx deviceOoma Office probably works well for people in a single office. For people like us, the system doesn’t quite work, and things that don’t quite work can be highly frustrating—especially when it’s obvious that Ooma has taken some cues from Apple and has done some things extraordinarily well (the wireless “Linx” extenders are an example of an elegant Ooma Office solution).

One of the most-read things I’ve written, ever, is a review of the modern Model M keyboard. It’s been so read in part, I think, because I a) know what I’m talking about, b) I know the problem domain well and exist in it every single day, and c) whatever my personal flaws may be, I can write a coherent sentence. Actually, I should also add “d)”, no one is paying me to write the review. I found a product so good that I had to write about why it’s so good and why it’s better than the sea of crap keyboards out there. Professional writers and programmers are not a large segment of the keyboard-using population but we are a segment that has particular needs that until recently weren’t being well met.

One way to read this piece is as a review of the Ooma Office system. A second, Straussian way is as an essay about the pervasive influence of Apple. There may be others.

I’m not the first person to wonder why phone quality still sounds like crap. The best quality I’ve heard is via Apple’s Facetime Audio feature, but that requires two people on iPhones (or other Apple devices) and for Facetime Audio to be specifically selected. Still, Jeff Hecht describes the larger issues in “Why Mobile Voice Quality Still Stinks—and How to Fix It: Technologies such as VoLTE and HD Voice could improve sound quality, but cellular carriers aren’t deploying them fast enough,” which I encourage you to read.

We’re not sure Ooma is going to last as a company. Ooma’s IPO appears to have failed (see also here). The company has a couple of serious problems: at the margins, many people who once would’ve bought dedicated phones are using cell phones. Archaic regulatory BS around legacy telephony means that Ooma can’t sell and configure distributed systems in a way that really makes sense. As noted above, the Ooma iPhone app is impressive in that it sort of works, but it’s not really how we want to use the system most of the time.

Perhaps the most obvious thing we’ve learned is that one should never buy a system like this if the vendor doesn’t sell all the parts. Ooma doesn’t sell any instruments. Avaya did. Ring Central does. That’s a key issue. Maybe Ring Central would’ve been no better than Ooma, and just as difficult to set up. We might yet find out.

* Don’t confuse Ooma Office with Ooma Telo, a low-end VoIP solution for the home-like Magic Jack.

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Small Business Blues: Trying to Get and Keep the Attention of Equipment Vendors is a Challenge

Faithful readers will remember previous posts we’ve written about “Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have” and “Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Phone System,” both of which offer advice for finding great equipment. After 20 years in business, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not always easy for a small business or nonprofit to get the attention of many equipment vendors.

I was reminded of this weird reality once again, as I struggled to get our new main office in the People’s Republic of Santa Monica functioning. The main challenge was our phone system. Over the past 15 years, we’ve had two Partner Mail systems. This system was originally made by AT&T, then Lucent, and eventually Avaya.

When we entered the movie in about 1998, Lucent vended these systems. Originally, however, Lucent refused to sell us a system because our business was “too small.” That’s right: sizism. I had to move up the Lucent food chain over several weeks to find a manager who understood that we wanted the Partner system because it would make up look bigger than we were at the time; it’s unusual for the client to beg a business to sell a product. The whole startup / small-business romance hadn’t saturated the media. Nonetheless Lucent eventually relented and deigned to sell us a system, cost about $6,000—a huge investment for back then.

We made the investment because the Partner Mail system was the gold standard of smaller PBX systems. While they have largely been replaced by VOIP systems, Partner Mail remains very reliable and valued in the used market. Our current system, a Partner Mail ACS 509, was part of the last generation ever made. We bought it new about five years ago for $2,000, demonstrating how the cost of technology has fallen over time. The Partner Mail system serves us well and I saw no need to change when we decided to move the office.

The downside of the Partner Mail system, however, is that it requires a skilled tech to install the interface with the telco landlines, and to program the system and phones, if needed (file this under “obvious foreshadowing”). It’s easy to get caught between the telcos—our old carrier was AT&T and the new carrier is Verizon—and the installer. The system can be installed by Avaya or by an Avaya “partner,” who are small telecom consultants.

When the time came to hitch up the wagons and mosey down the road to Santa Monica, we had to preserve the continuity of call forwarding and “800” service. I decided to use Avaya’s direct employees or contractors, rather than a partner, because I didn’t want to spend the time researching partners. I called Avaya two weeks before the move to ensure that their tech would be in our new office the same afternoon that Verizon got the dial tones working.

The Verizon guy showed up on time and did his thing. Then. . . nothing happened. No Avaya tech. I spent an hour on the phone with Avaya trying to figure out what went wrong. Talking to Avaya is like talking to HUD—the phone reps are bureaucrats, who are uninterested when they learn the caller represents a small business. It turned out that somehow the installation order was held, but no one called to let me know. The process would have to start again, which would mean a two-week delay in getting the system operational. I politely told them to piss up a rope and tried an AT&T 1080 all-in-one system sold by Amazon. That system, however, didn’t have properly functioning voicemail and useless, outsourced tech support.

I returned the 1080 phones and found a local Avaya partner who got the job done immediately. Not surprisingly, it turns there there is an “I hate Avaya” Facebook page, which I have so far declined to friend, but I’m thinking about it.

This also illuminates why most contemporary small businesses are probably better served by VOIP systems, which more companies vend and which doesn’t require tangling with a nasty organization like Avaya.

The Avaya experience reminded me of another negatory experience with a large technology vendor, Xerox, which also happened about 15 years ago. We had an old-world analog Xerox, a stand-alone fax machine, and various low-end printers. Xerox introduced a revolutionary hydra-headed networked digital high-speed copier, fax, printer and scanner, with lots of paper tray add-ons, a finisher and expresso maker.*

I read about this wonder in the Wall Street Journal: it was called a “Docucentre” and code-named “Hodaka,” as the machines were made in Japan. I immediately contacted Xerox sales, who told me. . . wait for it. . . our business was too small.

Another round of phone calls and meetings took place, during which I patiently explained that this device was perfect for a small, document-centric business like ours. The local Seattle reps eventually checked with Xerox central in Rochester and found that, not only would they lease us a Hodaka, but they would make Seliger + Associates the small business national test site for the product roll-out.

We went from “No” to free use of the machine for about six months and overwhelming in-person tech support. It was fun to visit focus group meetings with reps from other demonstration test sites, including Boeing and Weyerhauser. After the test period, we bought the machine at the then-astronomical price of $25,000. About five years ago, we put our Hodaka out to pasture and bought the new version, a WorkCentre 4250. When configured with four trays and a stand, the price came in at about $4,000.

The moral of these tales is simple: a small business or small nonprofit should be ruthless in acquiring the technology they need, even if vendors have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the party.

* The bit about the espresso maker is made up, but I want to see if you’re awake.

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Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Phone System

When Seliger + Associates moved its intergalactic headquarters to Tucson, we also decided to buy a new phone system under the assumption that prices were relatively low and hiring someone to set up our old system again would prove sufficiently difficult and expensive to justify buying a new one.

Doing so is harder than it looks—just like buying a copy machine, which I explained at the link. Most of us, if we’ve worked in institutions or large business, are used to having a phone magically appear on our desks. But if we’re suddenly in a group of, say, five or ten, someone has to buy the phone system. This time around, that person was me.

There are a few basic strategies that small organizations can use for phones these days: (1) they can use their existing cell/mobile/home phones, (2) they can use Internet lines through outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice, (3) they can buy a Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) “box” through companies like Digium, or (4) they can buy a box that works with copper lines through Nortel, Avaya, and the like.

One of the biggest problems is simply understanding the difference among these approaches. Another is understanding the differences between a) the manufacturers of these systems and b) the vendors who actually sell / install them.

We ultimately went with option 4 and purchased an Avaya system that runs through plain old telephone system (POTS) lines. We did so largely because it’s probably the most reliable. In addition, we previously owned an ancient Avaya system and already had the mandatory, very expensive proprietary handsets. Here are the issues with the first three alternatives:

1) It’s tempting for small businesses and nonprofits to use personal phones as their primary business lines as well. Don’t do that if you can avoid it; if you don’t believe me, go read Personal Phone Numbers For Business, Yeah That Was A Mistake… on A quote:

[T]hrough the magic of the Internet and networked computer systems, contact information tends to get syndicated to dozens of places when it is first entered. Often it does not get updated when the original source does.

Once you start using personal numbers for business, it’ll be hard to stop. That’s one reason to get an 800 number if you’re facing customers: it will be portable wherever you might move. Our 800 number—800-540-8906, for those of you wondering—has followed Seliger + Associates from northern California to Seattle to Tucson. If you use personal numbers, people will also be able to figure out that you’re primarily using cell phones, and you’ll look unprofessional or amateurish. Also, do you really want to field fevered phone calls from crazed clients at 3:00 A.M.?

2) Consumer VoIP outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice have problems of their own. Vonage customer service is notoriously terrible. Skype is okay, especially for international calls, but doesn’t transfer calls from receptionist areas to back areas easily, doesn’t have professional voicemail (as far as I know), and has no real customer service when something breaks. Google Voice requires existing phone lines. All of these problems can be overcome, but if the overriding goal is never to have to think about phones, this isn’t the way to go.

3) Outfits like Digium are okay, and its vendors sell boxes that sit somewhere in your office. You plug existing landlines in or set them up boxes with Internet access. These systems are slightly less expensive than the solution we went with, but it was harder to find vendors for this, and we didn’t want to have the same points of failure for Internet access and phones. In other words, even if there is a power outage that takes down Internet service, we still have an option, since phone systems using POTS lines like Avaya will still produce a dial tone at the point where the POTS lines go into the Avaya box.

That left us with copper providers.

Phone systems have a zillion features; look at some of them here, although beware that the link goes to a vendor website. As I said earlier, perhaps the hardest part of dealing with phones involves finding out who sells them: the big manufacturers are Avaya, Nortel, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Mitel. The best way to start getting prices is by searching for “Avaya Vendor,” “Nortel Vendor,” and so on in Google. Then call the manufacturer to find a local vendor. These pages are probably going to be hard to navigate and understand. Once you have a list of resellers, you’ll have to call each one for a quote. Some manufacturers have multiple vendors in your area. You’ll need to know things like:

* How many lines you want.
* How many handsets you need.
* How far you might need your system to expand—will you need four lines, or forty?
* How many voicemail boxes do you need?
* The number of technicians and/or service people the vendor has, along with their location.
* The cost of a 36 month lease, a 60 month lease, and whether it’s a regular lease or a “fair market value” lease.
* The bottom line cost of outright purchasing a system.
* Installation fees.
* The warranty.
* Timing—when can it be installed?

Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be inundated with information and quotes that are hard to compare. You should build a spreadsheet in Excel or another spreadsheet program. Mine has about 30 rows and 12 columns. In addition, almost all of this has to be done by phone: that’s why it will probably take at least a full day of work just to get bids, understand the systems you’re dealing with, and figure out who the vendors in your area are.

If you’ve read this, however, you at least have a place to start and know a few of the questions you’ll want to ask. Perhaps the best thing you can do is ask a lot of questions of your local vendors and preface those questions with, “I’ve never done this before, so explain the choices in terms a novice can understand.” (You can also ask questions in the comments section of this post.) Like car dealers, some vendors will try to upsell you, or tell you that you need more of a system than you think you do. By the same token, as with car dealers, patience and fortitude might be the difference of thousands of dollars. Like a car, you will live with your small business phone system for years, so take the time to get it right.