Another New Twist on Open-Source VoIP

Aretta Communications launches hosted, virtualized Asterisk (and friends) service.

By Ted Stevenson | Posted Nov 16, 2007
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There's a feeling of inexhaustible energy radiating through the world of open-source VoIP. And the more we learn, the more we discover.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Marc Fribush, president and COO of newly fledged service provider Aretta Communications, and got the lowdown on NetPBX, this organization's vision of phone service for small companies.

While Aretta's offerings—like those of some other young companies we've covered recently—are based on the now-mature and venerable Asterisk PBX, this provider's platform and service package have some striking differences.

Like some others, the NetPBX service is hosted, requiring no customer premise equipment beyond IP phones (although Aretta recommends the use of a QoS-enabled router). But unique to NetPBX (in our experience) is that it runs on a virtualization platform (SWsoft's Virtuozzo), which creates separate sessions for each customer, each with its own memory and disk space.

As Fribush and his founding partner, now-CEO Michael Rand, were first pondering the realities of open-source PBX software and implementing their first Asterisk system on an old cast-off PC out of the basement, they realized that this was probably pretty typical of Asterisk deployments—and "not the ideal environment."

"We thought, 'There's got to be a better way!' " Fribush told VoIPplanet.com. "And the idea came to us 'Why not push this entire open-source IP PBX that's typically run on the premise, up onto the network cloud? Push it into a telco hotel in a real data center, with the real EPS power backup and phenomenal bandwidth connections to the Internet?' "

And that's what they have done.

NetPBX service is priced, not per extension—as is typical in the hosted VoIP business—but by the maximum number of simultaneous calls the account is provisioned for (i.e., the number of lines).

A two-line deployment is $29.95 per month, though Firbush told us "That's really more of a test playground system. If you're really not sure whether you want to dive in, you can purchase that one and go ahead and make a few test calls." The four-line offering—at $39.95 a month—is designed for a small office with a handful of employees. By the time you get to an eight-line deployment ($59.95), you're providing phone for up to a dozen.

See the complete pricing scheme here.

Not only do customers get to pick a plan, they get their choice of three different Asterisk implementations, trixbox (formerly known as Asterisk@home), Elastix (another enhanced version with user-friendly tools and interface), and what they're calling Kris' Virtual Asterisk, a version developed by Aretta's director of operations, Kris Sheets, and optimized for virtualization.

Whatever implementation a customer chooses, Aretta overlays its own "enhanced security add-ons" and provides proactive monitoring and alerting. And in case customers are reluctant to configure their own PBXs (despite the greatly improved user interfaces these implementations offer), Aretta will gather the necessary information and pre-configure the account for a modest fee.

Two more components complete Aretta's service offering: SIP trunking (connectivity to/from the PSTN) and phones.

According to Fribush, they discovered almost from day one that everyone who called to sign up wanted/needed trunking. "They could go to [a third party provider] and pick up trunking, and somehow try and integrate that," he said. "But it really made sense to put it together as one bundled offering, all integrated seamlessly together."

Outbound PSTN calling to the "lower 48 states" is 1.39 cents per minute. For inbound, Aretta offers DID phone numbers in over 6,000 rate centers across the U.S.—at ridiculously low prices. Inbound regular calls are 1.39 cents per minute. Toll-free inbound runs 2.49 cents a minute.

As for phones, Aretta supplies (via drop-ship arrangement) a variety of Polycom products—with other brands to come—which they sell at competitive prices. "All of the phones you get from us are preconfigured," Fribush explained. "When you get them out of the box, you simply plug them in and they will automatically go and download their configuration from our provisioning server, and then register themselves to your host PBX."

As for the response, so far (NetPBX was officially announced just over a month ago)? "It's hard to describe," Fribush told VoIPplanet.com. "Every person that calls in on the phone, they absolutely love it. They can't find another offering like it . . .  and nobody has anything bad to say about it. In my businesses before, you always get a lot of rejections; people—for one reason or another—just don't like your product offering. We haven't had one rejection."

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