VoIPowering Your Office: Make Millions Selling Minutes

Like all Asterisk derivatives, PBX in a Flash comes with its own billing system. Why not put it to good use?

 By Carla Schroder
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We're not finished exploring the goodies in PBX in a Flash (PiaF) just yet:

Last week I promised you a tour of A2Billing and PiaF's text-to-speech capabilities. Jonathan Roper, one of the four PiaF developers, kindly gave me a personal tour of A2Billing, and let me tell you that was an eye opener. There is a lot more to it than just selecting a few checkboxes and making it go. Let's take a look at what it's for and who might want to use it. Then next week for sure we'll dig into text-to-speech in depth.

Asterisk-related mailing lists and user forums are full of questions from budding moguls about A2Billing (Asterisk2Billing)—and not many answers, probably because it has long been included in Asterisk@Home/Trixbox. So it's out there for the masses to see and poke at. It's a comprehensive billing application—appropriate for anyone who wants to sell VoIP minutes.

Let's say you're an ace Asterisk server administrator, and you have everything working smoothly, and you have PSTN termination and all kinds of bandwidth and server capacity, and a variety of trunks to take advantage of different rate plans, and perhaps even some good upstream providers who wholesale batches of minutes to you at a good rate. You might be thinking "I could sell some of this extra capacity to cover my expenses." Or you go off the deep end and actually want to make a business out of reselling VoIP services. Or you work in a company that tracks every last paperclip, Post-It, and pencil, so they want to track VoIP usage at the same extreme level of detail. (Never mind working out if counting Post-Its and VoIP minutes is really cost-effective; they want it done and that's the end of the story.)

The standard way is by selling pre-paid calling cards, though you are welcome to get creative as to how you get your customers to pay you. So you need some way of printing and distributing them, and getting the correct customer data on them. Then how do you attract and retain customers, and handle customer service and tech support, and all the usual odds and ends that come with running a business. You'll want some good interactive menus to guide customers through your system. A2Billing won't give you a pleasing personality or a head for business, but it will automate the nuts and bolts of doing all these things. If you become fabulously successful and require vast herds of Asterisk servers, no problem, A2Billing will handle the load.

Installing A2Billing on PiaF
In keeping with its guiding spirit of No Bloatware and No Bugs, you'll need to install A2Billing separately. Of course the nice nerds behind PiaF have an installation script just to do this: Log into your server console and run the install-a2billing script. This script warns you to run it once only, and you'll need your MySQL password. If you did not change the default, it's passw0rd. The Nerd Vittles gang recommend leaving it at the default and not changing it. I know, this goes against the geekly grain, but the default password is used in all sorts of scripts, so changing it means you'll have to hunt down and change gobs of scripts. MySQL is accessible only on the local machine, but still, this scheme makes me feel a bit squirmy. Anyway, there it is, and now you know.

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Figure 1 (click thumbnail to see larger image)

Okay then, getting back to A2Billing. The installer will ask you to reboot. After the system is back up, log into your FreePBX Web console, go to the Module Admin page, and install the A2Billing module. When that is finished go back to the main administration page, which you get to by clicking on your IP address on the upper-right section of the page underneath the FreePBX logo, and then click on Administration. You'll see something like Figure 1.

You can click on the A2Billing Mgmt button, or, if you want to keep your FreePBX console handy, right-click and then open A2Billing in a new tab. You'll be presented with a login screen, so log in with root, myroot. Now you're looking at something like Figure 2.

Go ahead and explore the menus- as you will quickly learn, there is a lot to this.

Rate cards: The 8th circle of Hell
As you work your way through the A2Billing configuration screens, a lot of it is self-explanatory. You can create a customer for testing, and go through the whole process of creating SIP and IAX trunks, and then log in on the A2Billing Customers page so you can see the system from your customer's perspective.

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Figure 2 (click thumbnail to see larger image)

Importing rate cards is probably the most tedious and time-consuming part of your entire setup. There isn't anywhere you can just go and download rate cards. Your upstream provider or providers might be kind enough to share whatever they have with you, and if it's a delimited text file you can import in into A2Billing. Be sure to use the "Ratecard Simulator" to check your new rate card; it would be discouraging to discover you're giving away money because of a misplaced decimal.

A2Billing comes already integrated with PayPal, MoneyBookers, and Authorize.net.

Hiring expertise
If you're not in a hurry and are good at figuring things out for yourself, you can set up A2Billing on a small scale and learn your way around it. In my occasionally-humble opinion, this is one of those situations where it's more cost-effective to hire an expert to train you. Keep in mind that traditional PBX billing systems cost six figures and up, and the more customers you have, the more they charge you. So hiring a bit of A2Billing expertise could be quite a bargain, and anyway it's less painful learning from other people's mistakes.

A2Billing manual
the continuing adventures of PBX in a Flash

This article was originally published on Dec 17, 2007
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