Friday, February 17, 2012

Using CallWithUs VoIP with Android in Japan

I wanted a cheaper VoIP solution, but I didn't want a free solution. I want to pay for a quality service. My specific requirements were:
  1. Ability to pay with a Japanese credit card, which is not allowed by Vonage and,
  2. Not being locked into a proprietary application or hardware - necessary SIP credentials must be provided.
So I recently switched from US Vonage to CallWithUs, which is VERY barebones prepaid service. Definitely not for the technically challenged. You'll need to bring your own device, such as a Gingerbread or higher Android device or an ATA. The lack of overhead is the reason why they offer the cheapest rates of any reputable provider that I found. Outgoing calls to the US are about 1 cent (0.99). And they have positive reviews. Plus a sense of humor:
Fine print: All prices are final, there are no bogus fees and unfees. Period. Only SIP devices that have already been created can be connected to to make calls. Please ensure you only use devices approved by you (Please do not try and connect using two tin cans and a piece of string as we do not yet support this, but we may support this in the future, the work is in progress and preliminary results are positive). monthly subscription charge of $0 must be paid in advance and does not include tax of $0 which also must be paid in advance. You will be billed an activation fee of $0 plus tax and this must be paid in advance. Calls made incur tax at the rate of 0% each month and must be paid in advance. On cancellation of the service you will be charged a one time disconnection charge of $0. Additional features will be billed at the additional rate of $0 per call. All **YOUR** rights reserved.
You can charge your account with paypal or google checkout. As long as you have a positive balance, you can receive incoming calls and place calls for free to other CallWithUs subscribers. Email notifications are an option for low account balance level warnings. There is no option to autocharge your account, so there is not way these guys can make unauthorized charges to your credit card. Either I missed it or an auto charge function was recently added. In addition, maximum per minute rate, maximum call time, and maximum total call price can be set.

All options can be added on ala carte, except for 911, which is not available. Incoming caller ID lookup (CNAM) can be added for 0.6 cents (yes, about half a cent) per incoming call. Voicemail can be added for $1/month. Direct inward dialing (DID) is $5.49/month, which provides you with a working phone number and (typically) 3000 incoming free minutes. A VPN can be added for $30/year (If your mobile carrier blocks VoIP). Different tariff rates may be selected for outgoing calls, e.g., standard, premium, and PSTN (in order of increasing price and quality). I use the premium tariff.

They are very security conscious. If your IP doesn't resolve to the general location of the billing address of your card (as registered on paypal or google checkout), they will not accept your payment. (You will have to provide them a scan of your ID to prove identity if you use a US credit card from Japan.) They will also not immediately credit payments from new accounts. Instead they'll hold the money for a day or so, which gives a reasonable amount of time for any fraud to be detected by the owner of a hacked account.

Integration with Google Voice

Instead of paying for voicemail, I point my US DID to my US GV number and use google's free alternative, which includes audio transcription (i.e., "visual voicemail"). A US IP Address is required to sign up for GV, but once your are signed up, you can use GV from outside the US. I use the android GV app for checking voicemail and sending text messages. GV is not VoIP, so you don't use the GV app to make phone calls with CallWithUs.

Integration with Android

A SIP client is required to make calls from your Android mobile. CallWithUs works with Android's built-in SIP client and with other clients such as sipdroid or csipsimple, though quality with csipsimple is markedly lower. I have no problems making and receiving calls over 3G with my Nexus One and Xi SIM. The only issue is with making (free) SIP to SIP calls with other CallWithUs subscribers when using wifi and because of the lack of STUN support in the built-in client causes loss of incoming voice. Other clients have STUN support, and I have confirmed that it works.

A future post will describe in more detail using this with Android.

Usage with other hard/software

I've also tested this with softphones on my notebook, and my Linksys RTP300 ATA. Configuration is pretty easy. The only issue I've had so far is NAT traversal from the ATA. The STUN settings don't have an effect, and my NTT VDSL modem/router is such an utter piece of crap that the DMZ settings don't work. Because it was a vonage ATA, I had to 1) call vonage and convince them to roll back the firmware to a version with a vulnerability that allows me to then 2) unlock the device and 3) flash modified firmware.

A future post will describe setting up the ATA.

Cost Comparison

I set up this comparison to be well above my actual usage. It is based on 500 outgoing minutes per month  to US numbers, 60 minutes to Japanese landlines, 180 minutes to Japanese mobile numbers and 60 minutes to Japanese "050" IP phones. (In Japan, VoIP is referred to as an IP phone.) Additionally, I added 5 incoming calls per day with caller ID lookup (which added less than a dollar to the CallWithUs charges).

Callcentric is the other provider I considered. They also rank similarly high, and I confirmed that they can process J credit cards. Callcentric will be a little more user friendly but have less configuration options and cost more money. Vonage prices are based on what I was charged monthly for the "Vonage World" plan. Your actual price may vary based on local tax rates.

3000 min free**
US outgoing
Japan POTS
Japan mobile
Japan 050
* Cost of my last Vonage bill
** After 3000 minutes, incoming are billed at 1.5 cents per minute.
*** VPN is only necessary if your mobile carriers block VoIP connections.

Why I left Vonage

I was a satisfied Vonage customer for over seven years. I rarely, if ever, had any service issues. I just don't talk enough to people in the US to justify the cost of my plan. Part of the reason I stayed with Vonage as long as I did was because the service was good and they are a known quantity. The other reason is that google has yet to be successful in lowering the page rank of all the content farm spam sites that clutter the results for VoIP searches. And there are a lot! One of the most frustrating things I've done lately is try and create a short list of reputable alternate VoIP providers.

Two issues with using Vonage while living overseas:
  1. Inability to pay with my foreign credit card meaning I have to send money to the US periodically.
  2. Unavoidable charges for state sales tax, 911 etc. that add up to an additional $10.

How much would I have saved if I left Vonage sooner?

This is really a moot point. Paying at least $35/month for a very reliable US phone number in Japan is worth it to me. However, had I switched to CallWithUs three years ago, how much would I have saved? About $1,000 dollars. Callcentric would have saved me about $900. These are the prices calculated from my actual vonage calling data. This assumes all calls are outgoing, so it is a maximum cost. I would have certainly paid less in some cases.

Updated 2/20/2012 with my requirements in a VoIP provider.


  1. Thanks for this! Have to take a closer look on the CallWithUs.

    I have used Spokn which gives me a US phone number for dollar a month but since end of the last year the voice quality went suddenly down to a level that made me stop calling through them totally.

  2. If you try them out, let me know how it goes. If you add less than $25 to your account, there is a small fee they take.

  3. Yay! I'm glad CallWithUs worked out for you! It really is a great setup, if you can get past the initial configuration... :P

  4. Thanks again for turning me on to them!

  5. I call mostly to Europe and was using a local provider that was discontinued after the company was bought over. I then switched to Spokn which was good for a couple of months before the quality went down to untolerable levels. So I was ready to test this "new to me" provider.

    It took me around 3 minutes to connect the account to my Asterisk server and then half a day to wait for the payment to process. First I used the Standard rate to call Europe but changed it to Premium immediately after couple of minutes of talk and with that the line was good. Had a strange disconnect after 60 minutes (and checked the settings, it was still below the time and price limits) but other than that had no problems whatsoever.

    So first impressions are very good, quality is fine and prices are even lower than I would have with a local European VoIP service. Thanks again for the tip!

  6. Nice. As you tell from my 3-year data above, I don't make a ton of calls. As you use them, keep us posted on how things are going. You'll probably quickly get more familiar with it that I am.

    I forgot to mention that you can set maximum prices for calls. I should add that information to the main post.

    Out of curiosity, why are you using an asterisk server?

  7. OK, I guess I own a report how this has worked for me. In one word: great. I have not made a lot of calls mostly because I have been out of Japan a lot and have set up the system to work yet from home only. The logs say 48 calls for a total of 7 hours. I have called Australia, USA, India, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Malaysia and even Japan. I have used the Premium rates and still just managed to use around 27 dollars. I am very happy with both the quality of calls and the prices. The only times when I have had any problems is when calling to Japan when it sometimes takes a long time to connect; so a very minor issue.

    And the reason for having the Asterisk server is the same why I have both ADSL and Fiber to my home; cos I can! :D I have around half a dozen devices and four providers connected to it as I enjoy tinkering with stuff. (BTW it also makes life interesting when the sales guys find out I have ADSL and try to sell me Fiber ;)

  8. Just subscribed to callwithus, with 3CXPhone as SIP client (on an iPhone). I was rebutted at first by the site's interface, but everything worked fine at the first try without any trouble whatsoever. I just did one call to Europe, and quality was indeed very good. For now I don't plan on receiving calls. I totally agree with the philosophy "I'm fine paying for a good service quality".

    That's the 3rd time I follow one of your suggestions, and no regret until now. Please keep up the great work! Thanks!

  9. Does anyone know if you can set a Japanese number as the caller ID when calling a Japanese number with callwithus?

    I've tried some other VOIP providers, but they all require the +81 country code and therefore do not show up when calling a Japanese number.

    I would like to set the outgoing caller ID as my japanese number starting from the 0 as in 0XX-XXX-XXXX.
    Any info would be appreciated.

  10. I just put the caller id to be 8190XXXXXXXX and when I call my cell it shows the id as 090XXXXXXXX.

  11. Great, thanks for the info! I think I'll go ahead and give them a try.

  12. Lately I've noticed a lag when making calls with callwithus (between 0.5s and 1s), i.e. when I speak it takes 0.5 to 1s for my words to reach the person at the other end. Anyone else has that issue? Now browsing the web to look for people having the same issue...

  13. I have since switched to due to lots of issues like this and the lack of support on these types of issues. Callcentric will give you a free NY DID number and then you just pay for the min you use. Combined with Google Voice forwarding and changing my outgoing caller ID my normal CA local number is all people see and use.

    Since I don't have the recurring cost of the DID # I spend much less than I did with callwithus.

  14. I'm gonna second this. I was a CallWithUs user for a while, but the service just degraded so much. Callcentric is wonderful, though. Highly recommended.

  15. Thanks, testing it now!

  16. I recently upgraded my Asterisk server and took some time to go through the providers too. I am currently using GV, CallWithUs with their POTS level, CallCentric and one Australian provider. I used to use CallWithUs with Premium level but that was not too good; started to get lower voice quality than before and even got the same delay problems than other here. With POTS level all these went away and it is still a bit cheaper than CallCentric.