A Certain Kind of Love, or Why my Apartment Qualifies as a Phone Network Now

The number of electronic means to communicate I have is directly correlated with how isolated and alone I feel


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If you call me, you hear “Welcome to the phone system!” in a text-to-speech voice generated on a mac before being greeted with a menu. One of the options just says “press ‘3’ to do something”…it used to do nothing, now it goes to my conferencing system. There is an entire “language” for designing this menu, editable and usable only via terminal or terminal emulator. Why did I do this? Why does it amuse me? “This is just one system! You said you had an entire phone network, Maddy!”. Come along for the story and I’ll tell you all about the hobby that accidentally made me money.

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The Bell System, people using technology to help keep down costs and improve service. Keeping your phone system the best in the world.

For about forty years, my grandfather worked for Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of the phone company. He worked assembling and testing originally electromechanical telephone switching equipment at the Columbus Works plant in Columbus, OH. As he is a bit of a role model/important parental figure…I wonder what got me in to electronics and telephones? ;) Mind, I was born well after he retired and a bit over a decade after the Modification of Final Judgement so I did not get the play with the phone network in the electromechanical age.


The “title” of this section is taken from ETHSER.MAC from DEC’s TOPS-10 7.04 Monitor Source Code , a topic that won’t quite be relevant until a much later section.

I gained an interest in computer networking…don’t recall how or why but it started with buying a Cisco 7200 router off of ebay and assembling it (after a vintage computing friend gave me a CPU module)…from the various parts. The I/O Controller (has the serial ports and management ethernet along with the boot flash cards) for mine was damaged…and I had no easy way to load the boot software to it along with being impatient…so I did what any normal person in the situation would do: I asked on IRC.

I’d already had some experience in the vintage computing fields (my deadname has, er a reputation…that isn’t necessarily a bad one!) so doing weird stuff with connecting RS-232 devices back-to-back and doing ppp wasn’t exactly too far-out for me. Someone I met on IRC (who would later employ me!) was impressed by my eagerness to do this (along with my success…). Of course, this didn’t end up solving my problem whatsoever as the configuration NVRAM for the board was completely shot and for some silly reason, the OS requires that ;)

Fast forward a bit, and the guy I mention above who will be known as “Bill” for the rest of this story hired me to do work for him. One of his large clients was an ISP/hosted VoIP provider based out of Canada…I was contracted to them to do remote sysadmin work (while I was living in Ohio). I furthered my networking skills and gained a LOT more VoIP knowledge from this job (along with beginning to acquire far too many phones…) which furthered my already-high interest in phones and telephony. This job didn’t last too long as the client ran out of money…but that’s again a different story. Through all this time and until the next section I had been wanting a phone system to play with…embedded systems fascinated me and high-reliability ones especially so. I had been wanting to buy phone systems to play with (AT&T Merlin stuff, specifically) however this all got a bit delayed when I lost the job and…fled to the San Francisco Bay Area (maybe I should write an article about that really sad and stressful story. Hmm.)

Walk-ins welcome (please call first)

The “title” of this “section” is taken from a poster in a laundromat near the friend’s place I was staying at when I first got the SF Bay Area, which bears no real relevance to anything but to this day still amuses me.

So! I’m in the Bay Area now, landed a job at a crappy managed IT provider (CEO would call you out in front of everyone if you screwed up) that I quit after about a month. Said job at least trapped me in San Jose where I stayed for two years (working another, better, but still article-worthy job) that allowed me many easy treks to WeirdStuff Warehouse to acquire far more useless junk than I could ever need or want.

At one point, I met a friend via Twitter with a hobby of volunteering at a telephone museum who had a Lucent/AT&T/Avaya Definity PBX. I eventually decided I wanted one. One night at $NonTerrribleSanJoseJob a coworkerfriend and I decided to take a weeknight run to WeirdStuff…the procurement associate (who knew me from bringing a friend by who ended up buying pallet worth of stuff…) answered my questions as to if he had any interesting telephone systems. My ears perked up when he said a large 3-cabinet Definity had come in. I bought a single cabinet that evening for $100 and my friend helped me lug it home.

2w5d: ISDN Se1/0:23 Q931: RX <- SETUP pd = 8 callref = 0x66AD

Now I had an Avaya Definity, some phones to go with it, a T1 card, and a Cisco router that would do a voice PRI. I proceeded to do what any girl would do…and made the Cisco router bridge a voice T1 to a SIP trunk so allow inbound/outbound calling from the Definity to work. This was the start of my phone network and a very complex journey. I would study and learn this system…and later attempt to deploy a similar setup at a client site after I quit $NonTerrribleSanJoseJob to become a contractor (said deployment failed, as the old Mitel PBX insisted that * was a + and that # was an @…something the Cisco router did not like. Amusingly an identical deployment would later work as their deployment didn’t require parsing of # and *.).

My lease was running out and I had been wanting to learn about Nortel PBXes…so I would search ebay for them. I found a local seller that was selling an empty chassis and processor interface that allowed me simply do local pickup saving a lot in shipping costs, figuring I would buy all the other modules once I got more money.

Forbidden Island

Sometimes love, it would sustain you

I ended up moving to Alameda, CA and dragging all my phone systems along…everything began to exponentially grow from here.

I upgraded my T1 routers to a newer model, I had a VM doing complex SIP trunking, call routing, and diagnostic tone generation…said system got named “yate-tandem” as it functioned like a normal tandem/class-4 telephone switch in the public phone network…not processing calls directly but routing between end-office switches. The Cisco switches also got such nice names as “cisco-tandem” and “cisco-co (central office)” based on what classof public network switch they most pretended to be.

The Nortel got a T1 too! Now cisco-tandem was routing between two different PBXes, both with voice PRIs, however the story did not stop there…not even close. I work from home, and Comcast’s service is, well, what you’d expect from Comcast. So i ended up with two different ISPs…both providing a phone line of some sort…I also got a normal POTS line from AT&T to see what noise on ISP2’s line was like.

Now I have five external trunks. Two SIP (separate providers!), Comcast’s VoIPish, Sonic’s VoIP, and AT&T POTS service. Each terminates is a slightly different way. The SIP are handled by cisco-tandem routing to yate-tandem, Comcast and AT&T are connected to the Definity analogue trunk card, the Sonic terminates on cisco-tandem and connected to the Nortel Meridian over the ISDN PRI.

Still with me? It gets more complex! I then decided I needed voicemail, an IP trunk to a friend in the UK, and an IP trunk to a friend in the North Bay. So the Definity got a copy of Audix running on an old Pentium III and the Meridian got a CallPilot card. Both systems also needed to have a recorded announcement card. The Definity got a voice-over-the-LAN card, and the Meridian got a MIRAN card (MeridIan Recorded ANnouncement) to play its hold music and not much else.

So, now I have two four-wire phone cords running in to my bedroom with a digital phone connected to each system on/near my desk.

The Definity has these modules: Processor, Tone/Clock, CO Trunk (for standard phone company trunks coming in), T1, C-LAN (network card, basically), IP Media Processor (for VoIP phones), Digital Line (for digital phones like my VFD-containing 8434DX+), Announcement (the recorded announcement card playing silly recordings and music), another Digital Line Card, Analogue line card (for standard phone network phones)

The Meridian has these modules: Processor, T1, MIRAN (recorded announcement), Digital Line (for Nortel-specific phones), Universal Trunk card (for standard phone company trunks coming in), Analog line card, CallPilot (voicemail and menus), and finally the MICB…a conference bridge card.

(the “title” of this section is a reference to the song I always use for testing my trunks and lines)

Here are some photos…

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I have several more phone systems not mentioned…that are sporadically connected. NEC, Toshiba Strata XI, Shoretel, AT&T Spirit, Asterisk…etc.

Cause i = 0x8190 — Normal call clearing

In closing, to fight severe depression and feelings of isolation…I focused all my time and energy in to interconnecting and learning phone systems and it has helped me cope…

but I still feel alone.

Written by

Bit lost, bit at the end of the world. Wholly me.

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