Project FAX

It’s no big surprise, but the era of the voiceband modem is almost over.

The number of household landlines has been shrinking over the past few years with more mobile-only users. The number of dial-up modem connections to the internet has plummeted off a cliff, now representing just 0.74% of internet connections. Dial-up ISPs have started to close down, with many no longer signing up customers, and others such as Telstra completely closing down their dial-up services. New VDSL2 and HFC based Liberal NBN connections will not feature an NTU and will not have a voice port available. The only voice you will get is that of SIP VoIP which aren’t known for quality nor playing well with voice-band modems. Even the humble EFTPOS machine is slowly giving way to those connecting wirelessly, or over the internet for even faster transactions.

It seems the service we know as POTS (plain-old telephone service) may be just about dead, and along with it, all of the devices we know and love that once connected to it. Goodbye answering machine. Goodbye caller ID unit. Goodbye dial-up modem.

But there is one hold-out that seems to be lasting a little longer than the others. The humble facsimile, or fax for short, used for sending documents over phone lines. While not that popular in Australian homes, it is still going strong in Japan, and uses voice-band modem technology and digital compression to achieve its function. It still enjoys some use in many businesses and enjoys a legal status which hasn’t yet been conferred to scan-to-email or any of its other replacements. Apparently, you can even start a war by fax. Even today, with the slow death of landlines, people are still concerned about getting faxes working.

Sadly, the home user has all but eschewed the fax, and it shows. Fax-back services are gone – you won’t hear messages at the end of a TV program saying “for more information, get our factsheet by calling Informatel on …”. In fact, the Weather-by-Fax service I so happily experimented with in 2010 is no longer. The era of fax will soon be gone as well.

Another hold-out is the TTY (teletypewriter) used by those who are hard of hearing, although this too is giving way to e-mail, instant messaging, SMS and more modern technologies.

My Proposal: Your last fax – an online fax time capsule

Fax itself is hardly a perfect medium. It suffers from corruption due to line noise, it has a limited resolution which is fairly grainy (for regular G3 fax anyway) and it’s only black and white. But it works, it’s “good enough”, it can convey free-form writing and drawings and it’s much faster than snail mail.

To morn the slow death of, and to remember the technology that was the fax, I propose a little project I like to call your last fax.

If you had one last chance to send a fax, what would you send?

Do you have a message for me? or maybe a message for everybody?
Do you have some memories you would like to share? or maybe a funny story?
Do you even remember the dial-up modem or the fax machine?
Maybe you make good line-art drawings,
or have some wisdom you would like to communicate.
Maybe you have great handwriting, messy handwriting or anything in-between,
and are creative enough to write a tribute to our dying technology?

I invite readers to share this with their friends and inspire them to think about this question, and moreover, to actually send me their last fax. Project FAX will be an online time-capsule of received last faxes hosted for the world to appreciate, just as a project of my own curiosity. It will give you a reason to dust off that old fax machine or dial-up modem … and use that phone line one last time and hear the tones of electronics talking to each other.

For more information on Fax, including actual audio samples of calls made by myself with some explanation of the technical aspects, see the Fax Technicalities & Audio Samples page.

Ground Rules

To ensure that the project remains alive for as long as possible and is available for all to use, please observe the following rules:

  • While you are permitted to send several faxes to the system, please keep it to one fax per week at the most.
  • Please avoid sending long faxes of more than three pages, to allow others a chance of accessing the system as there is only one line.
  • Please avoid sending faxes with unnecessarily high detail (e.g. pure noise) or faxes with non human intelligible content (e.g. black or white faxes).
  • Faxes will be published online if correctly received, and contains appropriate content.
  • Faxes of a commercial nature may not be published or may have company details redacted.
  • Faxes of an inappropriate nature, likely to cause unreasonable offense, or which are distasteful, or otherwise deemed to be unsuitable will not be published. Please refrain from resending such faxes.
  • Please do not fax copyrighted material for which you do not have the rights to reproduce.
  • Please avoid providing details you do not want published.
  • Care will be taken to redact the calling party ID in the header, and any full names (leaving at most, initials).
  • Any cover pages without meaningful text (e.g. without comments, or with ads from free fax services) will be removed.
  • I cannot be held responsible for any costs incurred by sending a fax to me, or damages which can arise due to, or as a consequence of, having your fax sent to me published online.
  • I provide the service voluntarily and within my best efforts, and cannot guarantee continuity of the fax reception service or the permanent availability of collected faxes for viewing online.
  • Your caller ID (CID) may be recorded by the service provider, and your CSID/TSID as set in your fax machine may be recorded by my reception apparatus. Neither detail will be published online for your privacy.
  • Requests to remove published faxes will not be honoured except in exceptional circumstances where you can prove that you are the sender and there is an exceptionally good reason for removing it.
  • Faxes sent to me will become property of Gough Lui (me), and any faxes sent will confer to me the right to republish the message with and or without modification (redaction, etc) for the purposes of this project.
  • No faxes will be returned, and any recorded numbers will not be used for any purpose whatsoever.

Every fax received will be moderated and hand-redacted before publication. A time-frame for publication is not firm, but received faxes should be uploaded no less than once a month. I’m sure most decent human beings can probably follow these instructions.

Access Numbers

To send me a fax and participate in this project, you will need to know where to send it. Please ensure you record these following numbers accurately and check the cost of calling to the numbers before you send your fax. I cannot be held responsible for any call charges incurred by the sender and cannot accept reverse-charge calls.

For callers from Australia, the number is in the Sydney area code and is provided by my paid-for PennyTel service.

For Australian callers, dial: (02) 8064 1804
For international callers, dial: + 61 2 8064 1804
where + represents your IDD code, usually 0, 01, 001 or 0011.

To improve the reach of the service, another access number is provided by a free DID provided by Callcentric. This number is in the Peekskill, NY area exchange.

For callers within US, dial: (845) 402 9861
For international callers, dial: + 1 845 402 9861
where + represents your IDD code, usually 0, 01, 001 or 0011.

The above number has expired – the replacement number is in the Garrison, NY area exchange.

For callers within US, dial: (845) 335 2793
For international callers, dial: + 1 845 335 2793
where + represents your IDD code, usually 0, 01, 001 or 0011.

If in doubt, the main number is the Sydney, Australia number (+61 2 8064 1804) which will remain active over two years unless suspended earlier. The other number is provided for greater accessibility and is likely going to result in worse performance and could be revoked by the provider at any time.

How to Send?

For many of you, it’s probably too late. If you had a fax machine, you probably don’t have one anymore. If you had a landline, maybe that’s not around anymore either. For the authentic fax experience, you really do need a landline and a fax machine, however there are several ways to send a fax without one. Unfortunately, most of the latter options miss out on part of the faxing experience, namely feeding paper into a machine, hearing the answer tone (and possibly all of the fax transmission if your modem speaker is left on).

If you have a landline, dial-up modem and you’re willing to use it …

You might have success if you still have a working dial-up modem correctly installed. Windows Fax and Scan along with a compatible modem can send and receive faxes. For users with internal modems, say in an older laptop or desktop, this can be rather easy to get going as it might already be installed. If you receive errors such as “The fax can’t be sent because of an unexpected error,” then it’s likely you have a modem driver compatibility issue. You may have better luck with paid third party software such as SnappyFax.

If you have an older Windows XP or earlier machine, third party software such as Symantec WinFax Pro (abandonware) works very well. For even older OSes from the Windows 9x era, Cheyenne BitWare also seems to work marginally well – I’ve used both myself with regularity.

Under Mac OSX with a compatible modem, you can use the Fax printer provided a compatible modem has been set-up.

In Linux, you may consider setting up a HylaFAX server and client, although it can get rather complicated.

If you don’t have a landline at all … but you have a VoIP service that supports T.38 faxing and you’re willing to use it …

In this case, you could set up your own Asterisk server at home, set-up your VoIP provider as a trunk and then set up Free Fax for Asterisk from Digium and integrate that into the system to allow you to send faxes. A word of warning – this is not for the inexperienced and will result in the need for hours of chasing around to try and debug and modify code to correct for configuration differences.

Other methods exist which emulate modems using t38modem, however, they are even more flaky and difficult to configure.

Some VoIP providers offer fax to e-mail and web-based faxing for free with your account. If you have this service, this could be an easy and reliable way to send a fax.

If you don’t have a landline at all … but you’re willing to pay or ask for permission …

You might find organizations willing to send faxes on your behalf. In Australia, Australia Post offers faxing at a cost for AU$5 for the first page and AU$1.25 for each page thereafter. This is rather pricey, but is one way. Some newsagencies may also offer such services. Many local libraries also offer this service, and may have even lower rates.

Another alternative is online paid-for e-mail or document to fax services, of which there are many, although I cannot recommend any particular service at this time. Of course, if it’s just for a one-off fax, this probably is too expensive as many are on monthly plans.

Otherwise, you might have a fax machine at your workplace where you can request and be granted permission to send a one-off fax for limited incidental/personal usage.

If you don’t have a landline at all … but you still want to send a fax for free …

We are rather lucky that there are a few companies which offer online faxing for free as a way to advertise their service and evaluate their quality. Almost all of these require an active legitimate e-mail account to confirm lodgement of your fax before it is sent.

Services which I have tested and seem to work include:

  • myfax – free faxes to many countries – Australian and US number accepted, two per day limit.
  • www.TopFreeFax.com – free fax to US number, 14 page limit, no e-mail verification needed.
  • GotFreeFax.com – free faxes to US & Canada numbers only, 3 page fax maximum, two per day.
  • faxZERO.com – free faxes to US & Canada numbers only, 3 page fax maximum, five per day.
  • HelloFax – requires full account registration, 5-pages total of free fax per month, fax to Australia and US number accepted.

Of course, these services can change their conditions at any time, and limit the service provided, and is less reliable than using a real fax.

Receiving Configuration

As landlines are expensive and difficult to get because of the shortage of telco copper in our area, the receiving station operates off VoIP (both T.38 and G.711a pass-through modes). The receiving station is unattended and consists of an Asterisk VM server connected to the two VSPs as inbound trunks. The trunks are patched through to the Free Fax for Asterisk which receives the fax, converts it to PDF and e-mails it to me for review.

This means that paper is not being wasted with printing the faxes. It also means the system is limited to what a single-line fax system can do. If someone else is still sending their fax, you will receive a busy tone (just as you would with a real machine and a single line). Only one can be received at a time, so it’s best to ensure your faxes are not too complex and your line is good.

Another implication is that the fax only supports the traditional G3 fax modes, meaning black and white at 200 dpi (or 100 dpi in normal mode) at the most. It looks like a fax rather than a photocopy – so fine details and greyscales don’t make it out that well depending on your fax machine.

Because this configuration uses VoIP, its reliability is not perfect especially when the home ADSL2+ is under high loading. As a result, it might be best to avoid 6pm to 12am Sydney Time (UTC+10/+11). However, it’s generally very reliable when ECM is supported by the sending fax machine.

It’s time to get thinking and sending :).

What will your last fax be?

Thanks for taking the time to read and hopefully contribute to the cause. I look forward to receiving your last fax and I hope you will remember it fondly, along with other voice-band modem technologies that have served us well over the past two to three decades.

Please help me out – share this with your friends, and people you know
before it’s too late!