So there you are, staring glumly at your cell phone, while in a foreign country. You want to call back home, but to do so will cost you several dollars per minute – money better spent on buying overpriced souvenirs and all the other sundry but expensive costs of international travel!
Fortunately, “there’s an app for that”. Actually, these days there are many apps for smartphones, for tablets, and for regular computers that allow you to make voice and video calls from your device to other people, anywhere in the world – either on their devices or to regular phones, and at little or even no cost.
These apps have grown in sophistication and quality, and typically allow you a choice of sending text messages, sending files, making voice or even video calls, and may allow you to communicate with just one other person or to create a conference call and share with a group. Other features such as sharing your screen may also be available – invaluable when you’re trying to help or obtain help with a tricky computer problem.
These apps use your device’s data service to communicate rather than its phone service connection (if it has one). That means that instead of paying per minute costs for a phone call, and being at the mercy of whatever your wireless or other phone service provider will charge you, your costs are related to the data you use. Note that if you are calling to a regular phone rather than to another data device, you may end up paying a ‘phone call’ fee as well as needing to pay for the data you use. This way of making a phone call is called VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol).
An Introduction to VoIP Type Services
Originally VoIP services were ‘closed systems’ and could only communicate with other people who had the same VoIP hardware and software. As such, they were of little interest to ‘normal people’, and the slow internet speeds available back then meant that voice quality was unreliable and often inferior to normal phone lines. But, like everything else to do with the internet, there have been extraordinary improvements in the last 10 – 15 years, and if you’ve not refreshed your understanding of such things, you absolutely should.
VoIP services have steadily become more ‘open’ with connections into the regular phone network, and were released to work on ‘normal’ computers, using their built in or external/plugged-in sound cards, speakers, and microphones. That made them more generally useful for more people, and improving internet speeds meant that rather than offering an unreliable and poor sound quality, they increasingly offered something as good as (and more recently, significantly better than) regular phone service.
The huge change that transformed such programs was the development of smartphones and the release of VoIP service apps to work on these smart phones. Whereas a cell phone normally uses the wireless phone service to make and receive phone calls, and as such is subject to whatever rates per minute your wireless company might charge, when the phone uses a VoIP app instead, the call goes through your data plan rather than your phone minutes plan.
That’s not a big difference for making calls within your free calling area, where you probably never use up all your included minutes each month anyway. But as soon as you start to place international calls, or roam out of your free calling area (which in most cases means traveling to another country) then you’ll find your per minute regular phone service charges can skyrocket up.
There’s good news and bad news when you use the phone’s data service to place and receive phone calls. The bad news is that, particularly when out of the country, the cost for data access might be as high or possibly even higher than the cost for placing regular phone calls (and don’t even think about making video calls because they’ll be prohibitively expensive). The good news is that if you are connected through Wi-Fi, then your data costs probably collapse down to next to nothing, making VoIP via Wi-Fi the absolutely best way to place and receive calls.
Skype is the best known and probably most popular of all the different VoIP services, with something like 300 million regular users of its service. Many other similar products also exist – for example, Google Voice/Hangouts and Viber.
Apple’s FaceTime is also similar, but because it only works on Apple products, it is much less universal. The greater the user base, the more likely you can connect, totally for free, to someone else through the app, rather than needing to pay money to go ‘out of the system’ and to a regular phone number, so that gives Skype an important advantage.
There are still more services too, but they lack the size of user base, although they may offer even lower costs in some cases. But Skype’s costs (see below) are already so low as to make further cost reduction of little relevance and you’re best advised to focus on a major service that other people are most likely to use, rather than trying to save another few pennies on an hour-long international phone call.
WhatsApp is a similar and very popular service, but doesn’t offer the same full voice/conversational service. You can send audio ‘messages’ but you can’t have a realtime regular conversation using WhatsApp.
When I first wrote about Skype, back in 2004, it had a less than 2% market share of all international phone calls. By 2014, Skype was servicing over 40% of all international calls. When you add in the amount used by other VoIP services, it is clear that few people are still making expensive international calls the ‘old fashioned’ way.
The reason Skype is so popular? Basic Skype service is fully free. It costs nothing to download the software, either onto a computer or a smart phone, and it costs nothing to place or receive calls to/from other Skype users. You do have to pay money if you are calling from Skype and going out of its network to a regular phone number (typically 2c or more a minute to landlines in most countries, and probably more if to a cell phone in a country where the cell service providers charge fees to accept calls).
Skype has always been popular for video conferencing as well as regular voice talking. Originally, you could only video-conference with one other person for free, then they increased the limit to ten, and now you can have as many as 25 people all in a video conference, and without needing to pay anything extra. If 25 isn’t enough, you can go up to as many as 250 people using its commercial (paid) service.
When you join Skype you create an ID that other Skype members will use to contact you. They can look you up and find you in the Skype Directory in a manner analogous to how you look anyone else up in a regular phone directory (remember those….).
Another nice thing about Skype is you can also add a ‘normal’ phone number that people can dial from any regular phone to reach you on your Skype service. So you can use Skype to place or accept calls to/from other Skype members or to/from people with regular phone numbers, or if you are doing a multi-person conference call, a mix of both.
Another really clever thing is this number people use to dial to your Skype account can be from any of 25 different countries. You can have up to ten different numbers associated with an account (each regular phone number costs money each month), so you could have a local number in the US, Canada, UK, and any of the other 25 different countries you wanted, too. That makes it really easy for people to contact you without having to install Skype and have an internet connection.
There are many other ways you can extend Skype’s usefulness. Google for ‘Skype extensions’ and you’ll see a wide variety of extra things that can be added to Skype, often completely free of charge.
Three or More Ways Skype Might Not be Free
Most of us will never incur any money using Skype. But if we want to call to a phone number rather than another Skype member, that will probably cost us 2 – 3 cents/minute. If we want to have a ‘normal’ type phone number for people to call us from their phones, as well as our Skype ID for other Skype members to call us, that will cost us $18/three months or $60/year per number.
A third way to spend money with Skype is to use another Skype service – call forwarding – so that if you’re not online and accepting incoming Skype calls – the calls can be forwarded to another Skype account or to a regular phone number. Calls forwarded to another Skype account don’t cost extra, calls forwarded to a regular phone number cost 2 – 3 cents/minute. You can also have a voice mail service on your Skype account, and that is free.
There are some other ways you might spend money with other Skype services, including upgrading to a business type account.
And then there’s one other way you might incur costs while using Skype, even if calling other Skype members – and that is due to the data you are using for the call. A typical Skype voice call to another Skype user runs around 50 kbps, which is about 375 kB per minute. Skype uses less data to call to a regular phone, maybe about half that amount.
If you are making a video call, you can expect to use 2.5 MB/minute for ‘high quality’ or 7.5MB/minute for ‘HD’ quality, and this amount will slightly grow when doing video conference calls.
In other words, it would take 40 hours or more to use 1 GB of data on voice calls, and as little as 2 hours to use 1 GB when video calling.
Other Bandwidth Issues
Skype recommends your internet connection be able to support at least 100 kbps in both uploading and downloading speeds for voice calling, and ideally 500 kbps or faster for video. The same is also true of the person at the other end of the call (unless your call is to/from a regular phone line).
There is one other issue to keep in mind as well, and that is the latency of your connection (www.speedtest.net will report both the latency – what it calls the ping time – and the speed of your connection). Latency is a measure of, among other things, the delay it takes between when you say something and the other person hears it. The shorter the latency the better, so as to prevent you and the other person from talking over the top of each other awkwardly.
Ideally you want latency of 250 msec or shorter on a call, so you need to consider the latency between you and ‘the internet’ and then the added latency between the other person and ‘the internet’ too, plus some more latency as the call goes through the internet. Look for a latency time below 100 msecs on a speedtest.net test.
If you are accessing the internet via a poor quality connection, you probably should avoid making video calls so as not to overstress your limited connection capability.
Skype is a great way of connecting, communicating, and sharing with your friends and acquaintances, no matter if you are at home or on the road. Because you can run it on a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet or a phone (including on multiple devices simultaneously) it really is as convenient and omnipresent as a regular phone number, and as long as you’re not paying over the odds for data, it will usually be significantly less expensive than regular phone service, particularly when calling to or from foreign countries.
It is free to create a Skype account, and really easy to use. If you’ve not already done so, you should try it.