Going on a trip overseas? There's an easy way to save a lot of money when checking in at home. All you have to do is bring your laptop or iPod Touch along, and the calls home can be free—as long as you're using Skype or Google Voice.
Skype, especially, is starting to take its toll on international long distance carriers Reuters reports that Skype is taking a huge bite out of the international calling market:
"Skype is now the largest provider of cross border communications in the world, by far," said Stephan Beckert, analyst at research firm TeleGeography on Tuesday… Skype's on-net international traffic between two Skype users grew 51 percent in 2008, and is projected to grow 63 percent in 2009, to 54 billion minutes.
I'm not surprised. I've been using Skype as my work phone number for the last two years. For under $3 a month, Skype offers unlimited calls to phones in the US—and for a few dollars more, it can do more than most plain old home phone services can—including video chat.
Since my number is connected wherever I connect to the Internet, Skype lets keep the same phone number whether I am working from my home office or visiting a client's office. It can forward calls when I'm not connected to multiple phones, including my cell phone. When I somehow miss a call, I get notification e-mail with a web link to the voice message.
You can even associate multiple phone numbers with your Skype account, by buying "Skype In" numbers. This lets you set up local numbers in different places, so, for example, parents or kids off at college can call you at a local number and save the long distance fee. I've even registered a phone number in Australia so I could get "local" calls from clients in Sydney.
You don't necessarily need to make Skype calls from your computer. I can take and make Skype calls from my iPhone or an iPod Touch with a Skype app and a WiFi connection. There are also Skype phones available that use your home WiFi connection or a USB connection to your computer.
There are other ways to cut the land line wire. Google has begun to offer a web-based service called Google Voice. It's being offered by invitation only right now—you'll have to convince one of your cool friends who are already hooked up to send you one.
Google Voice is based on the GrandCentral service that Google bought two years ago. It connects all your phone numbers and your computer to a single phone number that comes free with your account.
Unlike Skype, Google Voice uses an existing phone instead of your computer. When you make a call from your Google Voice contact list, it connects the call between the person you're calling and whatever phone number you've registered with the service. If you've got multiple phones registered, you can pick whichever is convenient.
Google Voice can do a few neat tricks that Skype currently doesn't do:
- Provide personalized voice mail greetings for specific callers
- Transcribe voice mail messages to text, so you can read them on the web. (Skype offers a service called SpinVox that will send voice mails as SMS text messages to your cell phone).
- Block numbers you don't want calls from as "spam." like email.
Google Voice is only available to users in the US right now, so you won't be able to use it to call family from your overseas travels. But it does connect your calls for free anywhere in the US.
There's one thing that neither Skype nor Google Voice can do right now: make emergency calls. At least in the United States, you can't call 911 on one of these services, because they're not officially "phone services"—and there's no way to trace back where you're calling from once the call reaches the standard phone network.
That's one of the ways they manage to avoid the regulation and taxes that come with regular phone services. You also won't be able, as a result, to take your existing phone number to Skype or Google Voice. But with more people making most of their calls from their cell phones, these hardly seem like much of a sacrifice.