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Thursday, May 04, 2006

You say I can call overseas for TT$0.13 per minute...? (Part 1)

Despite recent reductions in internatinal calling rates, first via TSTT SmartChoice and then the 50-cent-plus-VAT-on-a-weekend reaction to cellular competition, keeping in touch with loved ones abroad can be an expensive proposition. And loved ones alone is joke, because there are probably more Trinbagonians outside of Trinidad & Tobago to keep up with than there are persons within the sovereign borders of the State.

It's a fact too that Trinis, moreso than Tobagonians, have relatives and friends from almost every island in the Caribbean chain. And now with the CSM in place and CSME coming, free movement of resources means that families and friends are more likely now and in future to be operating across national borders.

Now I will admit that we are still better off than long ago when the whole family had to line up outside TEXTEL building in the dew to make a marathon phone call to New York twice a year. And gone now are the days where you had to wait until 11 in the evening to take advantage of night rates. But a dollar a minute (plus VAT... Don't ever forget the VAT...) is still expensive. Calls going the other way, from the States and the UK can also be quite costly.

There are options now though where, for a very modest investment, it's possible to call major metropolitan centres for less than 25 cents a minute. Using the same solution set, foreigners can now call Trinidad & Tobago for their cost of a local call. All it takes for the Trinbagonian is a credit card and Internet access.

Almost every Trinbagonian on the 'Net has used realtime text-based chat services like MSN, Yahoo! Messenger, and once upon a time, ICQ. Ubiquitous Google has also recently introduced their own chat service, GoogleTalk. Each of these provided the user with the ability to engage in two-way text chats with other users of the same service. All of them too permitted some poor quality voice chat, but again, an MSN user could only talk to another MSN user, and so on. Voice chat though tended to be an exercise in frustration, as the quality of the connection tended to be very poor, featuring echoes, gaps and delays reminescent of early cellular service.

Almost two years ago, a new service debuted for which voice chat was primary and text chat was the secondary feature. Skype (http://www.skype.com), as the service was called, provided at the outset the best connection quality in the business, even over slower dialup Internet connections. However, in the beginning, like the other players, you had to be a Skype user and running the Skype application on your PC or Mac to connect with another Skype user. And, like the other chat services, this functionality is provided to users for free.

Skype has since evolved to come to introduce paid services, including:
  • SkypeOut - A service where Skype users can purchase credit in US$10 blocks which can be used to make calls to any international phone number for pennies per minute. To bring pennies home, a SkypeOut call to a US landline or cellular number is US$0.021 per minute. At the current rate of exchange, that equates to TT$0.13 per minute. That rate applies to SkypeOut calls to landlines and mobile phones in the continental United States and Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and a list of other major European and Asian destinations. Rates for other calling destinations can be seen here.

  • SkypeIn - A service where a user can, for as little as US$12, purchase an International phone number from Skype and have it linked to their free Skype account. The SkypeIn page says it best:
    With SkypeIn, you can get your own, regular phone number. So if your friends who aren’t using Skype want to call you by dialing a regular number, you can still receive the call in Skype. No matter where you are.

    So, if you have a Chicago-based SkypeIn number, but you’re living somewhere in the suburbs of Paris, your Chicago area friends - or anyone! - can just dial your SkypeIn number, and your Skype on the other side of the world starts ringing... and your friends are only paying whatever their phone company charges them for making a phone call to Chicago.

    Up to 10 SkypeIn numbers can be purchased by a single Skype user, selectedat present from numbers in the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland.

  • Skype VoiceMail - This is an add-on to the SkypeIn service, and works just like voicemail on a fixed line or cellular phone. When a user purchases SkypeIn service, voicemail is a free package add-on, but the voicemail service can be purchased separately.

Skype is also testing other services like Skype SMS, which will allow a user to send text messages to just about any cell phone in the world from their computer.

Skype will also allow you to forward calls made to your Skype numbers to your regular land line or cell phone when you're not at the PC. And further, you can use Skype to set up multi-line conference calls, right at your PC.

What all this means to the Trinibagonian is that with an Internet connection and a credit card to pay for services, Skype provides a low-cost alternative to traditional voice communication at very low cost. You can literally live on the line with the children at University abroad, and surprise the cousins that you've not spoken with in ages with a family conference call, and can call that toll-free number toll-free to buy that whatchamaycallit that you saw on TV.

Skype is useful not only for private callers, but can be an excellent way for small and medium businesses to keep international calling costs down. With SkypeIn numbers in the States, Canada and the UK, a local expanding business can present an international face to overseas customers, leading possibly and ultimately, to more business from a far broader customer base. With SkypeOut and call conferencing, you can get those two warring consultants on the line together to referee a fix to that implementation problem once and for all.
In part 2 of this article on Thursday, I will explain exactly how you can get yourself set up. We'll go through the very basic equipment that you'll need to get to start off, talk about how to check your connection quality before you go for paid services, discuss making your first call to an international number, and then go into the kinds of options available to make your Skype service look and feel just like a regular phone. And after you do all that and are saving money on foreign calls, we'll discuss what charities you can divert those savings to, because it all comes down to helping yourself so that you can help others.

And remember readers, spread the word!!!

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