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Friday, May 12, 2006

You say I can call overseas for TT$0.13 per minute...? (Part 2)

I called TSTT's Internet Helpdesk to ask that I be faxed a copy of the terms and conditions of their dial-up and DSL services; I could find none in my own records. While I can remember signing something when I registered for the ADSL service, I did not recall any restrictions on the use of the service myself. In any case, I was informed that there are no documented conditions or service restrictions.

And so, with that indemnification, we press on.

At present, I have a New York phone number in the 347 area code, and approximately US$8.00 in outbound calling credit remaining; I've been using the service for about a month and a half, and started with US$10 of calling credit. Calls quality is better than even local landline calls and, for those of us that have gone Digicel, is better than a Digicel-to-Digicel call. Call quality though is dependant on the speed and quality of your Internet connection.

So wha' ah need to start wid?

For starters, you'll need three things:
  1. Internet Access - To use the Skype service, you'll need a PC or a Mac with access to the Internet. That's as basic as it gets. Your access can be either dialup or some form of high speed access like ADSL or TSTT's new EV-DO service, though I've not checked the terms and conditions on the latter.
  2. Skype - You'll need to go to http://www.skype.com and download the version of the software appropriate to your machine, whether PC or Mac. You'll also need to sign up for your own Skype username and password to access the service. Don't pay for SkypeOut and SkypeIn add-on services yet, because you'll need to check the quality of your line first using a facility that the Skype application provides.
  3. Speakers and microphone - In order to use the service, you'll need speakers and a mic, or a cheap headset with a boom mic. Right now, I'm using a TT$25 boom mic with earpiece, reminescent of the early wired cellulr phone earpieces. There should be a few more where I got it at Creative Computers on upper Frederick Street.

Ah have all dat. Wha' ah doin' now?

The first thing you should do, and the Skype installation should have walked you through it when you logged on for the first time, is check the quality of your voice connection. Attempt to connect to user named "echo123". Echo123 is a Skype-provided automated system that speaks to you briefly, records 10 seconds of your voice, and then plays back to you what you recorded. Do this as often as you feel you the need to; Echo123 neither gets tired nor does it sleep.

What this is supposed to exhibit is what other Skype users will sound like on your Internet connection, and what you will sound like to people on the other end of the line. If you hear horrible slurs, delays and gaps, then it makes no sense going any further, unless you're going to upgrade your Internet service; you're probably on a slow dialup connection, and there's not much that you can do on your existing Internet service to improve the situation. Note that this is not to say that all dialup services will give you a poor Skype connection because not all dialup is the same. So test it using Echo123 first before you sign off on using Skype.

If you're still not convinced by the "echo123" test though, sign up for Skype (it's free), post a comment to this article with your new Skype username, and I'll get in touch with you. We can chat Skype-to-Skype for a short while so that you can try out the service.

If you are satisfied with what you hear, now you can consider spending some money to expand the Skype experience.

A'right... Ah ready to call Tantie Jean in DC... What's next?

You'll need a credit card to purchase additional Skype services, whether SkypeOut or SkypeIn. A card issued by one of the local commercial banks should be okay. The Skype site accepted mine just fine with no odd queries or ill effects.

For those skeptical about using their credit card online, one of the local banks suggests having a card with a very modest limit just for online purchases. If you have a card already, it shouldn't be a problem to get another; just tell them that you want to make small purchases online and you would like to have a second card with a minimal balance.

To recap, there are two main paid services. These are SkypeOut and SkypeIn.

The former, SkypeOut, is where you purchase calling credit, like Top-Up cards for prepaid cell phones. This you use to call landline numbers abroad. I won't go into details. You can read all about SkypeOut on the product page here. I will say though that SkypeOut credit is available for purchase in US$10 blocks, and at US$0.021 per minute to call a long list of major destinations, 10 dollars goes a long way.

The latter service, SkypeIn, is where you can purchase up to 10 foreign phone numbers in various countries. Those numbers are assigned to your Skype username. Again, I'll let you read about that here. SkypeIn comes with voicemail, so even if you miss a call, you won't necessarily miss the caller. Phone numbers are sold on a subscription basis. You get a user-selected number for 3-months renewable for US$12, or a year renewable for US$38.

Which services you purchase depends on what you need. I, for example, have opted to purchase both. I have a New York SkypeIn number because my intended lives and works in New York state. Her landline and cellular calling plan allows her to make unlimited New York calls for free. I have SkypeOut so that I can call her too. More often than not though, it's the ubiquitous, "call mih back!" The combination also allows me to make toll-free US calls toll-free because I, for all intents and purposes, are making calls from a US phone.

Let's say that you run a small business and make heavy use of one of the Skybox services based in Miami. It makes sense then to purchase a Florida number to match your Florida address. It adds a more professional edge to your website, call cards and purchase orders, and gives your business a little more legitimacy. It also saves your overseas vendor partners the burden of having to place an international call to get in touch with you.

For the parents who will still be sending children abroad to school, keeping in touch with them is easier and less expensive with SkypeOut and SkypeIn. Using the service, the youngsters can get themselves an inexpensive prepaid cell phone and make in-state calls to parents' and friends' Skype numbers back at home. Homesickness is more easily averted, and the money that would have been spent on international calling can be diverted to other things.

At the end of the day then, for as little as US$10 for outbound calling and US$12 for inbound calling, a Trinbagonian never has to see another overseas call on their phone bill again.

But dis headset t'ing... Ah ent able wid de wire...

It's no longer necessary to sit at the computer with an uncomfortable headset on, staring at the screen and doing nothing while you talk. From time to time, I disconnect the microphone cable on my headset and listen to my callers on the speakers. Thus I have a speakerphone on the cheap.

Skype though offers a wealth of options for making the calling experience more like using a landline phone. The Skype Shop sells various corded and cordless units that look, feel and are used just like traditional phones. There are also add-on boxes for your PC that allow you to use your current land line as your Skype phone too. There are even conference calling kits that you can plug into the PC for use.

It's also possible to use your cellphone's Bluetooth earpiece with your PC or Mac. If the computer isn't Bluetooth-ready, you can get yourself a Bluetooth dongle to plug into your USB port, pair your headset with the PC and your headset becomes your wireless headset for use with Skype.

Sign up. Try it out. Purchase add-ons. Buy additional hardware to make Skype even easier to use. Save money. Be happy.

And now the pitch...

By now, you know that I'm not showing you all of this for nothing. There are people and businesses that are going to save hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars using voice-over-IP services like Skype. Having saved it, it's not going to hurt much to spend a little bit of it doing something good for someone. There's a long list of charitable organisations that need help, from well known ones like the Rape Crisis Centre, to ones that are far from our minds like the various orphanages and drug rehab centres around the country.

Like I said in the first post of the "We wore black..." series, it doesn't have to be any kind of grand or even press-worthy effort. Do something within your reach and for your own satisfaction. Every little bit helps, no matter how humble the effort seems. You don't need to start a campaign to get everybody in the country to wear black, drive with their headlights on, or sign a referendum. Two five-dollar tins of pigeon peas could break the monotony of rice-and-corned beef for a halfway house. A hundred dollars could save a charitable organisation from having their phone disconnected, breaking their link with the outside world. Calling your friends and family overseas using Skype and telling them how this blog has helped you find ways to help can direct them to avenues for assisting from abroad.

Remember always that every little bit - from those here at home and those away - together can go a very long way...

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