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Make free or cheap calls using VoIP


What’s VoIP? Am I pronouncing it correctly?


VoIP allows you to communicate with people over an internet connection. Just think of it as internet telephony. If you really must know these things, VoIP stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol. I hope most of you know what voice, over and internet mean. A protocol is a set of rules, which allow computers to communicate over a network connection (like the internet). The pronunciation doesn’t matter.

If the phoner and phonee are both using an internet connection then the call itself is “free” of charge. Since you are already paying your internet provider for a connection, it makes no difference what type of information you send over it (as long as you don’t go over your bandwidth cap). You can surf and make calls at the same time. Most VoIP apps also let you:

  1. Chat by sending typed messages (instant messaging)
  2. Chat over a webcam (let your imagination run wild)
  3. Share workspace, which allows you to see apart of your friend’s or colleague’s computer screen and thereby allowing you to work on the same documents simultaneously
  4. Use advanced capabilities for free, such as call forwarding, caller ID, conference calls, multiple calls over same connection and call encryption

And again, it’s free as long as the person you are calling is also using a compatible VoIP service. So, it’s an obvious option when chatting to friends, family and co-workers in foreign countries.


VoIP providers


There are many services that allow you to use VoIP to call landlines and mobiles (home and abroad) for a fee. This can sometimes be a lot cheaper than alternative options. Always check this before you use a VoIP service in this way. Here is a table to compare the costs of calling landlines/mobiles:

Comparison of call charges (pence per minute)
  UK UK mobile US Canada Australia
Skype 1.4 16.6 1.4 1.4 1.4
Sipgate 1.19 9.9 1.5 1.5 1.8
BT 1.5 – 5.9 7.5 – 12.5 11.4 – 17.3 11.4 – 18.3 11.4 – 27.2
The minimum of the BT bands represents the evening (7pm – 7am) and weekend rates and the maximum represents the daytime rate. Country ordering is random. Australia is not implied to be the inferior, stop being so paranoid.


Note that each call to a landline or mobile may also incur a connection fee:

Connection fee (pence)
  UK number Foreign number
Skype 3.3 6.8
Sipgate 0.0 0.0
BT 9.9 9.9



Skype


Skype offer a pay as you go option, where you can make calls to landlines or mobiles after buying Skype credits. They also have three pay monthly schemes:

Unlimited calls within the UK: £3.39 per month
Unlimited calls to 20+ countries within Europe: £4.54 per month
Unlimited calls to 40+ countries: £7.99 per month

Where unlimited actually means a lot as defined by a fair usage policy.


Sipgate


Sipgate offers a plan called sipgate1000, which provides you with 1000 minutes (about 17 hours) of calls to UK landlines for £5.90 per month. Mobiles and calls abroad are charged at the usual rate. This deal is really only for heavy landline users.


Tip: a big advantage with Sipgate is that you get a geographical (landline type) number for free. Calls made to your Sipgate number don’t cost you anything! People can phone your Sipgate number using their inclusive mobile minutes or from a landline for free on weekends (fair use policy applies). It’s brilliant for students, or people travelling away from home. Your friends, family and colleagues can use a local number to contact you. You may even be able to port your existing number over to them. Skype charge extra for these features (see SkypeIn for details).



Jajah


Jajah allows anyone with web access to use VoIP via their normal landline or mobile. It therefore doesn’t require any additional equipment or software. When you want to make a call you have to go to their website, enter the number you wish to dial and wait for your phone to ring. On picking up, you’ll be connected to the destination number. The call is routed through the internet using VoIP. A fair use policy is implied, they urge customers to limit their “free” calls to 1 hour a day, for 5 days a week. Calls outside the restrictions are charged at a fee.


Betamax


Another alternative VoIP service is one where you typically pay a top-up fee and can then make a certain amount of “free” calls, to landlines and mobiles, over a set period of time (freedays). After the “free” period, you pay according to their normal rates. Some providers even allow “free” calls to a few foreign countries.

One major provider is Betamax, which trades under many different names, such as VoipCheap and VoipDiscount. For a top-up of €10+VAT, you get 90 – 120 freedays. This comes with a further constraint of 300 “free” call minutes per week. Unused minutes can not be carried over though.


Although many are happy with using Betamax, quite a lot of customers have complained about their poor customer service and being blocked completely from using all Betamax providers without recourse. It maybe worthwhile trying it out for €12. Just be aware that if things do go wrong, you might not want to waste your time wrangling with them.



Sound’s too good to be true, not that I’m accusing you of anything.


suspicious fry

There are some downsides. The first thing is that the sound quality may not be as good as a landline. The quality can be noticeably worse when calling a landline and more so when calling mobiles. Calls can also get cut if there’s a computer crash, or the cat yanks your internet cable out of the socket, or gremlins attack your connection. Although, to be fair, similar criticism can be made of mobile calls and few seem to mind paying good money for those. Also remember that you need a broadband connection for VoIP to be usable.

There can also be issues involving call lag. Although it has become less frequent due to the increasing speed of broadband. Some internet providers may reduce your speed (throttle) due to measures termed “traffic shaping” or “bandwidth throttling”. It’s worth asking your internet provider for more information. Someone with an 8Mbps connection and a decent internet provider should have no issue with that. Many freelancers and small businesses do use Skype and Sipgate for handling business calls, although service reliability is not guaranteed. But, again the same can be said of mobiles, which are frequently used by businesses.


Note that you can’t use VoIP for emergency calls!


Another thing you might want to do if you are relying on VoIP for your business, is to check whether the VoIP provider is registered with the ITSPA, who regulate VoIP services. They may be able to help you if your business number gets reallocated to someone else.

In short, VoIP is great, with a few minor issues. It might not be able to completely replace landlines or mobiles yet, but can definitely help most people save money.


I’m still interested. How do I try it out?


Equipment


headset hottie

First you’ll need some basic equipment. You can borrow it from somebody or get something cheap just to try it out. Either get a headset, like the people at call centres (hence the all too familiar picture of the headset hottie), or just a stand-alone microphone. Cheap headsets can be had for as little as £4. A basic microphone costs a few pounds. You can buy them from just about anywhere. Get ones that connect directly to your computer’s standard headphone (green) and microphone (pink) connectors to minimise incompatibility issues.

computer back port jack


VoIP apps


Once you’ve got a headset or microphone up and running, you’ll then have to install a VoIP app. There may be more than one to choose from depending on which service you have chosen.

For Skype, you’ll need to use their own app, simply called Skype. Skype is planning to release a more open format, that will give people some freedom when it comes to choosing their VoIP app. The minimum computer system requirements are a 1 GHz processor, 256 MB system memory and 20 MB hard disk space for Windows and Linux. For some strange reason the requirements are quite different for Macs, where you’d need a 800 MHz processor, 512 MB system memory and 100 MB hard disk space.

Several apps are available for Sipgate, the company themselves recommend using x-Lite for Windows 2000/XP, PhonerLite for Windows 7/Vista and SJphone for Macs and Linux. You are obviously free to use other compatible apps if you prefer.


VoIP apps on mobiles


Many mobiles can now be used as VoIP phones themselves. These can be used in any Wi-Fi (wireless internet) zones. Many cafes, pubs, restaurants and hotels offer free or cheap Wi-Fi access as apart of their service. It’s a very useful feature if you are using it abroad. Although do note that the quality isn’t always the best.

A free Skype app is available for the iphone. Many new 3 mobiles come with a built-in Skype app. Skype apps for the Nokia N800/N810, N900 and Symbian phones are also available. Skype stopped supporting apps for Windows Mobiles and a Java based one, citing poor features and difficulty with maintenance. Although they do plan to release a new app for the forthcoming Windows 7 Mobile.


Tip: You can still download the Java and Windows versions from various websites, just search for them using Google.


For Sipgate, the iphone and most Nokia phones have compatible software pre-installed. You can use Sipdroid for Android.

Alternatively, you can use a free third party app like Nimbuzz, which works well with both Skype and Sipgate. It is also compatible with many other popular communication tools like MSN, Yahoo! Messenger and ICQ. It’s available for the iphone, Android, Symbian and Java Mobiles.


Advanced (more expensive) Equipment


VoIP phones


Voip Phone Adapter

These phones conveniently allow you to use VoIP without a computer, just like a conventional phone. They require an ATA adapter, or station, which goes between your landline phone socket and your router. Dedicated VoIP phones connected to an adapter allow you to select whether a call gets routed through your regular landline connection or VoIP. Multiple handsets can be connected to the adapter. A VoIP adapter and dedicated phone cost between £30 – £50. Read reviews to get an idea of hardware and software compatibility.


Wi-Fi phones


These use your Wi-Fi connection to make and receive VoIP calls. No extra equipment is required. Many mobiles now come equipped with this feature. Dedicated Wi-Fi phones aren’t that much cheaper, so it’s usually best to just get a compatible mobile.


Webcams


VoIP can let you make video calls using webcams. These devices have been around for a while now and are reasonably priced, costing between £10 – £25. Again, it’s a good idea to search Google for reviews and see if the model you are interested in is compatible with your computer.


Tip: It’s a good idea to search Google for reviews of the equipment you want. Especially if it connects to USB. Make sure it’s compatible with your computer hardware and software and trouble free. Headsets and webcams should be plug and play, but some may not work well with Windows 7, even if they do for Windows XP. This advice is also important for Mac and Linux users.



The future


With every year that passes, broadband gets, well, broader and broader, or faster and faster. As the speed and quality of the infrastructure improves, the quality of the calls do too. Open Wi-Fi networks are becoming evermore popular and available. There are already initiatives like BT Fon, where people split their connection into a private one for themselves and a public one to share with Fon users. So you could use VoIP on your mobile when out and about to make free calls. Although such ventures are in their infancy, it’s quickly gaining momentum.

There’s even a way of making free VoIP calls on planes with in-flight internet.

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Say no to non-geographic numbers

Say What?

confused man

Companies profit from getting their customers to use 0844, 0845, 0870 and 0871 (non-geographic) numbers. These numbers are essentially charged at premium rates of up to 10p per minute. Dialling them on a mobile can incur extortionate charges! Making them far more expensive than the cost of a normal phone call.

The maximum BT daytime rate for geographic numbers (those starting 01 and 02) is 5.9p per minute. Although, it’s claimed that BT charge similar rates for 0845 and 0870 (but not 0844 and 0871) numbers, they still carry many usage terms and fair use policies. The non-geographic numbers are usually exempt from free and subsidised call packages. So, be careful, since talking for too long or at certain times on a 0870 number could end up costing you a lot of money.

Why risk annoying customers with non-geographic numbers?

angry phone man

Most companies use them to make money. They even use them for handling complaints! A typical 0870 number can earn a business 1.5p per minute.

A large company which gets an average of 2000 calls per day, with each call lasting 15 minutes (10 minutes on hold), can make over £160,000 per year! This gives them a huge incentive to keep people on hold. And you thought they were just being incompetent.

Of course there are various excuses, such as it’s fairer that all customers pay the same amount, so that someone calling Dundee from London pays the same as a customer in Dundee itself. This would be understandable, if they weren’t profiting by so much from these calls. There is also a certain prestige attached to having a non-geographic number, even though most businesses can easily rent one.

So, what to do about it?

Alternative geographic numbers are usually available, which are equivalent to their non-geographic counterparts in all but cost. They can be called to avoid the higher charges. The geographic numbers get charged at normal rates and are eligible for discount packages. They’re also a lot cheaper to phone using a mobile.

A website called SayNoTo0870.com has an easily searchable database of the geographic equivalents for many non-geographic telephone numbers.

There’s even a convenient and free mobile phone app called 0870, which allows you to search for the cheaper phone numbers when you’re not connected to the internet: 0870 on the iphone, 0870 on the Android phone and 0870 in Java (available on most mobiles).

And if none of that works?

exasperated man

If you fail to find a cheaper geographic number, you can try calling the other numbers available for the business you want to contact. It’s a good idea to phone the sales number and ask to be redirected to the correct department. Companies try to encourage sales and therefore tend to use free or very cheap numbers instead of the premium numbers used to deter complaints!

Also try to look for overseas contact numbers, where companies might list a geographic number in its international form, e.g. 44 20 1234 1234. To get this in the UK format simply swap the beginning 44 with a 0. So, the number in our example becomes 0 20 1234 1234.

And if you’re finding it all much too frustrating, here’s a short video which should help cheer you up a bit: