Skype isn’t exactly an obscure company. For years, computer users have been using Skype to online chat, talk, and most recently, video-conference. Everyone knows that Skype-to-Skype communications have always been free. Skype has had its own app on the iPhone for quite some time now too, and to be honest I had really not considered it as a replacement for my mobile phone voice plan, because my past experience found it to be somewhat unreliable and very sensitive to the consistency of bandwidth. I was still stuck in the mindset that Skype was primarily used to call other Skype users. Having to “phone” my mom to tell her to launch the Skype app every time I wanted to talk to her wasn’t very efficient.
After being burned by my mobile phone carrier when international data roaming, I set out to discover whether there was a way to replace my voice plan altogether with something Internet-based, that could be carried by my data plan, using the local SIM cards that I now buy when traveling to a new country. I have built VoIP-based PBX/phone systems for years, and knew that I could build my own solution, but Iwanted to stay away from something I would have to manage my own server for. I decided to give Skype a try once again.
When I’ve used Skype in the past to call landlines, it operated much the same way as a traditional call from a landline or mobile phone – they charged a per-minute fee, which was simply discounted, relative to what the traditional phone company would charge you. The trade-off though was typically poorer call quality, because it was traversing the Internet and thus subject to the ebbs and flows of bandwidth/traffic. After digging through Skype’s web site, while you can pay on an a-la-carte per minute basis, I discovered that Skype now has some very competitive “unlimited” bundles on offer.
Being in Canada, and primarily looking for a plan that would make sense for me to call home from out-of-the-country, I was astonished to discover their $2.99/mo Unlimited US and Canada plan. For $2.99 per month, you can make an unlimited number of calls within the US and Canada. They also have other unlimited plans entailing increasing numbers of countries (culminating in $13.99/mo for Unlimited World, which includes North America plus 40 other countries) but for my purposes, the US/Canada plan was just fine.
Since $2.99/mo is a bit of a no-brainer (phoning home from the US while roaming on my mobile phone plan costs me ~$1.50/min) I started through the registration process, only to find that you can garner an additional 15% discount by paying for a full year in advance. So for basically about $30 (the cost of about 20 minutes of regular roaming long distance on my voice plan) you can call landlines with abandon for a year. I opted for the annual discount and clicked buy.
Piggy-backing my new Skype subscription on my 250MB/2GB data plan from AT&T meant that I no longer had to subject myself to outrageous Fido data roaming OR voice roaming costs while phoning home from the US. My AT&T subscription combined with my Skype subscription replaced both.
In practice, Skype has been a great alternative to long distance (mobile phone) voice calling. Functionally, Skype accesses the same Contacts database on your iPhone that you see when using the “Phone” app, so there’s no managing of conflicting contacts lists. The dialing process is almost identical to that of the “Phone” app, so there’s no learning curve. And while it works fine via WiFi, every network is different and many hotels’ networks can become quickly overburdened, or simply inconsistent, grossly impacting Skype’s usability. The ability to switch to 3G (which I use with Skype more often than WiFi) has been the key to Skype’s reliability for me. In many cases my call quality via Skype, whether carried over WiFi or 3G, has been superior to that of a traditional mobile phone call. Skype has definitely come of age as a viable alternative to mobile and landline calling.
Skype also includes Voicemail at no additional charge, so if your app is offline (you are out of range) callers will be presented with a traditional “unavailable” message, and voicemail will be sent to you as an audio file in an email attachment.
One of the add-ons that rounds out the feature set, and truly makes the Skype and a data plan combination a replacement for your mobile phone voice plan is their “Online Number” or “Skype-In” feature. This add-on allows you to add an inbound phone number to your account, so those calling from landlines can reach you. An Online Number can be added from among 23 countries, including Australia, the US, UK and Mexico, but alas Canada is not on the list. One viable workaround may be to establish a US-based Online Number, and simply Call Forward your regular mobile phone voice plan to that number when you’re out of your locale. While you would have to pay long distance charges to forward your local number to the long distance Skype-In number, those charges would be less than accepting a call while roaming, and paying both the long distance and roaming airtime elements of the call. You may also be subject to airtime charges for checking your voicemail (which through Skype would come via free email) when roaming, depending on whether or not you use Visual Voicemail.
If you’re staying in a locale for a while and need an easy way for locals to reach you (without incurring the crazy long distance charges of them phoning your home number, and then you having to pay the airtime & return long distance from your home locale to accept the call!), a Skype Online Number is a great option. Unfortunately you can’t establish an Online Number for a period less than 3 months.
A Skype Online Number costs $20 for 3 Months or $70 for 12 months, and you can chose from a selection offered in every area code of the Continental US.
For some Canadians, it may be viable to obtain a US-based Online Number, however we don’t necessarily want to incur long distance charges, since that defeats the purpose of trying to bypass the traditional mobile phone network when traveling. Thus, for Canadians, we are left lacking a true replacement for our mobile phone plans. While there are some services that charge $10/mo to bridge a Canadian phone number with your Skype account, I can shed light on yet another solution for inbound calling through a Canadian phone number in a future blog post.
UPDATE: Dec 13, 2011. I stumbled across a service from Virtufon that forwards from an assigned landline number from one of dozens of countries, to a Skype account. A Canadian number costs $5.95 per month and numbers are available in most areas. I can’t advocate for them, I just discovered them.