Australians are an international bunch. More than a quarter of us were born in another country, and we're heading abroad more often. So it's no surprise that many of us often need to contact friends and family overseas. The trouble is, if you're not careful, that long-distance phone call could cost almost as much as getting on a plane and flying to meet your rellies in person.
Luckily, there are now plenty of options that can take the sting out of your next phone bill.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a way of making phone calls over the internet, rather than through the public switched telephone network (PTSN). VoIP services offer free or low-cost calls overseas, as well as locally.
Call quality of VoIP has improved over the years, and the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA) even claims that VoIP reception can be superior to landlines. According to ACMA, "VoIP services often provide a better-quality voice transmission than expected… Some VoIP services offer an enhanced audio quality not available on PSTN lines."
However, there are many variables that can compromise call quality, including internet congestion and poor reception, and some users have reported continuing problems.
There are many VoIP options available. Some services require both the maker and receiver of the call to be using the same service, while others allow you to call any phone number in almost any country. We take a look at two of the options available here in Australia:
VoIP veteran Skype remains a firm favourite with CHOICE members. In our recent survey, 36.5% of nearly 4000 respondents told us they'd used the service to make calls. When you download Skype on your computer (or as an app on your tablet or phone), you can make voice and video calls directly from one user to another for free, or call landline or mobile phones around the world at cheap, per-minute, or flat monthly rates. You can even make group video calls.
Skype also sells dual mode phones which give you a normal phone plus VoIP on a single handset. The main advantage is that the handset isn't physically connected to the computer. One Skype user shared a positive experience with this setup. "It's generally quite good, although the line is never as clear on Skype as it is if you call on your landline," he said. "Sometimes you have to call a couple of times to get a clear line without any noise, and sometimes it cuts out mid-conversation."
- Skype is cheap and easy to use.
- It allows you to call regular phone numbers, although this service does cost money.
- As it is hugely popular, there's a good chance you can make free calls to your Skype-ing friends.
- Skype Number is a paid service that gives you a normal landline phone number that people can dial, which is diverted to your Skype account. This is a good solution for those wanting to set up cheap calls to themselves for their less tech-savvy parents, for example.
- Group video calls cost extra.
- Credit expires after 180 days of inactivity.
- Some Skype plans also include a one-off connection (flag fall) fee every time a call is made. As Skype reception can be patchy you may need to call a few times to get a good line, which can eat into your credit.
- As with most VoIP services, you also need a working internet connection, whether on your phone or computer.
Viber allows you to text, call, have group conversations and share pictures with other users. It is easy to use – the joining process is quick and doesn't require you to add your contacts manually. Once you sign up and enter your mobile phone number, Viber syncs your contacts, messages and call history with your mobile.
The trouble is, this convenience comes at a price – privacy. According to Viber, "when you install the [app] and register on the site, you will be asked to provide us with your phone number and to allow us access to your mobile device's address book". This information is used to tell you when one of your contacts signs up to Viber and whether they're available to chat.
- Viber is free, convenient, and available for most platforms and operating systems.
- Free group calls are supported.
- You can only call other people who have Viber.
- The storage of your contact book, with neither your express permission nor the permission of third parties, is a concern.
- You must be online to use it.
If you're not keen on using an intermediary to call overseas and would prefer something with less mucking about, consider your internet service provider (ISP). Some ISPs, including iinet and TPG, set up home phone line rental and cheap VoIP calls straight from your regular phone.
And some mobile phone operators, including Lebara, Hello Mobile and gotalk, can bundle cheap or free international calls with your mobile phone plan, allowing you to make international calls directly from your handset. But make sure you check the rates for the country you're calling before ringing a new destination.
Not only do they host other companies' telecommunication apps in their stores, tech world giants Apple and Google have released their own solutions, too.
Apple's FaceTime facilitates free video calls between iPhones, iPads, iPod touches or Macs. The app is now preloaded on Apple products and requires very little setup.
Google Hangouts is less proprietary and can be used on non-Google/Android operating systems and devices. Not only can you connect to friends who've also got the app and group chat for free, but you can also stream your Hangout live on YouTube.
But what if you're after a brief tête-à-tête rather than a full-blown conversation? Good news - for those times when everything you need to say can be put into a message, there are apps that allow you to send free picture, text and video messages to anyone in the world.
WhatsApp, available for iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Android and Nokia smartphones, is a cross-platform mobile messaging app that allows you to exchange free text and voice messages with friends who also have the app installed. Users can create groups and send each other unlimited images, video and audio messages. After an initial year-long free trial period, WhatsApp costs US$0.99 per year.
- The app is cheap and supports lots of smartphone platforms.
- WhatsApp doesn't carry advertising, so you won't be interrupted mid-conversation for a message from their "sponsors".
- WhatsApp's terms and conditions state that they "may periodically access your contact list and/or address book on your mobile device to find and keep track of mobile phone numbers of other users of the Service" – so if you value privacy, it's an issue.
- Tablet devices aren't supported, so you'll need a smartphone to use it.
Phone calling cards are another option if you don't have an internet connection, or you prefer to use your home phone or mobile to call abroad, but they come with their own set of problems. CHOICE has been reporting on dodgy card operators for years and warning consumers to be aware of a range of extra and undisclosed fees and surcharges.
ACMA warns consumers considering buying a card to ensure the provider is a Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) member and to check the small print for details on hidden fees. Using your mobile phone will still incur local charges from your telco, so make sure you're not racking up a mobile phone bill while trying to keep your overseas costs down.
- Phone cards can be a cheap option for calling landlines and mobiles.
- They don't require additional hardware, an internet connection, or a smartphone.
- They can be used to call any number.
- Some cards come with confusing terms and conditions and excessive fees and charges.
- Brands offer differing value based on the destination called. For example, some may offer cheap calls to Europe but be very expensive for the Middle East, or cheap calls to landlines in Niger but expensive ones to mobiles in the same country. Make sure you check how much each call is going to cost you before dialling.