International Calling

One of the things that most ex-pats will likely need to deal with is calling home to friends and family, and doing so in a way that doesn't break the bank. When I first arrived in the US I used calling card services to call back to the UK, and while it was cheaper than regular international calling, it wasn't something I would want to do too often.

Now that has all changed, and there are a plethora of technologies available for solving the problem. I have three that I use regularly, and most of my calls are now free.

Call Centric

First on that list is a VoIP service called Call Centric. To make this work I set up my mother's house and mine with relatively cheap SIP adapters from Linksys' Sipura range, each connected to a regular cordless phone. That gave my mother something she was familiar with to call me. Her account is free since it is outside the US (phones located in the US need to pay a $1.50 monthly 911 fee), but she can only call my Call Centric number from it. My line also has credit loaded into it allowing me to call regular PSTN numbers anywhere in the world at competitive VoIP rates (calls to UK landlines are currently about 2¢ per minute, and UK mobiles about 20¢ per minute).

The time difference often means that the best time for me to call home though is not while I am at home. To solve that, I have a couple of tricks:

  1. SIP Broker: a free service allowing me to dial a local phone number (they have numbers all over the US) and from there dial a SIP number. I have this sequence programmed into my iPhone so I can simply tap a contact line and call my mother's Call Centric line from my mobile, incurring only the minutes from my mobile plan for a domestic call. They have local access numbers worldwide, making it easy to get into the VoIP system from just about anywhere. You will need to know the prefix for your callee's service though which is a little annoying (to dial a Call Centric number from SIP Broker, prefix the CC number with *462). Check their online provider list to see if your VoIP service is peered with them.
  2. Call Centric has what they call a calling card feature where I can dial into their service, enter my account number and a security PIN, and then dial any number using my VoIP plan. The cost is a little higher as you pay for the domestic call component as well as the international one, but it means I have super cheap rate international calling from my mobile. As with SIP Broker, I have the sequence programmed into my contacts so I don't need to dial it all manually each time.

Call Centric covers almost all my voice calling needs, and apart from one time when they were being subjected to a DDoS attack, they have been very reliable.

I do also have two SIP clients on my iPhone, both configured with my Call Centric account, that I can use to make calls directly. The ones I have are Zoiper and 3CX.

FaceTime

The one service that we use that Call Centric doesn't work for is video calling. Having a toddler in our family who doesn't get to see his British family very often in person meant we needed a video calling solution too. As soon as my mother was equipped with an iPhone, that became a lot easier.

While not as flexible in terms of where we can make calls from, we have managed FaceTime calls from Starbucks and over hotel WiFi networks. It is a shame my AT&T plan doesn't allow them over LTE too, but since public WiFi is something I a more than a little familiar with, finding a hotspot to call from is rarely a problem. Most of our FaceTime calls are from home at the weekends anyway.

Skype

Relegated to something of a backup solution now, my mother and I both have Skype plans too. Before she got her iPhone, we used Skype video calling either with one way video to her first generation iPad, or two way video to her computer. I would say it was slightly less reliable than FaceTime, and usually lower quality images too, but it works across platforms which is a big advantage if either end of the call is not using Apple kit.

I also keep credit on Skype so I can use it to call her on her landline in case Call Centric fails for any reason.

Skype quality though has become very unpredictable. When it works, it is great, but all too often it will drop calls or the quality will disappear and noise is all we hear. I have heard good things about Viber as a possible alternative to Skype, but right now Call Centric and FaceTime are good enough that I don't need to look into an alternative to Skype just yet.

Comcast’s Triple Play Scam

A couple of weeks ago I called Comcast's support folks to get my username and password (so we could log in to watch the olympics online). I had never needed the username previously, and when Comcast absorbed Alameda's municipal cable service they never gave us any of that information. It was simple to get though.

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Top Three iPhone/iPod Touch Apps

There are lots of apps out there now for iPhone and iPod users to choose from, and plenty of reviews within the App Store as well as on the web, so I’m not about to review any apps here. Instead, I thought I tell you about my three most used applications, and why I use them so much. So, without further ado, let’s jump in to the list:

iNewz, news readeriNewz
iNewz is a news reader application that aggregates content from a number of news sources, mostly US ones in the current version. I use it because I spend an hour a day sitting on a bus commuting (half an hour each way), and I guess I’m a secret news junkie. The news is organised into categories, with articles for each category from several sources listed in reverse chronological order. My top categories? Headlines first, always, then World News and Technology news. That normally fills a commute!

Easy Wi-Fi
I have to include Easy Wi-Fi since I spent so much time working on both the initial jailbreak version, and then this App Store version. But aside from that, I do truly find it incredibly useful and I use it almost every morning at Starbucks – handy having that free Wi-Fi account from AT&T simply for using a registered pre-paid Starbucks card. The iPhone normally latches on to the Wi-Fi as I walk in, and one tap gets me online. Not quite as convenient as the background mode the jailbroken version had, but still a lot faster than typing my user name and password into the AT&T web form every morning (and I only have a few minutes in Starbucks most mornings to buy coffee, sync email and load up the Daily Irrelevant).

Truphone
Last, but not least, Truphone – the voice over IP application that has been around for other mobile phones for a while (and one I use on my Nokia N95 via its built in SIP stack). Needs Wi-Fi to work, but that’s fine by me as I’m usually somewhere where there is Wi-Fi when I need to make international calls. Combined with Easy Wi-Fi to get me online in public hotspots, this means I can keep in touch with folks around the world for very little money. I called my mother over in England while sitting outside a Starbucks in San Jose last weekend – free Wi-Fi from AT&T, Easy Wi-Fi to get me online and Truphone to make a very cheap international call.