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Traveling with Your iPhone? Evaluating and Using VoIP While On the Go

by Rob   on March 28, 2010
Filed under App News, Daily App Reviews, News, Tips and How-To's, Utility

roamingtext 200x300 Traveling with Your iPhone? Evaluating and Using VoIP While On the GoThis past week I went on a planned business trip to Vancouver, British Columbia (home of the 2010 Winter Olympics). Knowing that this trip was coming I did some research in using my iPhone while out of the USA – if you’ve ever traveled with your iPhone you know that roaming charges can be expensive. Roaming is expensive and in fact, upon landing in Vancouver and switching my iPhone off of airplane mode I immediately received a free text message from AT&T stating that data roaming would cost me $15.36 per megabyte. But what about talk minutes? Well, having looked into this beforehand I knew that using my phone in Canada would ding me $.79/minute. Before leaving the USA, I added the Canada roaming feature to my plan ($4.99/mo) which slightly reduced the roaming costs to $.59/minute, still expensive. So how does one call their family and talk for minutes on end while away on business without incurring severe roaming charges? I’ll tell you how…

I had a few requirements for when I was out of the country, mainly I had to be able to call the family and dial into work conference calls without incurring a huge roaming bill at the end of the month. So, in essence, cheap or free outgoing calls are critical while incoming calls I wasn’t as concerned for since I could take the call on roaming then call them back using the other method (and hopefully only incur periodic $.59 calls).

Requirements and Evaluation of Services:

Since unlocking your iPhone and using a SIM card from a carrier in the country you are visiting is out of the question (AT&T or Apple will not unlock your iPhone) I had to look at options that were available to me… namely VoIP. Apps for various VoIP services have been springing up all over the App Store and so surely there’s something there that would work. Remember, that using VoIP would require that I had some type of data connection to my phone (read: WiFi) since if you recall data roaming via cellular is $15.36/MB. (Note: there is a data roaming package that you can add from AT&T, prices start at $25.00 for 20MB and go up from there, but it’s still not a viable option for VoIP since you need roughly 5MB per minute for typical VoIP calls).

I started to evaluate various services and apps about two weeks prior to leaving for Canada. I immediately removed several offerings by eliminating them based on my criteria. My requirements were: 1. It had to be cheap (free is better but not more than $10.00/month), 2. The service had to allow me to call any phone number in either Canada or the USA, 3. The service had to have excellent voice quality, 4. The service needed to be fairly easy to use.

icall screen 200x300 Traveling with Your iPhone? Evaluating and Using VoIP While On the Go1. I first started out looking at iCall (v.1.2.5). iCall is a free app and after installing it seemed to offer everything I was looking for in one easy step. Enrollment was easy and after I signed up I could instantly start dialing out to any phone number in the USA or Canada – for free! The iCall app kept track of my recent calls and integrated nicely with my iPhone contacts by giving me easy access to them. iCall also claimed that it could seamlessly transfer an in-progress cellular call to the iCall app, to help save on cell minutes. Sounds great, right? Well, almost. The free version will cut your calls at three minutes and before placing your call you must listen to a 30 second advertisement. So, free it is not. The paid, unlimited subscription is at the top of my tolerance at $9.95 per month and there is also a pay as you go option too. However, iCall had the poorest voice quality of any solution I tried with noticeable (and unacceptable) lag and pretty bad ‘robot’ voice transformation for those on the call. So, score for features, fail for quality. I did try this app multiple times (free version) both at home on a 15MB/sec Internet connection and on the hotel WiFi, both with the same results. I’ll add that the iCall app description (on icall.com) states that better call quality comes with the paid versions, but the free call quality was unacceptable and didn’t leave me feeling like I could take a chance on the paid version.

skype 200x300 Traveling with Your iPhone? Evaluating and Using VoIP While On the Go2. Skype. You probably already have a Skype account from a previous life so that significantly eases the installation and setup of Skype on the iPhone (if not, you’ll need to install the PC or Mac application to your computer to create an account). Once installed, the Skype app allows for easy integration into the iPhone contacts and includes a nice dialer. If you have Skype credit you can also send SMS from the app to anyone (find the SMS charges though on Skype.com). The app is the only one that didn’t work over 3G that we tested, however the service delivered the highest call quality by a landslide and worked flawlessly while on a WiFi connection. I subscribed to the cheap $2.95/month for unlimited SkypeOut calling (Skype to any phone number in the USA or Canada) and at this point I was set. Call quality was just amazing, as good as just calling over cellular. Once you have a Skype account, go to Skype.com and add SkypeOut by either adding credit or getting a subscription. From here you can also add a phone number (for others to call you) for $30.00/year and have unlimited inbound calls as well, but this wasn’t a requirement for me. There are also 3rd party apps that allow Skype over 3G (Fring and Nimbuzz are two) but both of these required their own accounts and then adding the Skype account to use them. Also, they were rather cumbersome to use and the only benefit over the actual Skype app was the ability to use Skype over 3G which was of no value while roaming in Canada.

friendcaller 200x300 Traveling with Your iPhone? Evaluating and Using VoIP While On the Go3. FriendCaller Pro. FriendCaller recently made all of their apps in the App Store free. So I installed the Pro version. FriendCaller let’s you pay monthly or buy blocks of minutes in $5 increments. If you’re not looking for a monthly subscription then this one is an option. Unfortunately, as I was looking into others I didn’t get a chance to fully test FriendCaller’s features and quality since they did not have a free option to try, so I can’t comment on it beyond the installation, sorry.

There are a whole host of SIP apps in the App Store, I did not try any of these since they required I went and found a SIP provider as well. Unless you’re already using one of these providers then I’d stick to one of the easier solutions above.

The real winner here for me was Skype. As cheap as Skype is ($2.95/month for unlimited Canada/USA calling) and for their excellent call quality even on the limited bandwidth hotel WiFi made Skype a real winner. One of my colleagues even asked me how to get it all setup so that he too could take advantage of the low-cost calling to his family. If iCall could get their call quality as good as Skype then I believe they too have a very interesting solution, one where simplicity of setup and ease of use is key. I wish I had tried FriendCaller more and I may just do that next time I travel, but for now I’m sticking with Skype.

A few other tidbits: I took an Apple Airport Express so that my iPhone had WiFi in the room. Many hotels only have wired internet in the rooms so you’d either need a notebook and setup an adhoc network or go down to the hotel lobby to get your iPhone connected so just know that you need WiFi. Next, for incoming calls I just had people call my cell phone, then I called them back on Skype to get the cheap calls. This worked for me since incoming calls on any VoIP app on the iPhone will not ring unless the phone was charging. Even those with Push Notifications were spotty at best (hence, completely unreliable). Lastly, most of your calls to other people will show up as Unknown or Unavailable or in the case of Skype as “000012345.” This may throw people off so either warn them or you can have Skype show your cell phone number (Skype credit and setup required).

In all, using VoIP while in Canada worked excellent for me. WiFi was available in nearly every part of the hotel, conference center and even most restaurants and places of interest that we visited so finding WiFi to make a call was seldom a problem. If you’re about to travel outside of the U.S. (or your own home country) then it’s time to consider VoIP on your iPhone – if you already haven’t done so.

Comments

5 Responses to “Traveling with Your iPhone? Evaluating and Using VoIP While On the Go”
  1. tivoboy says:

    You should try the vonage app, it is FREE on WIFI to make calls to USA numbers, works great, I did about three hours of calling last year from costa rica, no fees. Oh yes, there WAS A .35$ a month free, but I got 1$ free to start up.

  2. Rob says:

    I looked at Vonage, the app is free but the service is 24.99/month which was too expensive to simply make VoIP calls from a hotel. From Vonage’s app description:

    Get the Vonage Mobile app and start making unlimited calls in the US and to over 60 countries around the world with the Vonage World Mobile plan – all for only $24.99 per month^.

    I see you can also ‘pay-as-you-go’ and charge up your account but that’s not much different than iCall or Skype either.

  3. Imran Malik says:

    Impressive piece of information, let me elaborate more on VoIP. Voice over Internet Protocol has been around since many years. But due to lack of sufficient and affordable bandwidth it was not possible to carry carrier grade voice over Internet Protocol. But since the arrival of low cost internet bandwidth and new speech codecs such as G.729, G.723 which utilizes very low payload to carry carrier class voice it has recently been possible to leverage the true benefits of VoIP. G.723 codec utilizes only 6 Kbps (Kilo Bytes/sec) which is capable of maintaining a constant stream of data between peers and deliver carrier grade voice quality. Lets put this way if you have 8 Mbps internet connection, by using G.723 codec you can run upto 100 telephone lines with crystal clear and carrier grade voice quality. I am also a user of VoIP and have setup a small PBX at home. Since I have discovered VoIP I have never used traditional PSTN service.

    Dear readers, if you have not yet tried VoIP I suggest that you try VoIP technology and I bet you will never want to use the traditional PSTN phone service ever again. VoIP has far more superior features to offer which traditional PSTN sadly cannot offer.

    Also It has recently been possile to carry Video alongwith VoIP by using low payload video codecs. I cannot resist to tell you that by using T.38 passthrough and disabling VAD VoIP can carry FAX transmission, but beaware FAX T.38 passthrough will only work when using wide band protocols such as G.711, a-Law and u-Law.

    By using ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter) which converts VoIP signals into traditional PSTN you can also using Dial-up modems to connect to various dialup services. I wont go in to the details what VoIP can offer, to cut my story short VoIP is a must to have product for every business and individual.

    How VoIP Works

    When we make a VoIP call, a communication channel is established between caller and called party over IP (Internet Protocol) which runs on top of computer data networks. A telephony conversation that takes place over VoIP are converted into binary data packets streams in real time and transmitted over data network, when these data packets arrive at the destination these are again converted into standard telephony conversation. This whole process of voice conversion into data, transmission and data conversion into back voice conversation takes place within less than few milliseconds. That is how a VoIP is call is transmitted over data networks. I hope that now you understand basics of how a VoIP call takes place.

    What are speech codec’s and what role codec plays in VoIP?

    Speech codec play a vital role in VoIP and codec determines the quality and cost of the call. Let me explain you what exactly VoIP codec’s are and how they work. You may have heard about data compression, or probably you have heard about air compressor which compresses a volume of air in enclosed container, VoIP codec’s are no different than a air compressor. Speech codec’s compresses voice into data packets and decompresses it upon arrival at destination. Some VoIP codec’s can compress huge amount of voice while maintaining QoS which means use this type of codec will cost less because it will consume just a fraction of data network. Some codec’s are just not capable of encoding huge amount of voice they simply consume huge amount of data networks bandwidth hence the cost goes up.

    Following is a list of VoIP codec’s along with how much data network bandwidth they consume.

    * AMR Codec
    * BroadVoice Codec 16Kbps narrowband, and 32Kbps wideband
    * GIPS Family – 13.3 Kbps and up
    * GSM – 13 Kbps (full rate), 20ms frame size
    * iLBC – 15Kbps,20ms frame size: 13.3 Kbps, 30ms frame size
    * ITU G.711 – 64 Kbps, sample-based Also known as alaw/ulaw
    * ITU G.722 – 48/56/64 Kbps ADPCM 7Khz audio bandwidth
    * ITU G.722.1 – 24/32 Kbps 7Khz audio bandwidth (based on Polycom’s SIREN codec)
    * ITU G.722.1C – 32 Kbps, a Polycom extension, 14Khz audio bandwidth
    * ITU G.722.2 – 6.6Kbps to 23.85Kbps. Also known as AMR-WB. CELP 7Khz audio bandwidth
    * ITU G.723.1 – 5.3/6.3 Kbps, 30ms frame size
    * ITU G.726 – 16/24/32/40 Kbps
    * ITU G.728 – 16 Kbps
    * ITU G.729 – 8 Kbps, 10ms frame size
    * Speex – 2.15 to 44.2 Kbps
    * LPC10 – 2.5 Kbps
    * DoD CELP – 4.8 Kbps

    Switch to VoIP Today and you will never want to use traditional PSTN ever again.

    Thanks

    -Imran

  4. Suman says:

    Hi
    All of the above information has been useful but what I urgently want to know is that how can one use VOIP services on the existing phones with existing numbers and are travelling. The calls which i am talking of is mostly from Oslo to many countries in Asia.
    It would be great if anyone could help me.
    Regards
    Suman

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