Dec 20 2008
I recently started relying solely on my cellphone, and have been faced with the challenge of finding cheap ways to call abroad.
AT&T Wireless has a sense of humor about it:
They’re advising you to pick a package to call abroad for an affordable price. And they’re right, since they will charge you $1.49 a minute to call France if I don’t do so. In a way, they’re a little bit like the mob: give us some money or we’ll mug you.
It turns out that there are a number of VOIP solutions for the iPhone. However, because the Apple-AT&T gang has made sure that they’ll get as much money out of you as possible, you cannot use them over 3G. Either you’ll need to be connected to WiFi, or you’ll need to have the service call your phone – so that your voice plan still applies in some way.
WiFi solutions are interesting as they work worldwide and would allow to avoid roaming charges, although network latencies may decrease the quality of the call. Using the voice network doesn’t require you to be connected to WiFi, but uses minutes in your plan and only makes sense if you’re in the US as you wouldn’t want to pay roaming charges.
A look at the options
I have used calling France as a way to compare all those options as this is what I tend to do the most.
Using AT&T Wireless directly
The most natural way to call, and this is what AT&T wants you to do, is to use their service to call abroad.
This is the most reliable and the easiest solution as you can use it anywhere in the US, but without an international calling plan (which ends up being $3.99 per month), it costs a fortune: $1.49 per min to call a land line, and $1.62 per min for a cell phone.
With the World Connect calling plan ($3.99 per month), things actually become reasonable: $0.09 per min for a land line, and $0.22 per min for a cell phone.
The downside is that, if you are outside the US, this doesn’t apply anymore.
Using Fring with a VOIP provider
I got very excited when I discovered Fring as a native application on the iPhone. Beyond being a social application that allows people to talk to one another, Fring can be used as a SIP client to connect to arbitrary VOIP providers.
I did some research amongst VOIP providers, and found poivY, which seemed both cheap and to work fine in my original tests.
By adding money to your account, you get 300 minutes a week of free calls to US numbers and French land lines (as well as many other destinations), and this for 90 days. So, with $10, you can basically call more than you need for something like 4 months, which is a great deal. When you run out of free minutes, it’s still very cheap to call land lines, and calling mobile phones is not expensive.
They have a fair use policy to make sure that people don’t abuse their service; if they believe that you’re violating this policy, they will charge you for the call. However, their system for determining if your call follow the fair use policy is completely broken, as shown below:
|2008-12-13||18:44:11||+xxxxxxxxxx (FUP exceeded)||00:27:11||€ 0.420|
|2008-12-13||17:40:09||+xxxxxxxxxx (FUP exceeded)||00:31:39||€ 0.480|
As you can see, I was cut off twice (there seems to be a half hour limit somewhere), and my first and third call don’t qualify as fair use policy for some reason, while the second one does.
The sound quality is not great but OK. The Fring application is integrated fairly well with the iPhone native address book, and that makes it easy to place calls. However, it lacks a keypad during calls to navigate menus.
Unfortunately, it’s not always very reliable. Fring did a bunch of changes after version 2.2 of the iPhone software was released, but I still have problems sometimes. Also, when it cuts you off after 30 minutes, and you then need to exit the application, wait a few seconds, and rerun it.
When it does work, it’s a pretty good solution, and it’s cheap.
Using Fring with SkypeOut
Fring allows you to talk to people who are on Skype as well. And it also allows you to use SkypeOut to call standard phones just as you would with the Skype desktop application, for which the rates are fairly good.
The problem is that Fring’s integration with Skype is average at best. First, calls frequently fail, so you need to try over and over again before it works; they fail maybe 9 times out of 10. Second, there’s actually quite a bit of echo in the voice, which makes it difficult to have a long conversation. The problem, as I understand it, is that you don’t connect to Skype servers directly, but through Fring servers, which adds an extra delay and some echo.
So, this is definitely not a recommended way to call as of today.
Truphone is another VOIP native application. The difference with Fring is that it doesn’t allow you to choose the SIP gateway that you want to use, and is tied to Truphone.
The application itself is very nicely done, allowing you to add top up your account. It also has a keypad during a call (which is good to navigate phone systems, which Fring doesn’t allow you to do).
The phone quality is great, similar to a normal call.
So, what’s the downside, you might ask? Well, the downside is that, despite their moto,
Slash the cost of international calls, they actually don’t slash prices that much. If you compare with AT&T’s World Connect package which is only $3.99 a month, calling a French landline is $0.06 per min (vs $0.09 with AT&T) and calling a cellphone is $0.30 per min which is more expensive than AT&T ($0.22).
They used to be only usable via WiFi, but now offer an option via the voice network.
Vopium is not a native applications for the iPhone, but they have a Web application which looks a lot like a native application, with a keypad, buttons, etc.
Their rates are interesting, and they use a local phone number to connect you to your call. You use the Web interface to dial a number, hit the Call button, your phone then dials the local free number (for which you’ll have to pay minutes to AT&T out of your voice plan), and it connects you to your destination.
The interfacte being a Web-based one, there is no integration with the address book, which means that you need to know the phone number that you want to dial. That’s a pity. They are planning a native application as I understand it.
The big drawback is that it’s extremely unreliable. I tried dialing a number in France on 3 occasions. Twice, after I pressed the Call button, my phone tried to call an 866 number, but never managed to connect. I tried repeatedly and it always failed. The one time I successfully managed to use them, the sound quality was good.
The other downside of Vopium is that is also uses minutes from your voice plan as it uses a normal call. It has its upside though, since it means that you can place a call wherever you are in the US.
PennyTel is an Australian VOIP provider. The functionality of the iPhone application seems very close to Truphone’s, but with much better rates. However, given they’re Australian, the roundtrip to their SIP gateway is 180ms from my place, which is likely not going to be good for voice communication. I haven’t been able to test it however, as they don’t offer free minutes and I have credit with a lot of other providers at this point. I’ll update this when I do test them.
Being able to place a call whenever you want/need to, and being able to have good enough quality to have a conversation is important. For this reason, both Truphone and AT&T’s World Connect plan are good options.
I tend to give Fring with poivY a try, and if it doesn’t work, I revert to Truphone which is both reliable and is a good quality provider even though it’s more expensive. I wish Vopium worked better; maybe that will change.
Here’s a summary of costs and features:
|Service||Connection||Fees / Free minutes||Cost to call France
(land / cell / SMS)
|AT&T Wireless w/o any plan||Voice||None||$1.49||$1.62||$0.25||+||+|
|AT&T Wireless w/ World Connect plan
||Voice||$3.99 / month||$0.09||$0.22||$0.25||+||+|
|Fring w/ poivY||Wifi||300 free minutes / week||$0.03||$0.09||$0.10||=||=|
|Fring w/ SkypeOut||Wifi||N/A||$0.02||$0.23||$0.15||-||-|
|Truphone||Voice + Wifi||$1’s worth of free calls||$0.06||$.030||$0.20||+||+|
|Vopium||Voice||30 free minutes + 100 free SMS for the first month||$0.03||$.019||$0.10||-||+|
|PennyTel||Voice + Wifi||N/A||$0.01||$.015||?||?||?|