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Calling All Savers

Internet-Based Skype Makes Phoning Cheap — or Free

 Bonnie  Biafore With multiple telephone lines coming into your home and a mobile phone or three, what you pay to reach out and talk to someone adds up. A recent business trip outside the United States reminded me of another cost: Calls from my mobile phone while on foreign soil would have been a whopping $2.50 a minute.

But my calls to folks back home were mostly free thanks to Skype, an Internet-based telephone service launched in 2003 now owned by eBay. Making calls over the Web can save tons of money whether you’re roaming the globe or sitting at home.
Calling people with Skype who are also on Skype is free, regardless of when you call and whether your friends are in Hamburg, Hoboken or Honduras. And with prices starting at only 2.1 cents per minute (a rate to several dozen countries) to call landlines and mobile phones, the service will satisfy even the most frugal folks.
If you’re on the phone more often than not, one of Skype’s unlimited plans might be even better. Unlimited calling to landlines and mobile phones in the United States and Canada costs $2.95 a month; to worldwide destinations it’s $9.95.
In addition, you can make free video calls to friends and family if your computer has a webcam. You’ll also need a solid high-speed connection or everybody will look like puppets controlled by an inebriated handler.
Skype-to-Skype and Skype-to-landline calls are usually static-free. You can easily make out what the other person is saying, but both of you might sound as if you’re sitting at the bottom of a well. If your call is garbled or drops repeatedly, it might be because your network connection is slow or intermittent; wait before calling again. Calls to mobile phones can suffer from muddled audio or no sound at all.

Using the Software

To get started, download the free Skype software, which uses about 21 megabytes. If you don’t have a microphone and speakers in your computer, plug in a headset and microphone.
Before you can make calls, you have to add the people you want to call to your Skype contact list. With Skype running on your computer, you can import contacts and their regular phone numbers from Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Outlook Express, MSN Hotmail (aka Windows Live Hotmail) and Yahoo! Mail. In the Skype window choose Tools, then Import Contacts. Follow the instructions.
If you want to add people’s Skype names to your contact list for Skype-to-Skype calls, select the Contacts tab in the Skype window, then click Search just below that. In the Search for Skype Users window, type someone’s Skype name, full name or e-mail address, then click Find. Select your friend’s name in the list of results. Click Add Skype Contact.
When you’re ready to talk, choose the person’s name under the Contacts tab. A green check to the left of someone’s name means a person is online, running Skype and available. Click either green button with the telephone icon to start the call.
To reach someone’s landline or mobile phone, click either the relevant name under the Contacts tab or the Call Phones tab to enter a number. You can also type a phone number in the box at the bottom of the Contacts tab, then click the green call button.

Choosing Features and Accessories

You can supplement your free Skype account with an online number for $60 a year (or $30 if you have an unlimited monthly subscription). This allows people calling from landlines and mobile phones to reach you as long as you’re on the Internet and logged into the service. Other features that cost extra include text messaging from Skype, voice mail for incoming calls and call forwarding to your mobile phone when you’re offline.
Don’t assume the service chains you to your computer. Putting on a headset plugged into your computer to make a call is probably the most common method. With a wireless headset, however, after initiating the call from your computer you’re free to wander around while you chat.
The most versatile option is a dual-mode cordless phone that connects to your landline and network router. This allows you to make calls on your home phone or through Skype on your computer.
A Wi-Fi phone provides the ultimate in freedom. If you have a Pocket PC or smartphone running Windows Mobile software, you can download Skype, then make calls from any Wi-Fi hot spot in the world. Or purchase a Skype phone, which acts as a Wi-Fi mobile phone with the service built in.
Paying for calls or subscribing to additional features is easy: Buy Skype Credit with a credit card, PayPal, bank transfer or prepaid card (available at Wal-Mart, as are Skype accessories).

Link of the Month

MagicJack is an interesting new service and device that lets you make Internet-based calls using your regular phone. Plug a MagicJack into a USB port on your computer, wait a few minutes for the software to install automatically, then plug your telephone into the MagicJack.
You have to register, at which time you request a new phone number or ask to use your existing number, which costs $10 to transfer. During registration enter the address from which you make calls so that 911 knows where you’re located. (Your MagicJack number is portable in case you move.)
Then make a call as you normally would. The initial charge is $39.95, which covers the device and one year of service; an additional year costs $19.95. At press time, MagicJack was compatible with Windows Vista, Windows XP and Intel Mac computers. The service supports caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding and voice mail, which picks up when you’re offline.

Websites of Interest

Bonnie Biafore is the author of 24 books about investing, personal finance, project management, software (such as QuickBooks and Project) and the recently published novel, Fresh Squeezed. Go to BonnieBiafore.com to learn more.

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