Voice-over-IP phone services can save you plenty of money, but most also require particular equipment: a special router, an adapter to connect to your phone, or even a Wi-Fi phone. Now, new services promise the cost savings of VOIP on a standard cell phone — but in our tests, they weren’t always easy to use.
We looked at services from iSkoot, Rebtel, and VoxLib. iSkoot and VoxLib both permit you to access Skype accounts from typical cell phones; Rebtel uses VOIP technology to let subscribers connect inexpensively with friends and family overseas.
Skype to Go
iSkoot — like similar services from EQO and WebMessenger — retains Skype’s graphical interface, but this free application works only with certain Cingular and T-Mobile phones.
After you register at iSkoot’s site, iSkoot sends you a text message with a link to a site for downloading the app. Once it’s installed, you sign in with your Skype name and password, and your list of contacts is displayed. To initiate a call, you simply click the name of a contact, and you’re connected. SkypeOut subscribers can use the application to take advantage of that service’s cheap rates for making phone calls to non-Skype users.
VoxLib’s Vox for Skype, another free service, provides a voice interface to Skype. You need a SkypeIn account, which costs about CDN$45 per year and allows you to receive incoming calls from non-Skype users.
To set up Vox for Skype, you dial your SkypeIn number from your cell phone. When the ringing starts, you press the 1 key to connect to the service. You’re then instructed to type in the first three letters of the name of the person you want to call, which can be awkward on a numeric keypad. The first couple of times we tried to use the service, we were disconnected because we didn’t enter the contact name in time. Once you do enter the name correctly, you’re connected to that person. Voice quality, as with any Skype-based service, depended on the recipient’s connection and the equipment at the other end of the call.
The biggest problem with Vox for Skype is how time consuming it can be. On the PC version of Skype, you can see if your contact is online and click to connect to them. Repeatedly pressing keys on your cell phone to get the same information is cumbersome.
Free overseas calls
You don’t have to use Rebtel with a cell phone, but because cell phones let you dial stored numbers at the touch of a button, they are the easiest way to use the $1-a-week service. Once you’ve set up your account on Rebtel’s Web site, you enter the number you wish to call, and the site generates local numbers for both you and your overseas friend. You then dial the local number for your friend, and the overseas number rings. To make the call free, the recipient must hang up within 30 seconds of answering and then call you back on the local number Rebtel generated for you. You stay on the line, and when the other person calls back, you’re connected and chatting for free.
In our tests with numbers in the United Kingdom and Germany, Rebtel worked as advertised, with one glitch: The number it generated for our friend in the UK was not a local call for her. Rebtel can’t generate local numbers for all areas in the countries it serves, so the call might not be free for the recipient. Voice quality for all Rebtel calls was on a par with that of U.S. cell phone calls.
Industry experts say these services may not appeal to everyone. “The cost of international calls and roaming calls could be greatly reduced,” says Rob Fortino, a director with research firm Telephia. “But you have to balance it: The mobile VOIP provider may charge you a fee, and then there’s the per-minute charge on your cell phone. Still, anyone who makes a lot of high-cost calls with their cell phone would want to look at this.”
Analysts also agree that the playing field may change dramatically when handsets and services that can seamlessly switch from cellular to Wi-Fi networks become more widely available. (T-Mobile has announced plans for such a service, but it is available in only a few areas so far.) Such a service might shift your cellular call to an available Wi-Fi network to cut your costs.
If you use your cell phone primarily to make in-network domestic calls and your plan allows for unlimited Canadian calls, you probably wouldn’t benefit from these VOIP services. But if you make a lot of international calls, these services could be a real deal — if you’re willing to put in the time and effort they require.
Net phone service comparison
New services can save you money on roaming and overseas calls, but some hassles may apply.
iSkoot: A free and easy-to-use service that brings Skype’s graphical interface and voice capabilities to select cell phones.
Rebtel: Requires plenty of dialing but it can save you money if you make lots of overseas calls. It’s not free but generates local numbers for overseas calls.
Vox for Skype: May be difficult to use, but it’s a good choice for users with old cell phones and it allows you to access your Skype account, by voice, from any cell phone.