On any TV reality show worth its salt, there comes an episode where the contestant, thousands of miles away from home is rewarded by getting a phone call from a loved one. He/she breaks down in blubbering sobs as Spouse/Mom/Dad speak their undying love and quickly remind them to play nice to avoid getting voted out at the next tribal council.
Now, not that we’re confronted with reality show challenges like eating scorpions, animal blood or trying to decode puzzles made up of words represented by pictographs (uh, wait a moment here…am I on – TV?), but the importance of the simple telephone connection grows exponentially as we hear news of a business opportunity, gossip about Uncle Jim, and make plans for an upcoming visit from Granny. Unfortunately, the most obvious barrier to calling home is the expense. Typical landline rates to the USA/UK on Beijing Telecom are RMB 8 per minute. From the USA to China, rates average USD 0.15 a minute.
There are ways around this: IP cards, requiring a phonebook’s worth of digits or Skype, assuming the person you’re calling is online (not to mention the “echo” effect you sometimes get).
A far better alternative is buying a VoIP system which uses the internet and assigns you a USA based telephone number. Basically you buy a “set/adapter” which plugs into your computer router/modem and a regular phone handset. Once you activate the number online, you can make and receive unlimited international calls free or at rates around USD .02 per minute.
Two of the more established brands are Vonage and Ooma; both have landline-quality connection. The main difference between them is Vonage charges a monthly fee (USD 25.99) and Ooma charges a one time fee (USD 249.99). There are additional upgrades and a government tax averaging USD 3.50 per month.
The beauty of these systems is once you activate it, you use the designated phone just like a regular phone. No special numbers to dial in, no need to be online, no expensive international calling charges, you don’t even need to turn your computer on! With most calling plans in the USA allowing for free unlimited calls in the continental USA, family and friends calling your USA based number can do so for free. Ooma even incorporates an answering machine into its set so you can grab any missed calls.
Okay, what’s the catch? Well, first the VoIP systems are available only in the USA, although both can be ordered online and shipped. Secondly, you’ll need a credit card to set up an account. Even though with Ooma you only pay one time for the set, payment for the government tax is required annually. Also, the set/adapter charger is 110v so you’ll need to replace it with a 220v charger (easily found here at computer accessory or hardware shops). But your telephone number stays with you so moving from house to house won’t affect the system (you can even bring it on your travels and avoid those expensive hotel long distance charges. Note: It requires a DSL jack or router and won’t work over WIFI).
One VoIP system requiring a note of caution is MajicJack (one-time fee USD 39.99). After downloading the operating software, this product uses a USB device that plugs directly into your computer and then connects with a telephone handset. Subscribers must agree to allow the company to analyze their calls. MajicJack then target ads at subscribers based on that information. Only recently has MajicJack offered an “Uninstall” program for its software and then only for Windows; Mac users cannot uninstall the software once it’s downloaded.
Finally, with free or next-to-nothing rates for international calls; go ahead and wish third cousin Esther a happy birthday, return that call from the frat brother who’s still chasing you for your part of the hotel damages, find out if the customer service rep you’re talking to is in India or a federal prison but most of all – call your Mom!