Skype: Why you should at least learn to use it

Recently, like many people, I ditched my landline (which I rarely used, and the most basic service I could get still cost me about $35/month). Now my cell phone is my only telephone.

This is a better deal for me, since generally I don’t talk on the phone much — except last month. I was working on a magazine feature story that required many interviews. And also, since I got known as a source on the role of Twitter in covering the Mumbai terrorist attacks, I was called by several reporters (including to give interviews on that topic.

Last night I got my cell phone bill. It was about $70 more than I expected — because I’d exceeded my allotted minutes. Ouch.

That’s the trouble with being in the media business, and many other fields: You can’t always control how much time you’ll have to spend on the phone in a given month. Which means you can’t always control the number or timing of the minutes you’ll use. Which is why cell-only folks need other options for making and taking calls that allow you to control costs.

Enter Skype…

I’ve used the VOIP phone service Skype for a couple of years, but mainly for conversations with people who also are already comfortable with Skype. But most of the time, the people who want to call me and talk for a while, or who I need to call, either don’t use Skype or prefer to talk by phone. Which means all those calls count toward my cell phone bill. And when too many of them pile up in the same month — Ouch!$!

It seems to me that these days everyone with broadband access should get a free Skype account and learn how to use it to make and receive voice calls. All Skype-to-Skype calls are free on both ends. It costs you nothing to extend this money-saving courtesy to your cell-phone-only, Skype-using contacts.

Once you’re set with that option, then when you’re scheduling or starting a voice call that might last more than a couple of minutes, you can ask people whether they prefer to talk by phone or Skype. Why should they end up paying for you to call them?

You can use Skype on any computer with broadband access (as long as the service isn’t blocked, which I suppose could be the case from computers at some companies, libraries, net cafes, etc.). You’ll need either a built-in microphone, or a wired or Bluetooth headset connected to the computer.

So far Skype not really something that will work from a cell phone. Understandably, cell carriers are averse to supporting Skype calls, since they can’t charge for those minutes. Skype and other VOIP services are a huge, looming threat to cell carriers and landline providers.

Quality and reliability: The sound quality of Skype calls is often startlingly clear. In my experience, Skype calls overall have far superior sound quality to cell calls. As for reliability, the frequency of sporadic problems (weird echoes, brief delays or audio gaps, or dropped calls) seems no worse than that of cell phones. I’ve found if Skype starts getting flaky in the midst of a call, if both speakers pause for a few seconds, the trouble usually clears up.

Here are some other ways you can use Skype to save money:

  • SkypeOut. You can make calls from Skype to landline or cell numbers. This currently costs 2.1 cents/minute, with no limit on minutes. You can pay as you go by depositing money into a Skype Credit account (which you can set up for automatic recharge if you like). Or you can get a Skype subscription for no per-minute charges, which costs $3/month for US/Canada only ($6/month to include Mexico, $10/month to call landlines and cells around the world).
  • SkypeIn gives your Skype account its own phone number which can be dialed from any landline or cell phone. This way, anyone can call you from any phone and you won’t have to worry about paying for cell phone minutes. It costs $18 for three months to get a SkypeIn number, or $60 for a year. You get free voice mail with this. UPDATE: It’s even cheaper than that. People who purchase Skype’s Unlimited U.S. and Canada subscription currently can save up to 50 percent on buying an online number (now called SkypeIn) for a year. Details.

Skype makes even more economic sense if you telecommute, travel to locations with broadband Internet access, talk a lot to friends or family who aren’t local, or are self-employed. Even if you want or need to keep your landline, no long distance or international calling fees apply to Skype calls (whether to other Skype users or regular numbers).

Skype also offers video calls, conference calls, and lots of other features — even with a free basic account.

You don’t need to use Skype for every call — just consider it an option to control your cell or long-distance bills, and to offer a courtesy to the people you call.

If you don’t like Skype, there are plenty of other voice-over-Internet (VOIP) services you can join. I’m sure some of those vendors will leave comments to this post promoting them. But Skype has a big advantage: the huge global popularity of free basic Skype accounts means you probably have more opportunities to make and take calls that are free on both ends (Skype-to-Skype) than with other services. Also, Skype is dead easy to install and use on any computer platform — so the setup and learning curve is minimal.

I can’t think of any reason not to at least get a free Skype account and learn it. Even if Skype someday dies or other free VOIP services become more popular, learning to use this kind of communication tool is as important as learning how to send and receive e-mail, or dial a phone number. Plus it won’t cost you anything — and it might help you control costs.

(NOTE: This is a rewrite of an article I originally published yesterday on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits. That version was written specifically for journalists, and including information on recording calls via Skype.)

5 thoughts on Skype: Why you should at least learn to use it

  1. You, as usual, are very much on target.

    I have been using VOIP for years now. I thought I might quickly mention a few I have tried. I use forwarding and my voip so much that I have killed my monthly plan for a cell phone and gone with prepaid minutes. (I have used about 20 minutes since October.)

    – Skype – You hit the nail on the head huge userbase. I started paying for the unlimited US and Canada Skype out service the begining of this year. I love it.

    – Gizmo – Very much like Skype. I pay for the Gizmo in service. I like one thing it has to offer over Skype which is a built in recorder.

    Ventrilo and Teamspeak are both multi-user VOIP programs. You need a server program AND a client program to use them. In the past, I have used TeamSpeak to record podcast with up to 3 participants. In my opinion, Ventrilo seems to have better audio quality.

    The down side of all these services is that I now have about a half dozen phone numbers. Fortunately, I was tipped off about Grand Central when there were still invites. Grand Central functions as a voice mail and a filter call forwarder. (In other words, you only need one number to contact Lumpy.) If Google ever opens it up again it is something else we should all learn to use.

  2. If you use both the iPhone and have SkypeOut credits, check out the free “Fring” app. It lets you use those SkypeOut credits to make calls from your iPhone without using ATT minutes as long as you have Wifi. It works on the iPod Touch, too.

    Unfortunately Fring won’t work over the iPhone’s 3G network for those times when you’re not within wifi reach. That darned ATT …

  3. So so so so so true!!

    I don’t know how much I’ve saved via skype. It is also nice because if you want – you can record the conversations using different (semi-cheap) plugins.

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