Horror stories about iPhone roaming fees have produced spectacular headlines. Some users have come home from overseas trips owing their carriers thousands of dollars, though often the worst charges were for data usage rather than voice calling. Even non-traveling iPhone users can face unpleasant surprises if they call a lot of overseas numbers. The problem is the same as with all international cellular calls: exorbitant rates far exceeding those of similar calls from landlines. Fortunately, innovative mobile VoIP services are providing an increasing number of ways to avoid paying those rates.
One factor that shapes all the services is that Apple doesn't allow iPhone applications to transport voice calls over the cellular data network. That leaves providers with two options. One is to send the calls over wifi links to and from the handset. This typically makes the applications usable on later-model iPod touch devices with microphones as well as on iPhones. The other is to send them via the cellular voice network between the handset and a VoIP gateway.
Either way, the calls then travel over VoIP links to the overseas destinations, where they enter the PSTN (public switched telephone network) for the so-called "last mile" to recipients' landlines or cellular phones. With the second option, iPhone users pay standard rates for local airtime minutes, but avoid their cellular carriers' international long-distance charges.
1. 8x8's MobileTalk: 8x8, the leading provider of hosted IP PBX services for SMBs (small to medium-size businesses), added mobile VoIP in late 2007. Its MobileTalk service uses client software, downloaded to the handset, that detects when the user is dialing an international number. When it does, the phone redirects the call to a local 8x8 gateway. From there, the call travels over the 8x8 VoIP network until it reaches the international destination, where it terminates on the local PSTN.
One strength of 8x8's offering is that it provides client software for a large variety of handsets. That means a company can put many or most of its employees on the same service, rather than only those who are using specific models of high-end smart phones. The software runs permanently in the background, and makes no changes to the iPhone's built-in dialer, phone book or other applications. The service is available independently of 8x8's hosted Virtual Office service.
2. MyGlobalTalk: I2Telecom's MyGlobalTalk is a classic low-cost VoIP provider. Its basic service gives customers a local access number. When they dial that number from registered phones, a prompt instructs them to enter the overseas number they wish to reach. MyGlobalTalk's new iPhone application (like its other smart-phone apps) uses software downloaded to the handset to automate the process. As with 8x8, the application intervenes when it detects an international number being dialed. It then completes the call using a combination of Internet overseas transport and local termination.
3. Truphone: iPhone users originally had to access Truphone's mobile VoIP and instant messaging application through the handset's built-in browser, using it to connect to a Truphone mobile Web interface that substituted for the device's built-in dialer. Recently Truphone came out with its own client software that puts the application in the handset, significantly improving voice quality in the process. Users can make cheap overseas calls over Truphone's global VoIP network, making the wireless connection either though wifi or cellular voice links. They can also make free calls (except for any local airtime charges) to users of Google Talk (not to be confused with Google Voice) and Skype Internet calling services, and to other Truphone users.
4. iCall: One of iCall's key selling points is that it lets iPhone users save on both international calling charges and local minutes. It uses downloaded client software that connects through wifi networks. Whenever the iPhone is near a hotspot, the user can make cheap calls via iCall's VoIP network, without either using cellular minutes or paying international cellular rates.
Users can even switch from a cellular connection to wifi in mid-call, though it takes some advance preparation. First, they have to select one of the permanent inbound numbers that iCall offers free of charge, and have their friends use that number to call them. They also must opt to have incoming calls to the number forwarded to their iPhone cellular numbers. When they are in the midst of such a forwarded cellular call and come in range of a hotspot, the application pops up a screen asking them if they want to switch to a wifi connection. If they do, the app puts the caller temporarily on hold and makes the switch, ending the cellular call and use of airtime minutes.
5. Skype for iPhone: When it comes to features, Skype for iPhone doesn't stand out. It simply uses client software to connect to Skype's Internet calling service via wifi hotspots. Its big advantage is the user base to which it provides access. With several hundred million registered users, Skype offers ample opportunity for free user-to-user calls, in addition to cheap rates for inbound and outbound PSTN calling.
Users will still have to find free or for-pay hotspots, because there's no provision for cellular voice links to Skype gateways. Still, it's a good substitute for firing up a laptop whenever you want to make a cheap or free call. A number of observers were recently disappointed, though, that the newest version (1.1) of Skype for iPhone didn't take advantage of the push notification feature available in iPhone OS 3.3. If it had, users would be able to know when a Skype call came in, even when the application wasn't running.
6. fring: Fringland sells its fring service as a way to stay in touch with all your IM buddies on all the popular services such as AIM, Google Talk, MSN Messenger, Skype and Yahoo Messenger. But it also offers a way to talk to people cheaply or for free via VoIP. It isn't acually a VoIP service itself, but rather it provides access to Internet calling services such as Skype and various SIP (Session Initation Protocol)-based counterparts. It uses downloaded client software that runs on dual-mode cellular/wifi smart phones including iPhone, Mobile Linux, Symbian and Windows Mobile devices. It uses wifi connections to get the calls to and from the handset, as well as cellular data links where possible (as it isn't with the iPhone).
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