On previous trips to the US, I’ve used a softphone program from British Telecom called BT Communicator to make calls home. This had the cool facility to effectively treat calls to a physical number you dial as originating from your home phone. Hence I could phone Lana at home and caller ID would show up as the call coming from the phone she was actually picking up! Calls were charged this way as well so all the calls were local rate and appeared on our phone bill. It really was cool.
Unfortunately BT obviously realised that this was too useful to their customers and decided to withdraw the service at the end of 2006. Now you have to either sign up to a Broadband Talk service with a montly charge or do a pay-as-you-go. In any case, their new softphone product only works from within the UK I believe.
Not wishing to pay £1.10 per minute on my Orange mobile (I’m not signed up to any roaming bundles) or the extortianate hotel rates, I began searching around for an alternative. It had to be something I could sign up to and start using immediately, would preferably bill me in Sterling, and would be usable world-wide. The answer came in the form of Pingo. You can sign up online, registering either a credit card or your PayPal account as a source of funds. It acts as a prepaid card – allowing you to put credit on, with a facility to auto-credit a configurable amount with a limit on the number of auto-credits in any one month. Immediately after signup and loading of your first credit you can use the service. In the US this simply means phoning an 888 free number (which my hotel don’t charge anything for) entering your account and PIN number, then dialling the full international number to call. There are also a variety of local numbers in most States, and what seems like a pretty comprehensive list of access numbers throughout the world, including a freephone number in the UK.
I’ve used it a number of times over the week to make calls back to Lana in the UK. Interestingly, the service utilises VOIP technologies to router your call over IP before ropping back onto the PSTN in the destination country. Call quality so far has been excellent. The first call did suffer a little bit from a kind of half-duplex effect, but all the others have been very high quality. I’ve only had one call drop. Costs are also impressive. The rate from US to UK is 1.1p per minute. You can access your full call and billing history from the web site, and so far it shows that I’ve made 167 minutes of calls for the grand total of £2.89 which seems pretty good to me. In fact I’ve only just broken into my £10 of initial credit as they also give you a free £2.50 when you sign up!
So I’ve been very happy with the service. It has met all of my requirements and has the added bonus over my original solution of not requiring me to be over the laptop on an internet connection. I’d be interested to hear of any other methods people use as I’ll admit I didn’t bother doing further research once I found my way to Pingo.