I have written a number of times about Skype, a service that provides low-cost or zero-cost telephone calls by using your computer in place of a telephone. You can read my earlier articles at http://tinyurl.com/ye9max. Many newsletter readers have participated in genealogy Skypecasts: free "conference calls" in which you plug a headset into your computer and talk with other genealogists around the world. Many of the podcasts on this newsletter's web site are simply recorded Skype conversations. Millions of computer users around the world use Skype to talk with family, friends, and business associates at no cost or at low cost.
Now Skype has announced its rates for 2007: anyone in North America can call any telephone in North America for a flat rate of $14.95 a year. That's right: about $1.25 a month for unlimited calls!
Actually, the published rate for North American Skype users is $30 a year for unlimited calls. However, if you sign up for the service before January 31, you can get the same deal for half price: $14.95 for unlimited calls to all telephones in North America for a full year. Skype's biggest competitor charges $300 per year for a roughly similar service. Traditional telephone companies charge even more.
Skype was a small company until it was bought out by Internet giant eBay in October 2005. eBay paid $2.5 billion for the small, Luxembourg-based company called Skype. eBay/Skype has since been very aggressive in convincing people to use Skype in place of normal telephones.
Skype consists of three separate but closely related businesses:
1. Free computer-to-computer voice calls. You can obtain a free Skype account, plug in a headset, and call anyone else's computer if they are also using Skype. That voice call is always free of charge, even if the two parties involved are on opposite sides of the world. The free computer-to-computer Skype service is unaffected by this week's announcement.
2. SkypeIn is a service in which your computer is assigned a telephone number, and anyone in the world can call you from a standard telephone. Those placing the call pay normal long-distance charges, however. (See Footnote #1 later in this article for information on how to drastically reduce your callers' long-distance charges.) The SkypeIn service costs € 10 for three months or € 30 for a full year (roughly $13 and $50 U.S. dollars, respectively). The SkypeIn service is unaffected by this week's announcement.
If you own a business and would like to have low-cost numbers for your customers in London, Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro, or Stockholm, please read Footnote #2 below.
3. SkypeOut is the service in which you can place calls to standard telephones around the world, and this is the service with the new pricing announced this week. Callers in North America can place unlimited calls to standard telephones in North America for a year for a one-time charge of $14.95 ($30.00 after January 31, 2007). You will also receive 60 minutes of free international calls that you can use during the year. Additional minutes for international calls are available at very low prices, such as roughly two cents a minute to call China, Germany, Mexico City, Taipei, or London. If you sign up now, Skype is also including more than $50 in coupons to get a Motorola headset, Netgear WiFi phone, and a Polycom speakerphone.
The SkypeOut calls to North America have been free for the past seven or eight months as part of a special promotion. When the free calls were first announced, Skype said that the free offer would last only until the end of 2006. This week's announcement has been expected for some time.
I am a big fan of Skype and use it for all my outgoing phone calls. I am not alone; Skype now has more than 100 million users around the world.
I have experimented with some other Internet telephone services but keep coming back to Skype as offering the best value. I find that I usually get better-sounding Skype connections than those provided by the local telephone company. At $14.95 a year for unlimited calls, I expect to keep using it. I just signed up for the new plan.
All you need to use Skype is a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux computer, an Internet connection, a free Skype account, and the free Skype software.
See Footnote #3 for information about using cordless phones and other traditional telephone equipment with Skype.
There are two drawbacks that you need to remember:
1. Skype is not a complete replacement for regular telephone service. For instance, Skype can't be used for emergency 911 calling (999 in the U.K.) to police, fire, or ambulance services. Also, there is no operator assistance.
2. While Skype will work on dial-up Internet connections, I don't think you will be happy with the results. I'd strongly suggest that you use it only on broadband connections. If you do not yet have a broadband connection but you do place a lot of long distance calls, the savings you obtain with Skype will probably more than pay for the difference in price for you to obtain a broadband Internet connection.
You might want to read the full Terms & Conditions of this offer at http://www.skype.com/company/legal/terms/unlimited_calling.html. I read them and the words seemed very reasonable to me.
I would suggest that this is a very attractive service for genealogy and non-genealogy purposes. For more information, go to http://www.skype.com.
One advantage of the SkypeIn service is that you can obtain more than one telephone number for incoming calls. Best of all, these numbers can be in different cities around the world. I often receive calls from newsletter subscribers and from genealogy companies around the United States, Canada, and England. The Americans and Canadians can call my U.S. telephone number for relatively low toll charges, but trans-Atlantic calls placed by U.K. residents can be expensive.
I purchased one Skype telephone number in the U.S. (1-508-471-3890) plus another telephone number in London (+44 208 133 8002). Anyone in the U.K. can call my London number for far lower prices than the charges for calling the U.S. number. In fact, most European countries can call London for significantly less money than the charge for calling a U.S. number.
Both numbers ring directly on my Skype-equipped computer here in my office.
SkypeIn numbers cost € 10 for three months or € 30 for a full year (roughly $13 and $50 U.S. dollars, respectively) for each number, whether you have one, two or ten such numbers. € 30 a year strikes me as a low price to offer a courtesy to my U.K. callers.
If you often receive phone calls from relatives in a distant state or an overseas country, you might investigate obtaining a Skype number near them to lower their toll call expenses.
If you own a business and would like to have low-cost numbers in London, Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro, or Stockholm, you can do so for only € 30 per number per year. (Not all countries are available.) You can either use a headset or handset on a computer for the incoming foreign calls or else obtain any of several devices that will connect your Skype-equipped computer to your office telephone system. Any of your customers who dial the local telephone number(s) in their country will be directly connected to your office without paying for international toll calls. Foreign Skype numbers strike me as a very cheap method of having a "foreign office" or a foreign "technical support" number.
Of course, you do have to keep time zones in mind. Your office may not be staffed during normal business hours in the overseas locations. Nonetheless, callers can always leave voice mail for far less expense than for doing the same via overseas toll charges.
Most people start using Skype by plugging a headset into their computer's soundboard. In fact, that works well; but you are not limited to headsets. Many people prefer cordless phones, traditional telephone handsets, speakerphones, or other telephone devices that we have all come to accept and expect over the years. A bunch of third-party hardware providers have rushed to fill the need. You can now buy low-cost "made for Skype" handsets, cordless phones, or you can even connect Skype to your office switchboard. Go to http://froogle.google.com/froogle?q=skype&btnG=Search+Froogle to see a sample of the many devices available.