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The world is your local calling zone

VoIP may save you on interstate calls, but it's also great for keeping in touch when you're overseas. David Braue explains how it has helped him move his virtual office to Singapore at almost no cost.

VoIP may save you on interstate calls, but it's also great for keeping in touch when you're overseas. David Braue explains how it has helped him move his virtual office to Singapore at almost no cost.

There comes a time when every technology journalist has to eat his own dog food, so to speak, by using the technology we love to blather on about. For me, that time came while staring down a six-month relocation from Melbourne to Singapore.

As a freelance writer, there was fortunately no boss to plead with or leave to arrange -- but I faced the very real problem of maintaining continuity with Australian clients while I was in Singapore.

Email was never going to be a problem: I manage my own domain name, so was going to be able to redirect incoming mail to whatever email provider I ended up with while overseas. Ditto faxes, which are already handled on my behalf by virtual fax provider mBox, which converts incoming messages to a PDF file that's automatically emailed to me.

The only issue -- and the biggest one, since most of my work is done over the phone -- was how to best set up a phone service that would keep me easily contactable during my time overseas. Mobile roaming works a treat, but anybody who has ever used it knows that the price of around AU$1 a minute -- for both incoming and outgoing calls -- adds up really quickly.

Phone cards are of course cheap and widely available in Singapore as here, but they require, surprisingly enough, a phone -- and competition amongst carriers means SingTel actually offers calls to Australia and elsewhere at no premium to calls within the country. Setting up a landline phone there requires a AU$500 deposit and loads of paperwork -- something I wanted to avoid if I could given that I only needed six months of service.

VoIP to the rescue
It wasn't long before I hit upon an alternative solution: Voice over IP (VoIP), which sends phone calls over the Internet at discount rates.

One VoIP option was Skype, which allows me to call Australia for a few cents per minute, but the lack of SkypeIn service within Australia meant that people wouldn't be able to reach me easily. Even if incoming numbers were supported, Skype is only available when the notebook is powered up and connected.

It seemed that a more permanent option would be valuable, and I soon realised that a much better alternative would be to sign up with one of the many commercial VoIP operators now offering service to Australian customers.

With plans as low as AU$9.95 a month and AU$0.10 for untimed calls anywhere in Australia, I soon decided to follow the masses and go with engin, which has several years of experience behind it and by all accounts is the country's largest retail VoIP operator. Engin's VoiceBox unit links up an existing phone with a broadband connection, and had delivered good results in my earlier reviews.

Signing up for the service requires the purchase of the VoiceBox, which at AU$149 may seem high. However, previous overseas trips have proved that it's more than possible to ring up more than that simply through a few days of overseas roaming calls -- especially when well-meaning Australians call my mobile number and I pick up the tab.

The big question: how would it perform over the Internet, with 5000 km distance as the crow flies and who-knows-how-much wiring inbetween. Internet latency is often cited as a major problem with voice and video delivery, since they rely on being able to move data at a regular speed. Over so much distance, could the engin service deliver good enough audio that my clients and interviewees wouldn't struggle to understand?

The answer, as I found during a four-day trip to Singapore in July, was definitely yes. For that trip, I packed the Engin VoiceBox unit -- along with a spare landline phone and a few network cables, just to be safe -- alongside my socks and shaving gear. Upon arriving at my first hotel -- the three-star Royal@Queens, whose promise of free broadband had helped sway my booking decision -- I plugged the unit into the wall, then the phone into the unit, and picked up the handset.

There was the familiar pulse-pulse-pulse-pulse Australian dial tone, and a string of phone calls to Australian numbers proved to deliver as good quality as I had gotten during earlier trials back in Melbourne.

The showstopper
Having proven the concept worked, I was thrilled to be able to put my phone cards aside and call family from the hotel for 10 cents. When I moved to the more upscale Grand Hyatt for a business conference, however, things took a decidedly different turn. I plugged the phone into the in-room Internet jack, which I knew was functioning because I had set it up from my notebook PC already, and picked up the handset to hear ... nothing.

Although it worked fine at the previous hotel, the unit was dead in the water. I soon realised this was because the Grand Hyatt had a managed wireless and wired Internet access service (from local ISP Maginet). This service, which enforces access policies to ensure only paying guests can get online, had most likely registered the MAC address (a globally unique serial number on every piece of networking equipment) of my notebook PC's Ethernet adapter. This meant the Engin VoiceBox, with its different MAC address, was equipmentus non grata.

By contrast, the Royal@Queens Internet service was a naked service -- in other words, just a regular unmetered LAN with ports in any room. If you're travelling and want to try this approach, be aware of this potential issue. Since you usually need a notebook PC to activate in-room Internet, you could likely face the same problem.

A solution that should work, although I can't vouch for it, would be to buy an inexpensive Ethernet router or switch, then connect that switch to the Hotel's network port and plug both the notebook and VoIP box into the hub. Since such switches obscure the identities of the units behind them, the hotel's Internet service should register the MAC address of the switch and allow anything plugged into the switch to access the network (feel free to let us know if this does or doesn't actually work).

Your local line, anywhere
The experience with the two hotels demonstrated that taking a VoIP line around the world still requires a bit of effort, but a more permanent setup upon my return to Singapore has worked far better.

Having set up in an apartment and bid farewell to the StarHub technician who had come to connect a cable-based broadband Internet service, one of the first things I did was to plug in the Engin VoiceBox. Since the StarHub service is also a naked service, it was a welcome relief when the VoiceBox worked as it had at the first hotel -- without a problem.

I still faced a problem, though: how to keep both the notebook and phone plugged into the broadband port at the same time. I soon solved this with a trip to Singapore's famous Sim Lim Square, where I spent around AU$65 to pick up a four-port Linksys Wireless-G wireless LAN router, which combines a wireless LAN base station with four Ethernet ports. I plugged the router into the cable modem, then the notebook and VoiceBox into the ports on the back of the router, and -- voilà! -- had a fully functioning Australian phone number complete with voicemail, call forwarding, call waiting and so on.

The only problem with VoIP services comes during large email downloads, when the computer goes hell for leather to get its content and cares little for what other things might need the broadband connection. This seems to affect the upload channel (which is sending my voice) more than the download channel (carrying the other party's voice) so the net result is that the other party can sometimes get a choppy voice, or no voice at all, for a few seconds.

Many mobile services aren't much better, and when I explain where I am physically located, few people seem concerned by these infrequent delays. Furthermore, I was able to substantially improve the quality of the calls by logging into the Linksys router and configuring the quality of service settings to give priority to the Ethernet port into which the VoiceBox is plugged. This seems to ensure that other Internet access doesn't squeeze out the phone calls I'm trying to make.

After several months, VoIP has worked a treat. I give business associates the VoIP number -- a normal Melbourne phone number -- so they don't have to even think about ringing Singapore. I can call family in Australia at local rates, and can even send faxes over the VoIP connection using the multi-function printer I picked up at Sim Lim Square for my time overseas.

I also purchased a cordless phone that lets me roam around the apartment and use the Australian line as the primary fixed phone. Even if I need to call a Singapore number, paying a few cents per minute via engin is still cheaper than using a Singapore mobile phone -- and compared with Australian mobile roaming, I might as well not be paying anything at all.