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Free Internet-Calling Services Join the Cellphone App Market

Date: 1/29/2009 6:07:26 PM

For years, software providers have offered ways to make free calls from cellphones, and most of them even work. The problem is putting the software on your phone.

It is not that carriers want to make it hard for subscribers to load Skype, Fring and other free-calling apps onto phones, although the networks obviously bristle at the idea of giving their customers a way to make free calls (also known as “voice over Internet protocol” or telephony). The bigger issue is that until recently, carriers have made it painfully hard to load anything onto your phone, whether it is sophisticated software or a simple ring tone.

But since Apple buried its spurs in the backside of the industry by creating an application store that actually works — thereby compelling other companies to follow suit — these free-calling applications are almost within the reach of the average smartphone user.

Of the many free-calling applications, Fring, a start-up based in Israel, and Skype, the standard-bearer of the free-calling realm, are among the more user-friendly. But even then, the applications are not yet worth the inconvenience unless you plan to make a fair number of international phone calls and can put up with less-than-perfect call quality (or far worse).

Here is how it works: It helps to have a device that has Wi-Fi, because the call quality is best when carried over the Internet, not through the carrier’s pipes. (Skype offers a version that works with a smartphone’s cellular-data connection, but it says it “can’t guarantee voice quality” for those.)

Once the application is loaded and started, the software typically displays its own keypad. As long as you are in a Wi-Fi hot spot, you can make free calls directly to other members of the particular service — Fring-to-Fring calls, say, or Skype-to-Skype. Or you can call landlines through Skype at cheap rates once you have a prepaid account.

Skype and Fring users are assigned ID numbers or names, and when they are used for dialing, the calls go over the service’s Internet servers. If a telephone number is used, instead of an ID number, the call is partly routed over phone lines, then to Skype’s Internet servers, which hand it off again to a local carrier to connect the call on the other end. That is why users see strange local numbers on their caller ID for incoming calls, rather than the name or number of a friend.

There are a few caveats to the service.

Skype first offered this software to Windows Mobile users nearly three years ago. Those users can download it by going to and following the “mobile” links. PC users can download the Skype mobile software to a computer, sync their handset with the machine and transfer the application to the phone. Mac users cannot download the software to their computer — they have to use their phone’s browser to go to Skype’s download site. Depending on the phone, this can be a breeze or maddeningly difficult. I used an LG Incite, and let’s just say it was not a breeze.

For those without a Windows Mobile phone, Skype recently introduced Skype Lite, which runs on dozens of Nokia and Samsung phones with Symbian software, as well as a few Motorola Razr models. On, these users can type in their mobile numbers and Skype will send a message to the phone with a link to download the software.

But the real news with Skype Lite is that it also runs on the G1, from T-Mobile, also known as the Google phone, which operates on the Android software platform. If you own the G1, you need only visit the “Market,” Android’s app store. Click on the Skype application, which is free, and a few seconds later you are ready.

The company is also working on an iPhone app, but in the meantime, Skype users who have iPhones have another free Internet calling option: Fring.

In addition to letting you call other Fring members free, the service also connects you to Skype, which is great if you have a phone that does not work with Skype’s mobile app, and you want to use Skype to call landlines or mobile phones on the cheap. A Skype call to someone within the continental United States is about 2 cents a minute. A call to Japan from the United States costs the same.

It is worth noting that you can also download Fring to the latest versions of the iPod Touch, turning your iPod into a poor man’s iPhone. I left myself a voice mail message using the service, and the audio on the iPod sounded distant and grainy, and was briefly inaudible at times.

A far bigger problem was that I couldn’t make outbound calls to landlines or other mobile phones using my Skype account on the iPod Touch or the iPhone, despite the fact that the account was fully funded. I sent an e-mail message to Fring’s customer support, which promised to reply within 48 hours.

Sure enough, the next day I received an e-mail message explaining that the company was aware of the problem and was working to fix it. In the meantime, it suggested merely adding a plus sign to the beginning of the number. It worked.

I then switched over to the iPhone for a comparison of how Fring might sound without a headset — and on an actual phone — and the quality was significantly better, especially on a Fring-to-Fring call. The audio was still a bit grainy and the call dropped a few times over a matter of 15 minutes, but I could easily see this as an alternative to expensive international calls.

And that is really what is important here. If you are in a long-term relationship with someone overseas, say, or on a work assignment and away from your family, these applications can help give you some semblance of connectivity without killing your budget, and without forcing you to haul around a laptop for free VoIP calls.

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