Earlier this year, I called my phone company to talk about my bill. For years, I'd been paying about $25 a month for a land line arrayed with a panoply of services that I rarely used—unlimited local calls, cheap long distance, call-waiting, and several other fancy options. I wanted to cancel all of it. I've long used my mobile phone as my primary line; I'd only kept the land line because I get poor cellular reception in my house. A year ago, though, I switched over to Skype. It beats cell phones and land lines in both price and quality. Best of all, it's portable: I can use the same phone plan to make calls from home, from the office, and even from hotels around the world—again, for very little money.
Skype isn't new—it launched in 2003 *, and millions of people around the world use it. But because Skype is so unbelievably cheap, I've run across lots of people who still consider it some kind of Internet dark art—a service with mysterious inner workings, one that requires some kind of special equipment or technical know-how to get it up and running.
This isn't so. Skype, which routes your calls through the Internet, is easy to set up and pretty hassle-free to use. Unlike Vonage or other Internet phone services, it requires no contract or installation; you can set it up yourself and use it as often as you like, and you can use it to supplement (rather than replace) your normal phone if you prefer. It's also completely legal and here to stay—eBay bought the company in 2005, and you don't have to worry about the Feds shutting it down. You do need to buy some equipment to use Skype, but none of it is exotic or expensive. And once you're using it, it feels no different from an ordinary phone. (Do note, though, that Skype doesn't do emergency calls; if you need 911, use a real phone.)
I've put together a primer (below) on how to get started with Skype. Follow these simple steps, and soon you, too, will be calling your phone company to cancel everything.
What you need: There are two ways to run Skype—from your computer or from a phone equipped with Skype's software.
Starting with your computer is easier. For this you need a machine capable of running Skype's software (something made within the last five or so years), a broadband Internet connection, and a USB headset and mic, which should set you back about $25 to $30. (Your laptop's built-in mic will work, but a headset sounds sound better. If your computer has a Bluetooth chip, you may be able to use the Bluetooth headset you use for your cell phone.)
After you connect your headset, download and install Skype and create a free user account. That's it—now you can make Skype calls from your computer. (To test out your setup, type echo123 into Skype's address bar and press Call. This will give you a prompt asking you to say something. Skype will then play back what you said—if you can hear yourself, your setup is working.)
I make most of my Skype calls through a headset attached to my computer. But if you'd prefer to use your home phone to make calls, you can buy an adapter that turns any ordinary phone into Skype's mic and speaker. Plug the adapter into your computer, then plug your phone into the adapter—now all your Skype calls will be routed through your home phone. I've found this works pretty well; you can even use a cordless phone to roam around the house.
Both those options require that your computer be turned on when you're using Skype. If that's too much of a burden, you can buy a special Skype phone with a built-in Wi-Fi radio. These phones connect directly to your wireless network, bypassing your computer altogether. They're slightly expensive, running between $120 and $200. On the other hand, they're very portable, allowing you to use Skype wherever you've got Wi-Fi—very handy if you're traveling internationally and want to call home for cheap. A word of caution, though: Despite telecom company objections, more and more new cell phones are capable of running Skype. If you wait a while, your iPhone or Google phone may get Skype capabilities, and then you won't need a dedicated Skype phone.
Calling other Skype users: How cheap is Skype? If you want to talk to other Skype users, it's free. If you're in a long-distance relationship or have grandkids on the other side of the country, you should get your chatting partner on Skype immediately. (The software also does video—buy two webcams, and you're up and running.)
Calling people who don't use Skype: Skype is an Internet app—it works by streaming your calls over the network on a peer-to-peer protocol. (The software's inventors are peer-to-peer devotees, having developed the file-sharing program Kazaa and the TV-streaming app Joost using the same principles.) But Skype's magic is that it connects to the phone system, too, letting you talk to people who have no interest in any of this computer mumbo jumbo.
Calling people's phones isn't free: To get started, you've got to give Skype your credit card number (or your PayPal account). Then type in the phone number and press Call.
You can pay for your Skype calls on a per-call basis or through a subscription. Skype's pay-as-you-go rates are very good. You can talk to most people in Asia, Europe, and North and South America for about 2 cents a minute. (Calling mobile phones in some countries costs a bit more; every time you make a Skype call, you'll see your current rate on the screen.) If you install Skype on your laptop, you've now got an international roaming phone—go to a hotel in London, and you can call New York for a few cents a minute.
Skype's subscriptions are an even better deal: You can get unlimited calling in the United States and Canada for $3 a month and unlimited calls to 36 counties around the world for $10 a month. If you subscribe, you also get a free online voice mailbox.
Receiving calls: If you want to switch over to Skype completely, you need to pay for a service called SkypeIn—a dedicated Skype phone number that allows people to call you from their phones. When someone dials your SkypeIn number, your Skype device—your computer or your Wi-Fi phone—will ring.
Skype numbers are available in area codes across the United States and 21 other countries. You can even buy multiple numbers in different countries. This way, your friends in London can call your U.K. Skype number while your friends in New York call your Manhattan number; each of them will pay only the cost of a local call.
SkypeIn numbers cost $60 a year or $18 for three months. (You get a discount if you subscribe to one of Skype's calling plans.)
Other stuff you can do with Skype: Making calls through the Internet rather than the phone network brings all kinds of advantages. Because your phone is a piece of software, you can tweak it in many ways—for instance, use Skype recording software to save all your calls or use a digital voice modulator to make prank calls. One add-on claims to analyze the other person's voice to detect whether she really loves you. You can also run a baby monitor (or a nanny cam) through Skype: Attach a webcam to one computer, then Skype in to it from another machine—you'll see everything come in live.
Even with all these bells and whistles, the best thing about Skype is still the price. If you're already paying for Internet service, there really is no need to pay for phone service, too. The Internet is already your phone. Use it.