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MORE PHONE CALLS FOR YOUR DOLLAR

Inundated with the number of advertisements with for cheap and even free phone calls at the moment? Do you know whether you have the best deal? Should you be joining the bandwagon of making calls over the Internet? VoIP? Walked down to the Indian grocery shop lately and seen the floor to ceiling calling card 
posters that herald massive savings?

Yes, it is becoming a complex decision, which is causing information overload for most people. So, lets see if we can simplify this down and see if all this hype, is for real or just a lot of hot air.

Traditionally, telephone calls were made over land line or PSTN (public switched telephone network). In fact, the majority of home and business lines today are PSTN connected. Carriers such as Telstra, Optus and AAPT would carry the call from you to your destination and charge you for that call based on time. Luckily for us, competition in the marketplace has made the calls a lot cheaper than what it used to be. Making calls to India fifteen years ago would have been a scary proposition with call charges at more than $2 a min! The call charges made over the PSTN are now a lot more reasonable, however it would be considered expensive, compared to other options. If you have a look at the Telstra international rates on their web site, http://www.telstra.com.au/phones/homeservices/distance_international.htm you
will find the call rate to India is $1.10/min as of the 5th May 2005. The upside is that you normally get a very good and clear connection.

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of hype around making phone calls over the Internet - hence the term VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). This means that your voice is now digitised into data packets and sent across the network. Now, the Internet is a shared public network and was meant to carry data and not voice. So what does that mean? Well, if the data packets arrive a little late due to congestion, it is not a big issue. However, if it is carrying voice, you will unfortunately hear delays and dropouts during a middle of your conversation.

The upside to VoIP is the cost savings. If two ends were connected to the Internet - say for example, if I am here in Sydney and I call my cousin Raj in Mumbai and we both have a good high speed Internet connection, the call is effectively FREE! All you would need is to get suitable handsets and some software such as Skype (www.skype.com) loaded onto the PCs. Remember though, the Internet connection has to be good quality with high-speed connectivity at both ends.

Now, when I need to make a call to Uncle Dilip in Delhi, he doesn't have a PC, nor Internet connection. I can still make the call with my Internet phone but the call now needs to be terminated at the PSTN in India. This is not free unlike the Internet to Internet call, and there will be a charge. How much you ask? Well, you can have a look at the rates that are charged by a IP phone carrier such as Engin http://www.engin.com.au/public/internationalrates.asp#bottom. You will find that as of the 5th of May 2005, it is 29c a min to any PSTN or mobile phone. A lot cheaper than the Telstra option!

What about prepaid phone cards? Yes, the ones with the posters acting like wallpaper in every convenience store and Asian grocery shop! The rates look too good to be true. Well, the answer is that if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is! However I have road tested a few and I can tell you that there are some good ones and some bad ones. And then, there are some that are downright dishonest.

To go through the myriad of posters and finding the right card for you is like going through a maze. The good news is that you can find all the information on line with a search facility on www.telephonecards.com.au. A quick search on India reveals that the Supra card charges 13.9c a min and South Asia card charges 16.5c a min as of the 5th May 2005. I have used both of them and had trouble free connections to both Raj and Dilip, however the voice quality and availability of the access number for South Asia proved to be a little better. A 
scan of the terms and conditions revealed no hidden charges apart from the fact that Supra card charges in 3 min increments compared to 2 min for South Asia but had a cheaper off peak rate. The benefit of the www.telephonecards.com.au
site is that you can buy online and not even need to go down the local shop! So here's the verdict. At the end of the day, price is important but VALUE is what it is all about. If you want a crystal clear connection and you need a dial tone now and don't want to dial a whole string of numbers, then land line PSTN is the obvious choice (but you will pay top dollar for this). 

With VoIP, until all my relatives have a broadband connection and have the right software loaded, I cannot call for free. So, it doesn't offer me all that much at the moment. 

The winner for me is prepaid phone cards. Yes, I have to dial a whole lot of numbers but the payback is the greatly discounted rates, a good enough call quality and more dollars in my pocket. 

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