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Chat in the 21st Century

Thursday February 15, 2007

Simon Payn

The physical distance between you and your loved ones is one of the hardest parts of living abroad ? you can't just pop round for a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon. But many expatriates are managing to bridge the gap using new technologies that make communicating over a distance cheaper, easier ? and a lot more fun.

First there was the good-old phone ? expensive if you dared call too far abroad, so better make it quick. But now the traditional telephone system is just one voice communication option thanks to broadband internet and VOIP (voice-over internet protocol). What once cost a near fortune can now cost pennies ? or nothing.

Phoning over the internet

The biggest name in this field is Skype. This software, which you download onto your computer, allows you to speak with other Skype users for nothing. All you need is a microphone and earphones, or loudspeakers.

Skype can also be used to call traditional phones ? and to receive calls from these phones on your computer. The cost to SkypeOut (as they call it) depends on where you are calling. SkypeIn (the other way round) gives you your own number, which doesn't have to be in the country you?re living in, for people to call on their traditional phones and reach you at your computer. So, for example, if you live in Australia and most of your friends are in the United Kingdom, you can have a UK phone number that they can call, saving them a lot of money.

If you can't face talking "through your computer" but you still want to save money, it might be worth checking out JAJAH. With this system, you visit the company's website and enter your number and your friend's number. The site then calls you back automatically and sets up the call. In some countries it's free between registered users, in others (or if one of the users isn't registered) there's a charge. You don't need high-speed internet access to use this service.

Affordable international mobile phone calls

With mobile phones increasingly replacing landlines, the ability to make free or very cheap international mobile-to-mobile calls is perhaps the holy grail of communications.

Rebtel aims to make mobile-to-mobile international calling cheaper; the service costs $1 (54p) a week for unlimited calls, plus the cost of local dialling. To use it, you need to open an account with Rebtel and load it with funds. The system then creates local numbers for you and each of your friends. You call your friend and ask them to hang up and call you back on your local number while you stay on the line. If you do this, all you pay are local call rates if both of you live in Rebtel-supported countries (35 are currently on the list). It sounds a little complicated, but probably gets easier with practice.

"We find that people are able to talk more often and talk longer because for all intents and purposes those international minutes are free," says Rebtel co-founder Greg Spector.

With many mobile phone companies offering bundles of free minutes at various hours of the day, if you time it right your calls can be totally free.

Spector foresees international calling getting even cheaper in the future as more people use these kinds of services.

It?s a service that is likely to be welcomed by expats such as Sue Watson, a Brit living in Texas, who rely on all-in-one devices such as the BlackBerry.

"My BlackBerry is the best way of communicating across the pond and across the globe . . . email/phone/web all in one, maybe not the cheapest but most efficient and convenient," she says.

Meanwhile, companies such as Vonage are taking on the traditional phone companies and offering cheaper prices by using the internet to carry regular calls.

Face-to-face at 4,000 miles

But sometimes voice alone isn't enough. Fortunately, using a webcam to make video calls is getting easier. Instant messenger services such as Microsoft Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and iChat if you have a Mac, along with Skype allow you to hook up your webcams and make video calls.

With any infant technology, it doesn't always work smoothly ? there are many variables in your own computer and your internet connection that could cause problems. If Skype, for example, doesn't work for you, try Microsoft Messenger, and vice versa. You will need a fast broadband connection to have decent sound and video quality.

For group video conferencing, it might be worth trying FlashMeeting, which allows multiple users to join a video meeting.† Apple's iSight and iChat technology also allow you to set up video conferences.

Voice conferencing ? so you can chat to your whole family at the same time ? is available on Skype and also, via the traditional phone, through many conference call companies. One example, Powwownow, allows you to have phone conferences whenever you want, with users in several countries able to call using telephone numbers in their own country. The only charge is for the phone call.

Sharing your life

But keeping in touch isn't just about talking. There are many other ways to share your life with your friends and family.

Services such as Apple's iCal and Google Calendar allow you to share your agenda. Other software gives you the opportunity to "publish" pictures directly to your friends' screensavers, so they appear right away on their computer screens.

Other technologies such as shared wikis (the collaboration tool made famous by the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia) allow you to collaborate on projects with friends and family around the world. Many people living abroad find blogging (try or useful for sharing their day-to-day lives with those back home.†

Some expats have even become DJs and shared music with their friends and family. LaLa allows you to create your own radio station and play tunes to friends around the world.

Daniel Jardine, a British expat living in the US, says the many ways in which his "wireless, transatlantic" family communicates using technology has had a huge effect on how close they feel.

"Video conferencing is the core technology ? we can actually feel like we're all in the same room together. Since it's free, we don't worry about time, and people will wander in and out of shot, go and get a snack, or find something they want to show across the video."

His twin seven-year-old daughters, ZoŽ and Freya, show their latest artwork or newfound fossil to their grandparents.

"My mother, who often sends clothes as gifts, gets to see them all dressed up in them as soon as they arrive."

It's now even possible to recreate something akin to your physical presence, even if you're 4,000 miles away. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh developed a Hug, a prototype pillow-like device to allow people to send hugs, using the telephone or a computer, across the world to a loved one with a similar device. Meanwhile, F+R Hugs did a similar thing with a T-shirt using the mobile phone network to provide a virtual touch.

Perhaps the top Christmas gift for expats this year will be a Nabaztag rabbit, an internet-connected bunny that will read out messages, play songs and even waggle its ears in tandem with your loved ones back home.

Of course, none of this can replace the eyeball-to-eyeball, shoulder-to-shoulder connection of a physical get-together. But it can make distance less daunting.

Daniel Jardine says video conferencing was a great help when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

"She was insistent on the phone that she was OK and that I didn't need to jump on the next plane over. It wasn't until I talked to her face-to-face via video chat that she convinced me and calmed me down. It all turned out fine, and two years on I've been able to see each stage of her recovery."

Useful resources

Local phone and cable companies: many offer packages to save money for people who make a lot of international calls. They also offer broadband internet access.

Voice-over-internet telephony






Voice and video over internet through your computer


Microsoft Messenger

Yahoo! Messenger


Google Talk



iSight and iChat



Shared calendars

Google Calendar


Blogging tools




Movable Type

Online radio station

Lala (You can listen to Daniel Jardine's own radio station at:

Internet-connected bunnies


Inspired? If this strikes a chord with you, why don't you share your experiences with other Guardian Abroad readers? Visit our talkboards and spark up a conversation. Or if you're interested in submitting an article, look at our editorial policy to find out how.

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