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.