Using Skype for telephone calls over the Internet

Because our cell phone plan is pay-as-you-go, it's quite economical for the occasional "I'm ready to be picked up" call. Not so for half-hour long chats to a daughter off at college, however — those charges mount rapidly.

Instead, we're now using Skype, an IP telephony system that features free software, free unlimited calls (in some configurations), and call quality that's far better than the cellular network — in many cases, better even than land-line to land-line. And there's one very nice security feature: every caller must be specifically authorized to call you on Skype. If a stranger calls, just hit the Block option, and they can never bug you again.

Here are the only requirements:

In our situation, Anna has a high speed connection at school, Jonathan has one at work, and at home the family has a slow dial-up link. That means that Anna can call Jonathan at work, or he can call her, and talk for free; and Anna can call home (a land line) for €0.02 (about 2.4¢) per minute. Compared to 25¢ per minute for cell calls, it's quite a bargain.

If you want to be able to call a Skype user from a regular telephone, that option is available. It costs something. We haven't explored that feature, so I can't comment on it.

Getting started

Get the software. Visit skype.com (offsite link). Follow the download links and pick the appropriate version: Skype for Windows, for Mac, for Linux — whatever you're running. Download it to your computer.

Make a Skype account. When you run the setup program you just downloaded, you'll be asked to create a new account. The "Skype name" you pick is sort of a world-wide telephone number (though it's not a number); it identifies you uniquely among all of the 4-million-plus Skype subscribers. Some people pick clever names, some stick to some form of their real names — your call.

Create a profile. A profile is just a way for other Skype users to find you if they don't know your Skype name. I generally don't recommend filling out such things as birthday, sex, etc. One useful field, though, is e-mail address. Nobody will ever see that address, but if someone (one of your regular e-mail correspondents) wants to find you on Skype, they can do so by searching for your e-mail address.

Plug in your headset. When shopping for ours, I looked for two factors: a USB connection, and wearing comfort.The USB connection means that the headset can stay plugged in without interfering with the PC speakers. The alternative is to get a headset that plugs into the speaker and microphone jacks of your sound card. I ended up getting the Logitech model 250, and we've been quite happy with them. Feel free to click the amazon.com link (in the box to the right) to start shopping.

Place a Skype-to-Skype call. Hit the "Add Contact" button in Skype. Enter the Skype name, real name, or e-mail address of the person you want to call, and hit search. Highlight the correct match, hit "Add selected contact"; you'll now have that person in your address book. Click the entry, click the green phone button, and you're calling.

Place a Skype-to-telephone call. Go back to skype.com, this time with a credit card handy. Follow the "Buy Skype credit" link, and buy €10.00 worth of time. Now you can go back to your Skype window, and enter +1 followed by a US phone number in the little text box right above the telephone buttons. (The Skype web site has instructions for calling other countries.) The per-minute charges are deducted from your account balance; when it gets low, just repeat the procedure to buy another block.