London calling: Road testing mobile Wi-Fi voice apps

I knew that my Verizon Wireless smartphone wouldn't work in Europe – Verizon's radio technology is incompatible with European standards. But could I take advantage of voice over IP, using mobile communications apps over Wi-Fi, and still make use of my phone? I wanted to find out. So, as I packed for a weeklong trip across the U.K. and Scotland, I loaded up my Android phone with a few apps. My goal: Stay in touch with family at home throughout the 500-mile, 10-day trip and establish contact with my daughter, who would be meeting me in London, as soon as I arrived at the airport.

My voice communications toolbox included:

  • Vonage Extensions, a free, dialer app that functions as a virtual extension to my Vonage home voice over IP (VoIP) telephone service. (For more, see Part II: Vonage Extensions.)
  • Google+ Hangouts, which supports voice and video chats with other Hangouts users and free VoIP calls to any number in the U.S. or Canada from a desktop browser, Google's Hangouts extension for Chrome, or the Hangouts iPhone app. Hangouts is in the midst of integrating the features of the Google Voice service and will completely replace it. (For more, see Part III: Google+ Hangouts.)
  • GrooVe IP Lite, an alternative user interface to Google+ Hangouts that puts a telephone dial pad on top of the Google Voice service, and allows telephone calling using your Google Voice number from my Android smartphone – a feature that Hangouts for Android does not currently support.
  • Microsoft's Skype, the granddaddy of voice and video chat, which also supports IP telephony calls. (For more, see Part IV: Skype.)

I used all of these apps wherever I could find an open Wi-Fi signal, including at two bed-and-breakfast establishments, a hotel, cafes, and on a long train trip from London to rural Northumberland to Edinborough, Scotland. For good measure, I also tested the services on my laptop, which I brought along for the trip. And I've continued to use them to communicate with my daughter, who is in Italy for the semester.

So, how did it go? The apps worked acceptably well in controlled circumstances, but should be used only as a secondary communications medium. Relying on these apps as my primary telephony option, using Wi-Fi only, was a mistake I'll not make again.

The Wi-Fi factor

While the apps worked when I could find a good quality, open Wi-Fi connection, it wasn't anywhere near as reliable as mobile or landline telephone networks. Call quality varied with available bandwidth and signal strength, and was especially poor in pubs, restaurants and coffee shops, where many other people were busy updating Facebook or watching online videos. In London, people everywhere were carrying around a sleek, white Samsung Galaxy Tabs and making full use of that big, colorful screen.

The apps worked reasonably well when calling home at the end of the day from a hotel or B&B, but not always. Calls would break up, suddenly disconnect or suffer from echo on one end or the other, even when calling in close proximity to a Wi-Fi router. And I couldn't just make a call wherever and whenever the need arose. For example, on my first day I was walking from a London Tube station to the B&B and got lost. No Wi-Fi meant no calling and no access to Google Maps. Functionally, my phone was just a brick in my pocket. I felt untethered and adrift, like Sandra Bullock in the movie Gravity.

Once I finally found the B&B, however, I was able to launch the apps and use the Wi-Fi there to call my daughter's cell phone. That was, however, an international call -- she uses a carrier based in Italy -- so I had to pay per minute to place the call using Google Voice/Hangouts and Skype. Google calls cost 15 cents per minute while Skype calls were 8 cents. With Vonage, however, the call was included in my home calling plan. Calls home using Google Hangouts were also free.

Hangouts / Google Voice supports free calling to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, while Skype charges a per minute fee for all VoIP calls. With Hangouts, if you're traveling abroad and calling a U.S. telephone number, it doesn't cost anything if you make the connection over Wi-Fi.

The bottom line: With the broader coverage area of cell phone service you can call when you need to. With mobile Wi-Fi calling you pay less per minute but you can only call when conditions are right. It's situation-dependent, so you plan accordingly.

The problem with walled gardens

And there's something else you need to know about these apps: While most let you call peoples' telephone numbers directly, the preferred method of operation for Google and Microsoft is to connect you to other registered users of their text, voice and video chat services. If both parties have an account, calls initiated that way over Wi-Fi can be more reliable. For example, I experienced occasional problems calling my daughter's mobile phone in Italy, both from our home phone and using these apps. But firing up a Skype-to-Skype or Hangouts-to-Hangouts connection over Wi-Fi worked better by taking the cellular link out of the equation. It's nice to have options.

When you use the apps in that way, however, you enter the world of the closed, proprietary communication network, and  each has its own unique user IDs. Telephone numbers provide a universal identifier that works across all telephone networks worldwide. Google and Skype user IDs are limited to the walled garden in which you're operating. You need to engage people based on what network they're using – and hope they're online when you want to talk to them.

More specifically, the person you're calling not only needs to have an account on that service but needs to be running the app and logged into the service when you try to reach them. This didn't work out too well in practice when running the mobile apps. It's not too practical if you're trying to call the grandparents, who aren't too tech savvy, or if you're calling someone who's using a mobile phone that may or may not be running the right app at that given moment.

With a six-hour time difference, calling from Europe using Wi-Fi-based services was an exercise in timing. All of the stars had to align properly to make a successful connection. Because it was generally easier and more convenient for everyone involved, I tried to use the telephony option, placing a call to my home phone, for example -- whenever possible.

Next time I'll talk in detail my experience with Vonage Extensions during the trip.

Road testing mobile Wi-Fi voice apps


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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