Dear Dr. IT,
My wife and I just left on a retirement cruise and we need to keep in touch with the grandkids without spending a fortune. We are traveling in the Caribbean then west through the Pacific. Short of a sat phone, what are my options for an easy way to make calls in port? We’ve tried local cellular, but the rates are outrageous and we are on a fixed budget.—John B., New York
John, good news. You have a few choices that will not drain the cruising kitty. The solution you need is VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). This technology basically pipes voice through the internet, making a virtual phone line to your grand children from any location. Anywhere you have a good internet connection, you will be able to call and talk for very low rates or possibly even free. Depending on your needs and budget, you can even get a phone number which will ring to your VOIP connection if you are online or go to voicemail if you are not.
If you have a laptop on board, first install Skype, following the directions at www.Skype.com. Second, purchase good quality headphones; I prefer USB headphones, as the sound quality seems to be higher. With Skype installed and headphones connected you will be calling the grandkids quickly.
The downfall to this solution is that anytime you want to make a call you have to lug your laptop to an internet connection or arrange to have a connection on the boat. Hauling the laptop and headphones can be a bit of a headache.
If you do not have a laptop onboard, there is a second option. There are many devices on the market that look exactly like a small cellular phone but, instead of working on a cellular network, they hook to a standard Wi-Fi network. These phones come with Skype embedded as the operating system, thus making operations very simple. Simply turn on the phone, connect to the Wi-Fi network, then start making phone calls. The phone will store a phone book and operate much like a cellular phone. This solution eliminates the bulky laptop and headphones. A phone this size can fit easily in your pocket and be forgotten until it is needed.
Personally, I like this option better than running Skype on the laptop. To find phones, search “Wi-Fi phones for Skype.” Some of my favorites come from Netgear and Belkin; people with deeper pockets may prefer the ASUS SV1T which integrates video and voice into a single device.
There is yet another solution for those who want more of a "home phone" experience. By using another VOIP service, such as Vonage, and a generic VOIP adapter such as the Linksys PAP2, one can connect a standard home phone to the VOIP adapter device. This eliminates the caller working with computer equipment, headphones, or a Skype phone. Simply pick up your standard home phone and make calls.
The downfall to this system is that it is not portable and needs to be fixed in the boat. This limits your calling to times when you have an internet connection on the boat, but in turn you get a real phone with which to make and receive calls.
John, figure out which choice is best for you and order your new toys. And tell your grandchildren "hello" for me.
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Dustin Norlund lives aboard his Hylas 49 and has sailed throughout the Caribbean and Central America. His career started in mechanical engineering and airline operations, and he is now involved in IT and software solutions. Dustin has also worked in the marine electric and electronics trade, providing services to both small and large yachts. www.nadagato.com