Remember when most of us had to pay for our Internet service by the minute or hour -- or by the megabyte? Those who are old enough to have used CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL in the late '80s and early '90s racked up some big bills for that metered service. Keeping up with how much time you'd used became an important task (especially at the $25-hour rates charged by some of the services when they first became available to consumers).
One reason that payment model seemed so "unfair" to users was that they compared it to their other primary means of communication -- telephone service. Most people had phone service that let you make as many calls as you wanted for the same flat monthly fee, at least as long as they were within your local calling area.
Today it's the opposite. Most of us have unlimited Internet access service for a flat monthly fee, but we're still paying by the minute for our cell phone service. And in the United States, even if you have a nationwide "no roaming" plan so you don't have to pay domestic long distance, you still pay for each minute you talk during prime business hours -- whether it's an incoming or outgoing call.
Of course, we got used to paying per-minute charges for long distance on our landlines and hefty charges for international calls regardless of the service we use. Then VoIP came along.
With unlimited service for monthly fees much lower than those of either landlines or cell phones and with many VoIP providers including Canada, western Europe, Australia, and other countries in that unlimited calling plan, we've discovered that phone calls can be very affordable -- at least as long as we're at home or at the office where we have VoIP service.
But wouldn't it be great if we could have VoIP service when we're on the go? After all, many of us now subscribe to Internet data plans for our cell phones (which, unlike the voice service, is unlimited). Shouldn't there be a way to make phone calls over that Internet service instead of using our precious (and expensive) minutes? Well, in fact, there is.
fring, fring, fring
fring is a piece of software that was originally available for Symbian phones that you can now download to your Windows Mobile device and use with GPRS or 3G data services (such as Verizon's EVDO) to make VoIP calls over its own fring VoIP client or Skype, Google Talk, or other SIP-based VoIP services.
You can also use it over Wi-Fi if your device supports 802.11 and you're within range of a wireless access point. And one very cool feature is that it "roams" between Wi-Fi and 3G networks, so you can use what's available and less expensive without having to go through a big reconfiguration hassle.
How to get it
To sign up, go to the fring Web site, and enter a few details, including the brand and model of your mobile device (my Samsung i760 is there, less than a month after it became available), your country, your e-mail address, and your mobile phone number. The reason it asks for your phone number is to send you an SMS message that has a link to download the fring application.
fring supports Windows Mobile versions 5 and 6. The beta version works with Internet Wi-Fi, GPRS, EDGE, or 3G networks. Open the SMS message, and select the link to install the application on your mobile device.
Of course, you have to accept a EULA. The EULA is a little scary, as you agree that you could be subject to eavesdropping, spamming, viruses, and Trojans and all sorts of nastiness. Then again, you're subjecting yourself to those just by connecting to the Internet with your device. If you want to read the EULA before downloading the software, see http://www.fring.com/license.htm.
Assuming you decide to be brave and install the program, you'll then need to register by creating a nickname and password to go with your user ID (a 12-digit number assigned to you that functions as the international phone number for your account). You then add your VoIP services, such as Skype or a SIP service.
To make calls to other mobile phones or landlines, you'll need a gateway service such as Skype Out, which costs a few dollars a month (but far less than landline or cell phone rates). You can also get gateway service through a SIP provider.
You can choose to make fring calls, GSM calls, Skype Out calls, or SIP calls (depending on the services you've configured). Note that if you make a cellular call from fring, you're using your cell phone company's voice plan and minutes.
fring also supports live instant messaging, which can save loads of money if you have to pay per-message costs to your cell provider for its SMS text messaging.
How it works
According to its Web site, fring uses thin client technology to establish peer-to-peer VoIP connections. The client application that you install on your mobile device has a simple (and somewhat child-like) interface that shows your contact list and whether each is online, currently in a call, or available (presence status).
This list picks up contacts from your contact list on your phone as well as your Skype, MSN Messenger, ICQ, Google Talk, and Twitter buddies lists. There's even a signal strength indicator next to each name showing the quality of the contact's network (this feature is only for contacts that also have fring). Just click a contact's name to make a call.
There's a log (accessed via the History tab) that shows the calls you've made and received, including times and dates. And for incoming calls, you can use the ringtones on your cell phone or the Vibrate feature, just like getting a call over the cellular voice network.
We're getting more and more options for making voice calls more affordably, and one option is to use a VoIP service such as fring on your mobile phone to avoid using the minutes in your plan. It's especially attractive for international calls to avoid the hefty international long-distance charges that cellular providers impose. If you have a Windows Mobile 5 or 6 (or Symbian) smart phone or PDA phone, it's worth checking out.
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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.