Glitches mar cheap international calling plans

International calling has been an expensive and cumbersome process over the years, with consumers always hunting for new ways to find inexpensive, user-friendly plans. Today, consumers have more low-cost choices.

In addition to prepaid calling cards, options range from free Internet calling via computers, inexpensive Internet calling via services such as Vonage and heavily discounted wireless plans offered by cell phone providers.

At the same time, a number of smaller companies have started to sell prepaid online services that offer low international calling rates. Users sign up online with their cell phone or landline number and dial the international call after entering an 800 access number. I tested three of the most popular services: Tel3, a unit of Netel; AwakeTel, a service from Advance Global Communications; and Via One Technologies’ Octilla.

None of the services had a clear price advantage. Tel3 was cheapest when calling Dubai (27 cents per minute), but Octilla was the least expensive to Baghdad (27 cents), while AwakeTel was tops for calling New Delhi (16 cents). All three generally cost more than prepaid calling cards, but are less expensive than the discounted rates of wireless carriers.

As far as customer service, signing up with Tel3 was the most user-friendly. The Web site was easy to navigate and offered to register up to three phones for the same price. With a four-digit PIN, I could even use the service from phones other than the one I registered. The other services didn’t offer this.

Another upside to using Tel3: free minutes. I got a $2 bonus toward calls for signing up for a $25 service plan. I would have gotten $5 worth for $50 and $10 for a $100 account. Tel3 also offered a speed-dial feature.

Registering with AwakeTel and Octilla was more of a hassle. AwakeTel made me call my credit-card company and go through a “pre-authorization” process to verify that my card wasn’t being used fraudulently.

All these services piggyback on existing wireless or landline plans, and require you to dial an 800 number before your destination number.

When it came to sound and connection quality, Octilla was the superior service. I used it to call Dubai, Baghdad, New Delhi and London, and in each case the connection took less time than when using the other two services. The sound quality was good and there were no interruptions.

When I called my friends in Dubai using Tel3 the sound quality was very good, as if they were on the other side of the city instead of the other side of the world. But when I tried to call friends’ cell phones in London and Baghdad, the phones didn’t ring at first and I received a recorded message saying the party I called hung up.

I also experienced some glitches calling with AwakeTel. First, it took several more tries to call numbers in London, Baghdad, New Delhi and Dubai than it did when using Tel3 or Octilla. When I finally did get through, the voices weren’t sharp and static interrupted the conversations. I lost my connection with my friend in London once, calls to Baghdad were cut off several times and the friend I called in Dubai said he could barely hear me. When I called New Delhi, my friend said she could hear me very well, but I couldn’t hear her clearly. I heard just loud cstatic.

Overall, these services eliminated the drawbacks of some other cheap international calling options beyond landlines.

But I’m not sure these services were worth the added costs given the technical glitches and spotty sound quality.

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