When my parents first got a home telephone we had rules about calls. Because long distance and international calls were expensive during “office hours”, we only ever made them in the evening and at weekends.

Today, my own family has no such restrictions. Services such as Vonage (www.vonage.com), the US-based voice over internet protocol (VoIP) provider, and Skype (www.skype.com), the peer-to-peer internet-based communications service, have driven down the cost of fixed-line telephony over the past decade.

Unfortunately, mobile phone services have lagged behind. Domestic callers (or more likely their teenage offspring) who go over the “free” minutes included in a monthly mobile phone plan are likely to rack up wallet-sapping charges. Similarly, most international travellers using their mobile phones overseas have been shocked by the roaming charges they have been forced to pay.

Subscribers to Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA network pay $1 a minute for both incoming and outgoing calls while using their handsets in Europe. The European Union recently regulated roaming charges but they are still steep. Europeans who travel outside their domestic base now pay €0.49 a minute to dial out and €0.24 a minute to take a call.

But a slew of new start-ups – some using IP technology and others with innovative business models – are beginning to challenge traditional wireless carriers.

Swiss-based telecommunications company United Mobile
(www.united-mobile.com) offers cut-price international mobile communications services in 140 countries using its own network infrastructure, pre-paid Sim cards and an old technique called “call-back”.

Roaming users with an unlocked GSM (global system for mobile communications) phone simply replace their Sim cards with United Mobile’s card and dial the international number they want as normal using the full country code. Users are briefly disconnected before the service calls them back and completes the call, using United Mobile’s own network.

The 3 Skypephone, launched jointly by Skype and Britain’s 3 mobile carrier last month, could be equally disruptive. As well as being a conventional 3G handset, the 3 Skypephone allows users to make free Skype-to-Skype calls and send free Skype instant messages to other Skype users. Skype plans to introduce similar services in seven other countries shortly.

Earlier this week Raketu (www.raketu.com) introduced a service that enables any mobile device capable of sending SMS (short messaging service) text messages to make free national and international calls to 40 countries and low-cost international calls to other countries using VoIP calls.

The user sends a text message to one of the local SMS-text numbers set up by Raketu and embeds the call instructions into the message. Raketu calls the originating num- ber first and connects it directly with the destination number.

Jajah’s Mobile Web service also provides a one-click free global phone service and does not require a download – it works directly from most smartphone web browsers.

Registered Jajah users simply type mobile.jajah.com into the mobile browser, enter their user name and password and the number they wish to call. The service works with BlackBerry, Treo and iPaq devices as well as smartphones from Motorola, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung.

Yeigo (www.yeigo.com) also aims to cut mobile phone charges by using the internet to connect users, bypassing network operator call charges. Users who download the Symbian or Windows Mobile version of Yeigo to their mobile phones can make free calls between mobiles anywhere in the world (both caller and recipient must download the application). Calls to landlines are also significantly cheaper than normal.

Another service worth exploring is Sweden-based Rebtel (www.rebtel.com). Rebtel enables users to sign up from a mobile web browser and then works with any handset. Users provide the phone number of a friend or colleague in another country, and Rebtel provides the user with a local number for them, which you save on your mobile and use whenever you want to call them. Calls cost a fraction of international rates or – if the call recipient ends the call and redials your number while you hold on the line – are free.

I also like the service offered by Montreal-based Mobivox (www.mobivox.com), which offers free calling to fellow Mobivox members in over 40 countries. After registering online and uploading Outlook, Skype or Gmail contacts, members simply dial a local Mobivox number and say the name of the person they want to talk to. Mobivox makes the connection.

Yak4Ever (www.yak4ever.com) offers a similar service. Users register up to 10 overseas numbers that they call regularly and choose an extension number for each of them.

Then, when you dial Yak4Ever’s access number and enter the appropriate extension, the service connects the two parties who can then talk, or “yak”, forever.

Big savings, if you know where to look

Q. How does mobile VoIP cut the cost of mobile calls?

By using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology, mobile phone companies can bypass most of the traditional mobile carrier networks and dramatically cut the cost of calls, passing savings onto their customers.

Q. What are the options for those who want to cut the cost of international mobile calls?

The simplest option may be to sign up with an International Mobile Virtual Network operator that offers its customers replacement SIM chips for their (unlocked) GSM phones and then routes calls over their own networks. An alternative is to use a “call back” service that links the caller and the call recipient. Other companies enable users to make mobile VoIP calls by accessing their service from a mobile web browser, or provide a small software download that runs on select handsets.

Q. What is the downside to these mobile VoIP services?

Most are more cumbersome than making an ordinary call. Some involve additional steps, others require that both the caller and the recipient sign up, and some will only work on certain handsets.

paul.taylor@ft.com

Paul Taylor tackles your high-tech problems and queries at www.ft.com/gadgetguru

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