Saturday, November 21, 2009

Staying Connected

Staying connected to friends at home, and around the world has changed A LOT since I first started coming to India in 2001. Back in the day I had to create a Yahoo mail account (I know, ancient!), because my college email didn't offer webmail, only POP mail (even more ancient!), and if I wanted to be able to access email in India, it was going to have to be webmail.

At that time, international phone rates, both from the U.S. and from India to the U.S. were unbelievably expensive. I think it was nearly 50 cents a minute on ATT from the U.S., and maybe the equivalent of 25 cents from India to the U.S.

In India, internet cafes were few and far between, and the computers inside them were dinosaurs. These days net cafes are more common, and the computers are still dinosaurs, but not the same ones as before. Maybe the current computers date to about 2001.

In any case, in 2001, I don't think the idea of having home internet had really sprung up yet in India, though I could be wrong. I didn't spend a lot of time in peoples' homes, at least not ones who could have afforded such a thing. I was in Rajasthan for a month, working on an excavation at the site of Gilund, and the only homes I really visited were those of the villagers of Gilund village. The village had only recently been wired to the grid to receive electricity. What I remember most about those homes is the copious amounts of kheer I ate while we went from house to house on Eid. Yum! But off topic...

Back to the point! Home internet, including broadband by DSL is much more common now. It is, however, a HUGE pain to get set up (something I blogged about before). Now, the both the technology and tools of staying in touch have changed radically. There are so many options, more and better, and far cheaper than before.

Here is a list of what the tools I currently use to keep in touch. If you're using the internet (and you must be if you're reading this), you have probably heard of these things:
Instant messanger (Adium - which combines AIM, MSN, Yahoo, G-Chat, and many more).
(A fairly short list, and yet still somehow it's an overwhelming amount of in-touch-ness!)

In order to connect to the internet I use a USB cellular modem, which (though a bit slow) allows me to connect to the internet anywhere there is cell service. I have mine through Tata Indicom (primarily because I found that they are the only brand with a modem that is compatible with Mac OS). It took some working still, to get it running with the Mac, and the Tata people had no idea how to help me. I found this PDF guide, which, though outdated, was still clear enough to show me what to do. I currently pay Rs. 849/month for unlimited time and data, on a pre-paid basis. This works out to between $17 and $20/month.

Probably the neatest new set of tools for communication is the system I found (through a lot of internet research) of having a local American phone number that forwards to my Indian cell number. I won't give out my phone number here... but I will give away the secret that means that American friends and family can call me for basically free (no one pays long distance anymore after cell phones), and I pay 1.8 cents/min to forward the call to my Indian phone.

For a basic version of this service, and purely incoming calls, you can just use They are the company that does the basic job, giving you a local US number which friends can call, and they set up the forwarding to the Indian (or other international) phone number. They charge 1.8 cents to India, different rates to other countries around the world. It takes a few days to set up, and you have to maintain a pre-paid balance on the site. You have to request a local phone number, but you can request where it is local to, and most places/area codes seem covered. Once you have the incoming number, you can forward to an international number for cheap, cheap, cheap.

My Indian cell phone, which is a pre-paid SIM from Airtel, has free incoming calls, at least in the state of Tamil Nadu, which is considered my local network, and is where I spend most of my time.

I have enhanced this with the addition of Google Voice. Google voice is a service that used to be called "Grand Central" which allowed you to create a single incoming phone number, and forward calls to any other number you had, home, work, cell, etc. However, presently, Google Voice only works forwarding to American phone numbers. The pros of using Google Voice are:
  1. I have the same US phone number now as when was in the US, now it just forwards to my Indian phone.
  2. I can use Google Voice - the website, to call any phone in America, and it calls my Indian cell first (making it an incoming call, and therefore free as far as the Indian cell service is concerned), and then dialing the American number. So I can make outgoing calls (using the internet) for the same 1.8 cent rate I get for incoming calls.
  3. If I don't manage to get to the phone in time, or if it's off, I get voicemail! My Indian pre-paid cell service doesn't come with voicemail. And more than just voicemail, it sends me a transcript of the voicemail, in email. Now, granted, those transcripts are frequently VASTLY wrong, since their voice recognition software isn't very good yet, but it's still a neat service and the audio clip of the voice mail is right there to listen to as well. If you do happen to call me and get my Google Voice voicemail, please speak clearly... :)
The cons are:
  1. Google Voice doesn't just forward directly to an international phone. (Though they indicate in future they are planning to make that available).
  2. I have to have a computer and an internet connection in order to make an outgoing call for the same 1.8 cent rate.
If anyone knows of any other neat or new methods/technologies of staying in touch across vast oceans and distances, let me know, I'm always open to new things!

Note: The Google Voice service is currently available by invitation only. I don't have any invites, and I got my own by signing up on their website.

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