VOIP from Overseas back to the USA
How Well Does it Work?
By Joe Mehaffey
Revision 2  September 2005

For several years now,  I have been experimenting with Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephone service on my trips overseas.  My first experiment has been running a couple of years and involves the installation of a MultiTech MVP-130  (NOT the MVP-130FXS) VOIP terminal at a local Atlanta PBX location and connecting it to the local telephone network and to a broadband Internet connection.  This allows me to use Microsoft's NetMeeting and a small headset with my laptop computer and be able to phone-home to any place in the USA.  Of course this DOES require a reasonably fast Internet connection and these can be hard to come by in some parts of the world.  But.. When it works, the call is essentially "free" and I can talk as long as I like.

I have been successful in a lot of European cities in finding hotels with wireless Internet capability and this mostly works just fine.  Sometimes I find the necessary "IP ports" blocked on their router but these times have been few.  I have even had some success with 42kbps dial up links providing usable voice connections over VOIP,  but these situations have been relatively rare.  Dial-up Internet connections from hotels tend to be in the under 25kbps range and you need a good steady 40+kbps link to work properly with even low bit rate VOIP connections.  In the end,  I have overall decided that UNTIL high speed Internet is more readily available "free" to hotel guests overseas, the old standby telephone card is a better all around idea.

What if you LIVE in a Far-away place?

And then there is the case of what do you do if you LIVE overseas for a period and would like the luxury of calling home to the USA whenever you want at low cost.  I have a friend who lives part of the year in Dar es Salaam Tanzania.  I visited him earlier this year and set up a Vonage VOIP modem terminal for him and connected it to his key phone system in his home.  It turned out that in Dar,  high speed Internet service is problematical.  When we first turned on the system into his (supposedly 128kbps download/128kbps upload) high speed Internet service, you could RING a number in the USA fine, but you could talk to no one.  

Some tests revealed that things started out OK but within about 15 seconds on a download, the download speed dropped to about 200 BITS per second instead of the 192,000 bps advertised.  A quick (and lengthy) call to the ISP revealed that they had a single 1.5mbps T1 speed satellite data service to the outside world that was serving over 1000 customers both business and residential throughout the Dar area.  My friend is an influential businessman in Dar and he had the manager of the ISP visit his office for a discussion of the problem.  He managed to get the ISP to install a QoS (Quality of Service)  filter in the ISP's router so that (most of the time,) the service level was sufficient to handle ONE VOIP call reasonably satisfactorily.   In the USA, we cannot imagine having a "broadband" home Internet connection that could not reasonably support a 40kbps two-way traffic load!

To make a long story short,  For a 5 month period, the Vonage VOIP link from South Eastern Africa to the USA has worked  about 90% of the time IF the calls are made early in the morning or after business hours in Dar.  At other times you might or might not get a reasonable quality connection.   While things were reportedly not perfect,  the service  must have been at least tolerable because in several months, 1200+ minutes were used calling to and from the states.  

I think the situation in Africa, particularly Southern Africa is about worst case as far as internet bandwidth capacity is concerned.  There are no wire line or fiber optics connections to Southern Africa from Europe, or from Northern Africa.  All high bandwidth outside telecom communications is delivered by satellite services.  The cost of bandwidth on these services is very high.  Costs are something like $3500 or more a month for an equivalent T1 (1.5 Mbps) data line. Compare this to here in the USA where this bandwidth can be had for about 20% of that cost.  Couple that with the relatively low incomes in much of Africa and it is obvious that Internet Service for the common man there is out of reach.   (For example, in Dar, a house maid or car driver can be hired for 40 hours per week for the sum of US$200 a MONTH including a health insurance package.)  

Back to the topic.  If you plan to live outside the USA in a fixed location for an extended period of time, then VOIP telephone  service back to the USA should be considered.  Vonage service offers "all you can eat" phone service to anywhere to the USA and Canada for about $26 a month.  This includes both incoming and outgoing calls and long distance calls within the USA and Canada.  Friends in the USA can call a local number in your hometown and it immediately rings in (for example) Tanzania, 8000 miles away.  Similarly, when you pick up your VOIP telephone in Tanzania, the dial tone you hear is (for example) in Atlanta USA.  Neat stuff!   You do need to analyze what the "high speed" Internet service is really like back to the USA (or to Europe or wherever your host VOIP service is located).  If you cannot get reasonably low latency and a consistent 40kbps both-way Internet connection, then VOIP will not function properly.