Universal phone numbers: Make phone calls with all your devices
27th May 2013 | 12:59
Why should your phone number be tied to your phone?
The popularity of computing on the move means many of us carry a showroom of mobile gadgets, ranging from the obligatory mobile phones and tablets, to laptops and even hybrid laptops/tablets.
All connect to the internet via mobile broadband and can (in theory) receive phone calls.
Yet most of us stick to the antiquated notion that calls must only come on one device — your landline telephone or mobile phone.
Why not receive calls on all your devices by using something akin to a universal phone number?
There are several advantages to receiving calls on multiple devices, starting with saving money.
If you're eyeing off that new iPad Mini or a Google Nexus 7, but don't like the thought of paying for both a phone and a tablet, or signing up to two mobile plans if you want 3G on your tablet, why not ditch your old phone and just use the tablet to make and receive phone calls, using a cheaper mobile broadband 3G plan without the phone component?
Like most tablets, the smaller 7-8-inch devices like an iPad Mini or a Nexus 7 aren't set up to receive phone calls, but if you add the Skype app (available on all platforms and on BlackBerry 10) and get yourself a Skype phone number, then you have yourself a working phone, albeit a very big one.
Who needs phablets? You'll be able to make and receive calls whenever there's a broadband connection, whether it's via Wi-Fi or 3G.
Alternatively, you might have a mobile phone whose battery struggles to make it through the day.
Why not extend your ability to receive calls to your tablet or even laptop, if these are within range of a Wi-Fi hotspot? Chances are they'll still be running well after your phone has run out of charge.
As a result, the use of a 'universal' number that works across all devices is becoming increasingly popular.
In Australia this isn't provided by the Telcos, but by Skype and some VoIP providers.
We all know you can use Skype to make free calls to other Skype users, but the key here is to extend Skype to be able to make calls to people who don't have Skype — using the standard landline and mobile phone networks — and receive calls from them.
Unlike Skype-to-Skype calls, calling users on the phone networks with Skype costs money, but then you pay to do this with an ordinary telephone plan.
In the US, you can also use Google Voice to do the same thing, but sadly the full Google Voice service isn't available to Australians.
You can make calls with Google Voice from your device in Australia (you can access it via your Gmail), but you can't generate a phone number that people not using Google Voice can call you on.
You can in the US, but not in Australia.
Generate a number with Skype
There actually isn't such a thing as a universal global phone number in the public telephone network system.
There's a service called 'Universal Personal Communications', which has set aside some numbers in the international calling space and allocated the country code of +878 to them, but so far the service been largely experimental and not seen except in some trials.
The next best thing is the phone number that Skype (and Google Voice in the US) can give you.
Since you can't get the Google number in Australia, here's how you get a Skype number.
This number will let people call you on any device you carry and let you call any landline or mobile number.
1. Register and log in to Skype
Go to 'Account details' and select 'Manage Features'. Select 'Get a Skype Number'.
Here you choose the phone number that people can call you on whichever device you use to run Skype.
You can choose to associate it with any of several countries, but if you pick an Australian number it means that if you go overseas, anyone who calls you on that number from Australia will pay local Australian call rates.
Alternatively, if you have lots of Americans calling you, you may want to choose a US number so they pay local call rates when they call you.
Assuming you select an Australian-based number, you'll be asked the state you want to associate it with.
Just like the real telephone networks, Skype offers different area codes for different cities: Melbourne is given 039, for instance, and Sydney 028.
2. Choose a number
You're then asked to suggest the actual number combination you want, or you can choose from a selection of suggested phone numbers.
We picked one that looked like a traditional landline phone number, feeling it would be more reassuring for people ringing us.
Once you've chosen the Skype number, you then take out a subscription to it.
To be clear, although Skype calls to other Skype users are free, if you want your own personal phone number for non-Skype users to call you on, or to call them, you need to subscribe to the number and pay for it.
It's like signing up to a telephone number from a standard Telco.
When signing up, you have the option of buying a subscription for three months for $24 or 12 months for $80. In our case, we chose a 12-month subscription.
With your new Skype number, no matter where you are (whether in Australia or overseas), you can receive calls from anyone on any of your devices, and make a call to anyone on the public telephone network.
Your callers can also leave you a message, just as they would with any standard telephone service, and you can set up Skype to send you an email alert when you get a phone message.
You can also have the call to your new Skype number forwarded to a standard phone number.
A word of warning: when you're running the Skype app on several devices (on anything from a tablet to a laptop and even a smart TV) an incoming call to your Skype number will make all of them ring at the same time.
This can be a bit disconcerting, but once you've answered the call on one device, the ringing stops on all the others.
4. Skype credit
The important thing to realise is that although you've subscribed to a Skype number and people can now call you on your devices, you still need Skype credit to make phone calls to people with landline or mobile phone numbers.
When calling or texting on mobile phones, Skype works out to be cheaper than standard call rates.
5. Skype vs. a real number
The quality of calls via Skype is surprisingly good on devices including the iPhone, iPad and a host of Android phones and tablets.
You certainly don't feel like you're getting poorer-quality voice and on some platforms such as Windows 8 phones, Skype calls are spectacularly good.
One wonders whether the fact that Microsoft owns Skype and Windows Phone 8, and is in partnership with Nokia, makes a difference to the effort that goes into providing good call quality.
The one disappointment in using a Skype number is that when you call someone, there's no guarantee they can see what number is calling.
Several times we've called landlines or other mobiles with Skype and those receiving the call couldn't tell who was calling, although caller ID worked on some other numbers.
There seem to be no clear rules as to when caller ID will work.