In praise of Skype and the need for global service
It's the kind of message you never want to receive on a vacation. You're off in scenic Europe, ready for two weeks of history, cafes, food, and extended family. Suddenly you get word of an ailment at home.
That was my story. Roughly two days into my vacation in Slovakia, I received word that my mother suffered a mild stroke. Thankfully she's ok for the most part, but to receive an email stating this is rather scary, especially when you're thousands of miles away.
I was in a remote area of Northern Slovakia at a small hotel in a mountain region normally popular with skiing in the winter. Since it was mid-July, the area is really beautiful for hiking, nature photography, etc. The hotel we were at was small, but thankfully had a Wifi connection to the Internet.
Just after the first day, I had checked my email on my iPhone, only to get a message from my brother. Our mother was having a hard time communicating clearly, often misusing words. An example is when she used the word "kitchen" when she meant to say "office". She was taken to the hospital and examined. The diagnosis was a mild stroke. Thankfully it was caught in time so she'll only need some care and therapy to get her brain back in order.
I know this sounds like a big "WHEW!" moment where you can breathe a sigh of relief, but that very night it became my hell to try to get in touch with my family.
Once again the carriers failed me
I wrote about my issues two years ago when I could not get my iPhone to connect to any carrier in Europe. I was disappointed, but assumed it was because I had just updated my phone to iOS 4 before I left. I figured this time everything would work, right?
Wrong. From the moment I touched down in London to connect to Vienna and then Bratislava, I once again could not get my iPhone to connect to any carrier available to me in Europe. I could live with this inconvenience if all I wanted to do is use my GPS or even just to call home to say I arrived ok. However, this was a real emergency.
I felt trapped and isolated. At the time I didn't know that my mother was ok, and for all I knew she could have been dying. I'm sure you can imagine how this kind of fear and uncertainty would feel, and how much anger one would feel if the simple act of a phone call suddenly can't happen.
So you might wonder why I didn't just call from the hotel? The answer is this hotel was built back when Communism was in full swing in the former Czechoslovakia. The rooms had no phones, no pay phone in the lobby, and everyone (including the staff) were all asleep for the night. It was also late and remote, so the idea of running out to buy a temporary phone was also out.
Skype to the rescue
Amazingly enough, the answer laid not in the cell phone function of my iPhone, but in a simple app meant for voice-over-IP communication. I'm sure we all know of and have even used Skype at some point since its inception in 2003. Many immigrants especially love it to keep in touch with relatives over long distances. Now it became my savior.
My brother had an iPad and I had my iPhone. He quickly installed the app and I managed to talk to my family. After that night, I immediately paid Skype for a month of service and suddenly I felt like I had my phone back. I could call my mom's house phone or my brother's cell phone over the hotel's Wifi with ease. Granted there were some moments where the sound would stutter or not be clear, but it worked.
Throughout the two weeks I spent in Europe, I continued to use my month of service to call home anytime I had access to a broadband Wifi, which pretty much was in any bar or cafe I'd encounter. I'm very thankful to God that my mother is ok, but also thankful for Skype that it came through when the carriers could not.
We need global cell service
Now I'm not asking for a service where I pay one flat amount and am able to call anywhere in the world from anyplace I happen to be at. I know it's pricey when you call from Europe to the US, but if I'm willing to pay the money in the case of an emergency, then I should be able to easily connect up to an available carrier and take on that charge.
In this modern day there is no excuse for the issue I seem to keep encountering every time I travel with my iPhone. I mean, what about if I was the emergency? What if I had an accident, or my fiance did, and I needed to call for help? What if I got robbed and perhaps I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere with just my phone? What then?
The idea of territories, dividing lines, and different signal hardware based on region has to end. These carriers are GLOBAL, which should mean that you get your service no matter what country you're in...provided they are there. If one has to pay more on that trip, then give them the choice. Not cut them off and leave a customer to their own devices.
I think about my recent dumping of DSL for cable internet, my issues with poor data service, dropped calls, insane bills, and this insanity when I travel; and wonder what is in store for the future if these companies seemingly can't bring themselves up to the present day. Cell phones are now the primary communication device for most people around the world, but yet solid service is still as elusive as a four-leaf clover.
At this point, I'm going to make sure to buy Skype credit every time I travel from now on, and I suggest you all do the same. I'm happy they exist and they saved my butt when I needed help. Maybe one day the carriers will catch up.
What do you think? Have you ever been in a situation similar to mine?