Yes, China, we can hear you now

Many Yalies have little reason to look beyond this country’s fine borders in their online travails. Still, even if we don’t really need to, it’s actually quite easy to interact with the international community online. Maybe you feel like chatting with your lover from your study abroad in Madrid last summer, or reading Spanish newspapers to see what Spaniards have to say about President Zapatero’s economic policies. Believe it or not, Wikipedia is available in whatever second language you are studying or have ever studied. More importantly, it’s super easy to contact friends in far-off places without breaking the bank.

In the process of writing a long article debating the merits of the One Laptop per Child and its competitors, I had to call Ghana, Mali, Macedonia, India and China. I didn’t have to try these numbers to know that I couldn’t call international with my cell phone — otherwise, my father would have taken the train up to New Haven to rip my beating heart out once he saw the phone bill.

Somewhere along the way I had downloaded and installed Skype. I think it was one of those “it sounded like a good idea at the time” things. But unlike those wonderful Sunday mornings when we all make that same statement about something horribly embarrassing we did the previous night, Skype really was a good idea. Skype is free to use when you call other Skype users, but to call landlines and cell-phones around the world, you need to add credits to a pre-paid service called SkypeOut. I put about $30 on my account, and after making several hours of calls, I still have $15 left.

Calls to China cost me an unbelievably cheap 2 cents per minute, while calls to Ghana and India cost me 15 cents per minute. Macedonia and Mali cost an outrageous 27 cents per minute. Using a semi-free Skype plug-in called Pamela, I was even able to record my calls, which were incredibly clear thanks to Yale’s ample bandwidth and a cheap headset that came with the webcam I bought last year.

Skype was designed by a number of computer scientists in Estonia back in 2003 and is one of the many VOIP — Voice Over Internet Protocol — services on the market. While over the past several years there have been numerous competitors, Vonage is by far the most popular in the United States, as it lets you use a local phone number to receive calls, but still allows for very low domestic long distance and international rates — although its international rates are sometimes substantially higher than Skype’s. Thanks to this feature, Vonage is ideal for a cheap solution for students living off campus, if they would prefer not to rely solely on a cell phone. However, Vonage is American, which means it is subject to American law, and must allow the NSA to wiretap its calls when necessary. The European Union is still trying to impose similar restrictions on Skype, but so far no legislation has been passed. So if you’re transporting cocaine from Colombia to L.A., you may want to do your correspondence on Skype, not Vonage.

Just like iChat, MSN and even AOL’s dated Instant Messenger, Skype and Vonage support video chat as well. While you’ll find that your buddies in Europe all use MSN in place of AIM — without exception — Skype is a great option if you want to do more than type text and send files. Skype’s video is leaps and bounds more reliable than that of MSN, at least in my experience. But frankly, I think my friend in France is way too into his webcam, anyway. They’re really very overrated, although I’m told they help substantially for long distance relationships, something I try to avoid like the plague.

Feel free to ask any international student with help with any of these services: If they’re not already using Skype to call home, they’ve very likely been living under a rock for a number of years. Google has recently proposed to buy Skype from its current owner, eBay, and thus could very likely integrate it into Google Talk and Gmail in coming years.

I’ve also discovered over the past few years that other countries have some pretty reputable video news services to offer. If you’ve gotten tired of Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor,” you might want to check out “BBC World News,” available for a reasonable $5 monthly subscription at www.real.com. While in general, I hate RealPlayer, if you’re looking for a really alternative perspective, Al-Jazeera now broadcasts in English as well as Arabic, also through Real’s site. Even if you can’t stand it when your roommate does her obnoxious Arabic listening exercises, Al-Jazeera has recruited journalistic greats such as Riz Khan, who spoke at the Center for British Art on Monday evening.

Lastly, as I’m sure your language professors have informed you, there is an abundance of international newspapers available on line, Britain’s Economist and Times, France’s Le Monde and Germany’s Der Spiegel. It’s pretty rewarding to get your news fix and improve your foreign language skills that you’ll be needing for your International Bulldogs program this summer, all at the same time. I suppose I really should be promoting the News, or our staggering and stumbling domestic newspapers. Oh well, next time I’ll be a patriot and far less un-American.

Check back next week when I’ll try to figure out if owning an iPhone still makes you a tool.

Barrett Williams is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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