Vonage = a Practical Tip when Moving Abroad (Notes from Bergen)

From the “Department of Things I Wish I’d Taken Care of Faster” Department…

Executive Summary of this post: if you’re moving out of your home country, then get a VOIP line that lets your relatives call as if you’re down the street.

The Story: Before we left Oregon at the end of last summer for our school year in Norway, I asked Vonage — I’ve been a customer for years — to upgrade our ancient box to the new model that has a more nimble power source that can work just about anywhere in the world.  They did.

Then we got to Bergen and the wifi in our rental house sucked.  I worked with our landlord over the next few months, raising the bandwidth, replacing the physical modem/router, adding a repeater, and eventually more than one person could be online at a time.

During those months, we used Skype to stay in touch with family, colleagues and friends, and I love Skype.  As a Skype Premium subscriber, I can use Skype to call any telephone in the USA as part of my membership… all for just $7 per month.  It’s wonderful.

But it’s hard for my parents and in-laws to use Skype to call us.  It’s also hard to pass a computer around the way you can pass a cordless phone around.

A “figure out the Vonage line” reminder kept popping up in my To Do list, and eventually I dragged out the wireless phones that our landlord had abandoned using years ago.

Early experiments yielded a dial tone but only for a few seconds.  I deduced that the rechargeable batteries inside the handsets were fried, trotted off to Clas Ohlson (the everything store here in Bergen), switched out the batteries, and SHAZAM! we had a phone with an Oregon number with a handset in the kitchen just like at our home in the USA.

It’s a slight exaggeration to call the impact of this phone “transformative,” but only slight.

My parents and in-laws are now just a quick call away, and we’re not tethered to the laptop when we talk with them.  Chatting is now more casual, and we feel closer.  My niece’s 91-year-old grandmother will never figure out Skype, so it’s great for her to be able to call directly, too.

Moreover, the base of the Vonage box is wired directly into the modem, and then the phone base is wired directly into the Vonage box, and then the phone base uses a different set of frequencies.  The result is that if I’m talking on the Vonage phone then another person can stream a video or talk via Skype or Facebook Messenger without the bandwidth battle screwing up everything.

If you have super-strong wifi in your home (we don’t here in our 400-year-old retrofitted and extremely vertical house), then there are other options than Vonage.  Skype has a series of phones, for example, and my friend Shelly Palmer just profiled a coming-real-soon service from Cablevision called “Freewheel” that combines wifi and smartphones in a cheap way that might work just as well.

If you’re moving abroad for more than a month, Vonage is a great solution for bring home just a little closer.

Applications vs. Appliances

Although this post is mostly a how and why exercise, on the more theoretical side the physical presence of a phone in the kitchen has taken up a nice little slice of cognitive space for the family.

When all activities go through the same screens or suite of screens (phones, tablets, laptops), then no particular activity rises to the surface of consciousness.  Having a dedicated device for voice communications focuses our attention on voice communications because the appliance extrudes into our meat-space environment.

For example (and hilariously), when I was at the supermarket and had a question about something on the list and couldn’t raise anybody on Instant Messenger, I used Skype Out to call the Vonage line.  In other words, standing just blocks from a fjord I used a Skype number virtually in Beverly Hills to call a Vonage number virtually in Portland.  My not-virtual family members flipped out because they’d never heard that phone ring before, but they answered the phone when they’d ignored all the screens.

There’s a growing body of thought about “the voice as app” over the last few months (Shelly talks about it eloquently), but I’m talking about something different: having an appliance for an activity rather than an application.

Applications sink below the surface of awareness in everything-devices.  Appliances remind us of their existence simply by taking up space.

Daniel J. Levitin — in the “Organizing our Homes” chapter of his remarkable book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload — talks about how in an ideal world we’d have one computer for work, one for hobbies, one for taxes and the like.

In other words, we’d sort activities by appliances rather than by programs because as we move from appliance to appliance (rather than from application to application on one device) our brains refocus, recharge and reengage.

In our ever more-virtual, more-digital world, there is a powerful efficacy in dumb old matter: taking notes on paper, talking on a phone, reading a pulp-and-ink book (a “book book” as my friend Peter Horan says).

Turns out, the old AT&T “reach out and touch someone” commercials were right.

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