Prepaid Online Plans Offering Global Calls Suffer From Glitches

nternational calling has been an expensive and cumbersome process over the years, with consumers always hunting for new ways to find inexpensive, user-friendly plans. Today, consumers have more low-cost choices.

In addition to prepaid calling cards, options range from free Internet calling via computers, inexpensive Internet calling via services such as Vonage and heavily discounted wireless plans offered by cellphone providers.

At the same time, a number of smaller companies have started to sell prepaid online services that offer low international calling rates. Users sign up online with their cellphone or landline number and dial the international call after entering an 800 access number. I tested three of the most popular services: Tel3, a unit of Netel; AwakeTel, a service from Advance Global Communications; and Via One Technologies’ Octilla.

None of the services had a clear price advantage. Tel3 was cheapest when calling Dubai (27 cents per minute), but Octilla was the least expensive to Baghdad (27 cents), while AwakeTel was tops for calling New Delhi (16 cents). All three generally cost more than prepaid calling cards, but are less expensive than the discounted rates of wireless carriers.

As far as customer service, signing up with Tel3 was the most user-friendly. The Web site was easy to navigate and offered to register up to three phones for the same price. With a four-digit PIN, I could even use the service from phones other than the one I registered. The other services didn’t offer this.

Another upside to using Tel3: free minutes. I got a $2 bonus toward calls for signing up for a $25 service plan. I would have gotten $5 worth for $50 and $10 for a $100 account. Tel3 also offered a speed-dial feature.

Registering with AwakeTel and Octilla was more of a hassle. AwakeTel made me call my credit-card company and go through a “pre-authorization” process to verify that my card wasn’t being used fraudulently. An AwakeTel customer-service agent told me it was a new security feature that would add a $2 charge to my credit card in addition to the amount paid.

Also, when I completed the AwakeTel registration process, the company didn’t send me a confirmation email or even an access number, like Tel3 did. I had to find it myself on the Web site using my log-in information.

Signing up with Octilla also was a bit complicated. When I finished registering online, I was told I’d receive a call within 20 minutes from the company’s customer-service department to verify my account. I waited for more than an hour, but no one called. I went back and forth with customer service for a day before I was able to start using the service and before the $25 of credit I bought was properly registered in the system.

All these services piggyback on existing wireless or landline plans, and require you to dial an 800 number before your destination number.

When it came to sound and connection quality, Octilla was the superior service. I used it to call Dubai, Baghdad, New Delhi and London, and in each case the connection took less time than when using the other two services. The sound quality was good and there were no interruptions. Octilla also offered a speed-dial feature. Users also can preprogram their phones with up to nine frequently called numbers.

When I called my friends in Dubai using Tel3 the sound quality was very good, as if they were on the other side of the city instead of the other side of the world. But when I tried to call friends’ cellphones in London and Baghdad, the phones didn’t ring at first and I received a recorded message saying the party I called hung up.

Once I made connections, the sound quality was good to London, but I wasn’t as satisfied with a call to Baghdad. I couldn’t hear my friend very well; his voice was audible but scratchy. After about 30 minutes I lost the connection. When I called a friend in New Delhi, a constant muffled static sound in the background marred the conversation.

I also experienced some glitches calling with AwakeTel. First, it took several more tries to call numbers in London, Baghdad, New Delhi and Dubai than it did when using Tel3 or Octilla. When I finally did get through, the voices weren’t sharp, and static interrupted the conversations. I lost my connection with my friend in London once, calls to Baghdad were cut off several times and the friend I called in Dubai said he could barely hear me. When I called New Delhi, my friend said she could hear me very well, but I couldn’t hear her clearly. I heard just loud static.

Overall, these services eliminated the drawbacks of some other cheap international calling options beyond landlines. Gone were hassles typical of prepaid cards, such as punching in long numbers that sometimes give you fewer minutes than you paid for. I also didn’t have to glue myself to a computer screen to make a free Internet call.

But I’m not sure these services were worth the added costs given the technical glitches and spotty sound quality.

Write to Sarmad Ali at sarmad.ali@wsj.com


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