Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: (Updated) New generation of apps, global wi-fi, let expats stay connected

(Editor’s note: If you’re 15-to-25 years old, you can skip this Expat Essentials post. You already know all this stuff. Everybody else … this post is updated with new info, trends and apps.)

When I moved my family to Turkey in 1999, digital communications were still in the Dark Ages.

If my wife Cheryl and I wanted to talk with friends and family, we had to buy special international calling plans, because making conventional phone calls to the States cost more than $1 per minute through Türk Telekom. Email wasn’t really even widely used, yet. Or – you know – you could send a letter.



Fast forward 17 years and I recently spent an hour on Facebook talking with my sister Marge, who was in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Later that same night, I Vibered (yes, that’s a verb) Dispatches contributor Ivana Avramovic, who lives in Vienna. When I don’t have time for full-blown conversations, I use FB, Apple iMessaging and Viber to instant message people en lieu of using SMS texting.

Expats are increasingly freed from the tyranny of the phone companies … and increasingly able to stay connected from anywhere to anywhere on the planet.

In fact, more calls are being made over China’s WeChat than through conventional telecom carriers, according to a report by WeChat-owner Tencent. In 2016, more than 100 million voice and video calls were made each day via WeChat, according to the report.

Digital communications are changing so quickly we can barely keep up. Which is a good thing for us expats.

Google, not satisfied with owning search and digital advertising, is on a mission to integrate the planet’s wireless networks and cellular providers on the way to commoditizing connectivity.

Last summer, Wired reported Google’s deal with Three, one of the largest cellular carriers in Europe. The deal will allow Americans to use Three’s fast, experimental Project Fi wireless service when traveling in an additional 15 countries for a total of 135.

From the Wired post:

Unveiled last year on Google’s flagship Nexus phones, Project Fi not only offers a way of making calls over Wi-Fi networks inside homes, offices, and local coffee shops. As you leave Wi-Fi coverage, it can seamlessly and automatically move those calls onto a cellular network. Plus—and perhaps more importantly—it can move phones between disparate cellular networks, depending on which offers the best signal. And it does all this for a small, flat fee.

Cool, huh?

At the same time, there’s a war for global domination going on between Japanese/Korean messaging app LINE, Silicon Valley-based WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) and Viber, developed in Israel.

Just since we first posted this in July, there have been multiple entries in the smartphone app arena including Taig Khris and his startup OnOff.

Onoff allows users access to “cloudnumbers” not connected to their phone’s SIM card. The Onoff phone number comes with voicemail and SMS capability over regular cellular networks, in partnership with phone companies, and not via the Internet like VoIP services such as Skype.

From the OnOff website:

Our objective? To revolutionize the mobile world by creating the first smartphone operating system that’s accessible from any phone or computer, anywhere on the planet. ….we’ve built the onoff App  — a groundbreaking platform that has the ability to offer exciting new features that no other smartphone is capable of providing, from being able to program when an SMS will arrive, to adding an ON / OFF switch for each of your numbers — allowing you to enable / disable calls, SMS or voicemail whenever you like…

The basic fee is $3,75 per month. A deal compared to that $1 per minute we used to pay.

Also, most communication apps are adding split-screen group-chat capabilities.

The result of all this competition is that with access to wifi, free messaging and even video calls are now the norm for at least 1 billion people. Think of that! Of course, the spread of technology is uneven. (See “diffusion of innovation theory.”)

If you’re in Sweden or the Netherlands, there’s free, fast Wi-Fi everywhere. On the bus or train and even on the beach! Recently, I was in the center of the small Dutch city of s-‘Hertogenbosch and just signed on to the city-provided Wi-Fi. The week before that I was in Dusseldorf, and found to my horror and amazement there IS no public Wi-Fi anywhere in Germany? Whaaaaaat?

Still, if you can find any kind of Internet connection, you can stay connected 24-7 now through a new generation of apps. So let’s look at the pluses and minus of what are essentially updated versions of voice over internet protocol technology and instant messaging, which have been around for 15 years.


Skype (developed by entrepreneurs, expats and techpats from Sweden, Estonia and Denmark)  is the original Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology for video/audio calls, and still the generic verb for free app-based communications. It’s also the most intuitive user interface. When you sign in with Facebook, it pulls all the contact information out of your contacts. You can use Skype To Go to call friends from any phone when you’re traveling … for a fee.


Most of the time it’s free. Skype-to-Skype connections are free. You can pay a nominal fee to call  landline telephones and mobile phones (over traditional telephone networks) using Skype Credit. Another cool thing is, Skype can be used for business meetings. (See below.)

You can buy credits and call people directly (and inexpensively) even if they don’t have Skype accounts. And you can buy a regional subscriptions or a global subscription so you can call landlines. (If you call a cellphone, the charge is per-minute.)


Like every free VoIP service, it can be iffy, especially if one party has slow/unstable Wi-Fi. But Skype didn’t win over 600 million users by being crappy. It’s still the gold standard for video.

Cool new iterations:

Skype for Business is about to debut a cool new feature … live captioning, translating meeting broadcasts into 40 languages. Skype Meeting broadcast is designed to allow a small number of speakers to broadcast a presentation to up to 10,000 viewers, for webinars, company meetings and other large occasions, according to PCWorld Magazine.

Business Model:

Almost all features are free. BUT, Skype also offers Skype Credit, or a monthly subscription, that allows you to make calls to landlines and cell phones. Also, there are fees for features such as Skype To Go. (Skype is owned by Microsoft, by the way.)



WhatsApp, for which Facebook paid $19 billion, is now the messaging app with the most users, supposedly 10 percent of the people on Planet Earth! Here in the Netherlands, it seems to be the fastest growing app, with most people here using it. Wikipedia states it’s the most popular messaging app, with 1 billion users.


Unlike Viber, WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted. So no one is going to be listening in.


None we can think of. If you have problems downloading or with operating system, here’s a great post for trouble-shooting. Also, if you don’t have a hip phone, forget it. WhatsApp announced last year they’re locking out old iPhones, phones with ancient Android OSs, Nokia, Blackberries and other obsolete phones that actual people still use and love.

And do they make money?

If you figure this out, Mark Zuckerberg would like to know, too. What we do know is, WhatsApp scrapped its 99 cent annual fee back in 2014.


 Apple FaceTime

This has been the Boyd’s default communications network since 2010. And it is a network in the sense that – shockingly – there are people out there who don’t have iPhones, iPads or Apple laptops, crazy as that might sound. So, this is an Apple-to-Apple comparison. (Interestingly, iPhones are such a global standard now that authoritarian Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan just used FaceTime, along with WhatsApp, to put down the coup last weekend.)


It’s an Apple product and it works really well, especially on iPhones.


Video chat only. No instant messaging, and you’ll be talking with a limited universe of users. (That said, Apple iMessage gives you messaging.) For awhile, FaceTime was vulnerable to hackers eavesdropping, making it appear a call had ended when there was still audio streaming. Apple has fixed that problem.

How does it make money:

Right .. like Apple needs the money from a messaging app.


Yes, Facebook is bent on not just taking over the media, but also owning all forms of digital communications. Technically, you’ve been able to call using Facebook since 2011, but with Skype and other video apps, no one much noticed. Then last year, Facebook introduced video calling in Messenger, with face-to-face conversations.

So more and more people are calling me, at least, using Facebook, or messaging me using Facebook Messenger. Now, Facebook just announced tests of a new feature called “secret conversations” that will offer end-to-end encryption and disappearing messages a la Snapchat. (Secret conversations don’t support GIFs or videos. You can send attachments via Facebook Messenger.)


Everyone’s on Facebook.


God only knows what this will look like when Facebook starts monetizing these features.

How do they make money with this?

Zuck was quoted saying Facebook executives are waiting until their products hit 1 billion users before turning them into meaningful businesses, and Messenger – with 700 million monthly users in 2015 – is probably there by now.

 Facebook video calling works with these browsers:



Viber is cool because it’s versatile … as long as you have a smart phone. And it works on iOS or Android. You can’t use Viber just on your desktop, which is kind of an issue with non-digital natives. You have to get the phone app first. Once you have it, you can talk, video-conference, send images …. you name it on your smartphone, laptop or desktop. Which is why it’s used by an estimated 500 million people worldwide.


It’s free! And those of us who use daily L-O-V-E it. Also, like other apps, you can put money in your account and use Viber to call people directly.


Not end-to-end encrypted. Well, Viber executives keep promising it, but haven’t delivered it yet.

Viber can also be wonky. And if you’re on a relatively fast Wi-Fi connection (up to 150 megabits per second), but the person you’re Vibering is on a sorry-ass network churning away at 50 mbps, with Bluetooth, microwaves and other spectra interfering int the background), the signal breaks up. Badly. And will – over time – drive you crazy. Also, too many people try to use Viber like a conventional cell phone connection, which it ain’t, walking merrily around the city, fading in and out and driving you nuts.

How does it make money?

Easy … Viber doesn’t. Japanese Internet giant Rakuten bought Viber for like a billion dollars back in 2013 as part of their global Internet services takeover strategy, according to Investopedia. A takeover strategy that has yielded nothing but red ink. It’s long story, but Viber raked in about $1. 5 million in 2013, but lost $30 million. So enjoy it while you can.

This is from the Investopedia post:

This bearish sentiment was not without support, as official documents from Rakuten showed that Viber made a total of $1.5 million dollars in revenue and incurred net losses of $29.5 million in 2013 and $14.7 million in 2012. While Viber’s strict adherence to keeping the app free of advertisements and free to download is laudable, it is quite obvious that its current monetization model is woefully inadequate and requires a revamp if Rakuten is to justify its $900 million/ $3.61 per-user investment.


China has 1.4 billion people, so you can imagine it would be a great test bed for consumer apps. And it is. The WeChat messaging and voice app is at the bleeding edge of a relatively new technology called “chatbots.”

Oh, and it supports peer-to-peer payments and money transfers. WeChat is “years ahead” of all the other apps when it comes to the use of chatbots and  conversational commerce, according to VentureBeat. Businesses such as banks or e-tailers can use chatbots to bypass apps and respond to requests from, say, Facebook Messenger or WeChat such as “transfer $500 to savings,” or “tell me what else you have in a size 6” with personalized (bot-generated) messages.

The positives:

This is next-gen technology.

The negatives:

Use WeChat in China to say anything even remotely controversial, and the government comes looking for you. The company says it’s building two platforms … one for mainland China, and one for the rest of the world. But seriously  … a communications app that lets Xi Jinping listen in?

How does WeChat make money?

Glad you asked … WeChat promises to leapfrog banks and e-commerce by selling mobile games as well as offering mobile payments and fees from e-commerce transactions and ad conversion. Well, unless the Communists decide to pull the plug.

The downside to all this is, in 2016, we have so much information coming at us from so many apps and other sources that there’s a real issue with overload. Many times, I’ve sat Vibering someone on my iPhone while I responded to texts on my Apple watch and emails on my laptop. Is it too much? Maybe … but it beats the alternative.



We never heard of it either. But VoxoFon is at least three or four years old.

One of the cooler things is, VoxoFon created Bit6 to allow developers to build communications into the their apps. Which sounds like something Dispatches needs to do.

Otherwise, VoxoFon markets itself as the simple to use, carrier-agnostic “calling device innovation.” that allows people who are moving around the world to use free app-to-app calling, and cheap SMS texting. AND if you, like so many people in the Developing World, don’t have a smartphone, no problem.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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