Skype and Emergency Communications

skype-emerg-commsI recently had some family members travel to Peru for a medical mission.  They would be gone for a couple of weeks.

Before leaving for the trip, I wanted to figure out how we were going to communicate. They’re several thousand miles away and my Papa Bear instincts were on full alert.

Great time to develop and test an emergency communications plan!

In downtown Lima, they would be able to make cell phone calls, but at a hefty cost, and they would only be in town during one day of the trip. The place they’re staying is a couple hours outside of Lima, and has Internet service, but no cell service.

So, our options were email and some sort of VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phone service. There are bunches of these services, but we decided to go with Skype.

Why? People that had done this trip in the past said Skype worked in Peru. That was huge. The time to test new options is not when your family is a gajillion miles away!

Also, it’s free, and it gives you 3 options to communicate. First, their flagship video call service. Second, if connection quality is low, you can use it to make a regular voice call. Finally, it has a text message feature in case the connection quality is really poor.

I loaded the program on both my home computer and my smart phone. My wife and son both loaded it on their smart phones and my wife also put it on her IPad.

We tested it here in the states, and it worked great. At home, we got crystal-clear images and virtually zero latency in the calls. On the way to the airport, we tested the quality using 4G (cell service) and also had great quality, with only slightly increased latency.

When I got home, they did a video call from the public network at the bar at SFO (my wife REALLY hates to fly!), and everything worked great.

On to Peru!

At the airport in Lima, she texted me using her SMS cell service. They got in later than expected, and I was teaching a class at the time, so I didn’t get to try texting or Skype.

That night, she Skyped me, but we had to just use the phone call service. Absolutely horrible call latency. It was like those Fox News interviews from Bangladesh where there’s a 4 second delay between speakers. It was really bad. Not enough bandwidth on her end to have the images or sound work well.

I could hear others in her group doing the same thing in the background. Hmm. Everyone talking at once. So we decided to try again a little bit later when the bandwidth wasn’t being so taxed.

Bang-zoom, baby! It worked! We did a phone-to-phone video call, and it worked flawlessly. Seriously, it was incredible. Perhaps a half-second of latency. I was truly impressed.

The next night, we decided to try again at the later time, and this time I was going to use my PC for the video call. No bueno.

Running the feed to my PC just ate up too much bandwidth. We tried the call again with her Ipad to my smart phone, and it worked perfectly.

So, Skype has been added to my emergency communications preps. If TSHTF, I want multiple options for communicating with my family.

We take this stuff for granted – that we can call anyone at any time and speak with them. The stress and anxiety of my wife and oldest son being outside of normal communications channels was huge.

I knew where they were, but was still stressed out. I can’t imagine the anxiety I’d have if some sort of event – natural or man made – occurred here in the states, and I couldn’t locate my family. Couldn’t communicate with them.


Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. I just opened up my whole world to the evil Skype/Microsoft cartel. Like they didn’t already have access to it!

There are some alternatives to Skype, but it works, plain and simple. I had a former co-worker from my banking days who used to Skype his family in Fiji every week.

It’s a proven platform.

If you’re uber-paranoid (not a bad thing), outfits like Tracfone have phones that can be set up with an anonymous (fake) email account. They have 3G compatible smart phones for as little as $50 (most are over $100, though). Buy the access minute cards (with cash) as you see fit. Set up a Skype account with the fake email account as well, and just load up your family/friends on the phone.

Yes, it does leave “bread crumbs” to you if you do it that way. I guess you could either write down or memorize your family Skype names, and not load them until needed.

Not sure I’d want to do that in a stress-filled situation. YMMV.


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