January 16, 2008

Comms solution found!

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was looking for a comms solution to keep in touch with clients (and friends!) back in France and elsewhere in Europe. I believe I have now found that solution in the form of a VoIP account.

The idea behind VoIP is, instead of using a network of copper wire to transmit audio between two end points, that audio is converted into digital data, which is transmitted across a computer network such as the Internet. Users can then connect to their VoIP providers using their computers to do the conversion of the audio signal to and from digital data, so-called A/D (analog/digital) conversion.

The job of A/D conversion and relaying the data between the end user and the VoIP service provider is relatively simple, it doesn't require much computing power. That is why there are dedicated telephones that don't connect to a phone line like normal phones but to a network instead. Most of them are SIP phones (because SIP is the most frequently used of all the VoIP protocols available) and the Grandstream Budge Tone-100 that I use is no exception to the rule. With devices such as this, there's no need for your computer to be switched on in order to place or receive calls because the SIP phone connects directly to the network, without going through your computer.

The VoIP provider I decided to sign up with is an outfit called IdeaSIP. By using their service I can place calls to French land lines for $0.02/min or to French cellphones for $0.15/min. At the exchange rate at the time of writing this, those prices equate to 1p/min and 7.5p/min approximately. I can call other IdeaSIP users and they can call me for free, which is something that a client and friend of mine based in Paris who introduced me to IdeaSIP in the first place is going to take advantage of.

However, the main reason I looked into this solution was not in order to place calls but so that many clients of mine who are still in France and who don't necessarily have VoIP solutions can call me without having to go to the expense of dialling an international number. How is this achieved? Simply by renting a phone line in France. The number is a geographic number starting with "04" (therefore based in the Southeast of the country, where I lived for 15 years). French people can call that number with their land lines at the cost of a normal national call, which is becoming more and more often free with ISPs throwing free national calls in with their deals, and mobile phone users calling me will have the call deducted from their monthly allowance (as they would do anyway if I was physically in France) instead of it being billed on top of their contracts as international calls usually are.

So, whenever anyone calls that "04" number the call is routed straight to IdeaSIP, who knows that it's for my account, and it is forwarded straight to my SIP phone at no cost to me. The same applies to a local toll rate number (0845 number) I rented here in the UK. If anyone calls that number, too, then my SIP phone will ring. The line rental is cheap, it costs me $39 per semester, which works out at just over £3 per month, per line.

I don't need to miss a call, ever. I can set up call forwarding and have any inbound SIP calls redirected to another SIP account or even to a straightforward PSTN phone line, to my mobile for example. In this case, the forwarding of the call to the PSTN line is billed to me and deducted from my pre-purchased call credit, but at 1p/min to a UK land line or 10p/min to my mobile, the cost isn't prohibitive.

DID phone numbers and call credit can be purchased online by credit card or by PayPal, so even if you're not at home you can still use a web-capable mobile phone to purchase these things as and when needed.

VoIP is well worth looking into if you don't already have it. IdeaSIP is just one of many VoIP providers out there but they were, however, recommended by someone whose opinion matters to me. I recommend them too. If you don't want to go to the expense of purchasing a dedicated SIP phone, you can download a soft phone application, which is how your computer becomes your phone. If you do want a "hard" phone then there are several available here, for example. If you want to use a hard phone and you don't already have a broadband router with multiple ethernet ports then you'll also have to buy a hub/switch in order to connect both your computer and the phone to the Internet.

January 14, 2008

Why no photos?

Hi again,

Just a short entry to answer a question asked of me not just by Pamela (see comment on previous post) but also by other people directly by e-mail or on the phone or in person. "Why no photos on your blog?"

The answer to that is easy. The weather in January up in the Northwest of England is hardly conducive to taking nice outdoors pictures. As for indoors photos, I think the house needs tidying up a little before we show it off to the outside world...

I am a devout cat-lover, though. Mollie the tortoiseshell cat has probably been photographed more over the past few months than in the rest of her nine lives, and this little snapshot shows how endearing she can be:


January 13, 2008

New mobile

Those of you who know me know that I'm a bit of a sucker for gadgets. Such gadgets include, among other things, mobile phones and accessories for them. Obviously, with the recent move from France to the UK, I'm a little strapped for cash and have had to curb my enthusiasm for such gadgets, but I did decide to go for a new mobile just over a week ago.

A mobile phone is very useful in my business, albeit not absolutely necessary, so I started out with a payg deal from Virgin Mobile almost as soon as I arrived here in October. Virgin uses T-Mobile's (formerly One-2-One) network infrastructure, so I knew that when the time came to go for a contract, I could also count T-Mobile in among the contenders on the grounds of the excellent network coverage. At one point I also took out a payg line with Orange but decided that they were too pricey. Hmm... That reminds me that I still have some credit on the SIM that I should use up before getting rid of it.

Anyway, by the end of 2007 I decided it was time to go for a contract and started window-shopping. I wanted something that included Internet access at a reasonable price so that I could use my phone to send and receive e-mail while away from the computer. The only operator that stood out from the others in this respect was T-Mobile, so I decided to go for them.

Meanwhile, before leaving France I had been eyeing up the Nokia N95 handset and had considered purchasing one SIM-free at a price of roughly £400. My priorities changed somewhat with the move so I had to put that project on the back-burner. I was, however able to revive it once I'd decided to take out a contract because I could buy one with the contract for only £10. Now, that's more affordable! OK, it's SIM-locked to T-Mobile's network (I can unlock it later on anyway) and I have to stick with T-Mobile for 18 months, but that's no skin off my nose because I probably would stick with them anyway.

I went for T-Mobile's "flext 30 + web'n'walk" deal which gets me 450 minutes airtime per month or up to 900 text messages, or anything between the two extremes. You just have a monthly allowance which is tapped into whenever you make a call or send a text/picture message. You also get "unlimited" Internet access too (in quotes because it is actually capped at 1GB/month and there are restrictions on what you can do).

Now, I do still have many contacts in mainland Europe, both business and personal, so I do need a means of communicating with them at not too high a price. It so happens that I still have a contract with Orange France that I'm lumped with until February 2009, but which includes all calls, including roaming calls (which, technically, I am making since I'm using a French-based network from the UK). So, rather than let that go to waste, I use that to call Europe. I also have the Virgin Mobile payg line (and the Orange UK line with some remaining credit on it) that I can use. Once the Orange France contract it up, though, I'll want another solution. There's time to think of one yet, although I am tending towards the solution of paying T-Mobile an extra £2.50/month in order to pay 20p/min instead of 70p/min for calls to France.

Update Jan. 16th 2008: I have now found a solution for my international communications. See this blog entry.

So, why did I so want an N95?

Basically because it's so much more than a phone. In fact, Nokia doesn't even call it a phone, but a "mobile multimedia computer". Nokia has a reputation for making phones that are rugged and easy to use, which suits me fine.

Now for the extras. The camera to start with... How does a 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics grab you? I'd go for one of those in its own right, so getting one fitted in the phone, err, sorry Nokia, the "mobile multimedia computer" is a great bonus. And it does take great pictures!

The FM radio with its so-called "visual radio" service seems to lack sensitivity, although that doesn't really bother me since I don't really listen to the radio that much anyway.

The music player can play back multiple formats. The most practical of them for me is MP3. If I include all the relevant id3v2 tags in the MP3 file, the individual songs I copy to the phone get sorted automatically by genre, artist and album.

The camera will shoot full-frame video at 640x480 pixels and 30 frames per second using mpeg4/aac to encode the video/audio. Okay, this isn't DV quality by any stretch of the imagination, but it knocks the socks off the old VHS and SVHS camcorders. You can get something like ¾ hour of video on an otherwise empty 1GB microSD card. It'll also record low quality video suitable for sending by MMS.

The quality of audio playback is reasonable. It would be pretty exceptional if there was less hiss produced by the electronics. On the up-side, the N95 works with a conventional stereo headset fitted with a bog standard 3.5mm jack. No pricey replacement with a vendor-specific connector to buy if the headset goes. Other things can be plugged into the 3.5mm socket on the side of the phone, such as a remote control giving you volume control and search/skip capability and a built-in microphone so you can take calls using the headset, or a video-out cable with which you can connect the phone to a TV set in order to view video footage you've shot on a large screen.

Bluetooth connectivity is pretty much a must nowadays. I do have a Sony-Ericsson Bluetooth earpice that I use to take/place calls hands free. With a Bluetooth dongle plugged into a USB port on the computer I could also use that method to transfer data between phone and computer.

There's also an infrared port on the phone. I have no need for that, personally, but can think of situations in which it would be useful (syncing data between the phone and a PDA for example).

The N95 is also WiFi-capable using both 'b' and 'g' variants. There's an 802.11g WiFi network here so I can hook up to it with the phone and access the Internet using that method instead of connecting to T-Mobile's packet service.

Finally, the GPS. Yes, there's a GPS receiver in this phone. Download "Google maps" and pair it with the GPS, and you can see a map on-screen with a blob showing where you are on the map. It's great for people like me who have little to no sense of direction and need to know how to get to somewhere they don't know from a place they don't know - as is the case for me frequently having only been living up here for a couple of months so far!

Anyway, that just about wraps up this entry. Thanks for reading this far, and sorry if it bored you to tears!

January 07, 2008

Welcome!

Hi, and welcome to this blog.

So, what's with this "Back to the UK!" business? Let's go back in time to 1983, at which point I was 15 years old and living with my parents in a place just outside Winchester called Oliver's Battery. Several factors prompted the decision to uproot from the UK and settle in France, so in July that year I travelled with my sister (I have 3 sisters who were all adults and had left home by then) to stay for a few months, while my parents were sorting out the last details of the removal, with friends of the family, whose daughter we'd taken in out of the rain for a few days while we were living in Cornwall 5 or 6 years earlier. They followed me over in October the same year, by which time I was already attending a French school.

I think the whole experience was extremely positive on the one side: I had to learn a new language because the French taught in British schools and the French spoken in everyday life in France are, to all intents and purposes, two different languages. I also had to get used to a new way of life, learn to stand up to the French bureaucracy (those who complain about the bureaucracy in the UK should spend a few years in France) and start making a living there once I'd left school. On the other hand, it did wrench me away from my friends and family.

In 1987, nearly at the age of 20 having had to overcome the language barrier and re-take school years a couple of times, I obtained my "Baccalauréat". There are various types of Baccalauréat, most specialising in one particular field, and a few (like the one I took) that are still rather general and considered more valuable for further education. I did attend a technical college for a few months between Autumn 1987 and February 1988 but became too bothered by the differences between the UK and the French education systems, finding myself going over stuff I'd learned years ago in the UK and not learning anything about electronics that I hadn't already found out for myself earlier in childhood. I therefore dropped out of college and started working, doing all kinds of low-skilled jobs until I landed a job teaching mature students about computing. That job fell through after a couple of months and in about 1997 I even found myself being called in as a witness in a court case in which the defendent was my former employer, who had been employing people undeclared and of which the then manager had run away with the treasury!

In 1989 I landed a job that was right up my alley, repairing small computers, video and CCTV equipment. The job was great and I was given responsibility almost straight away. I held that job down until the end of 1994, by which time the 2 associates owning the joint were spending most of their time firing at each other with me in the crossfire. I left that place on December 12th 1994, and on the 14th I started work with a professional photographic laboratory in Marseille, running and developing their new desktop publishing department.

That job started out fine, too, but gradually deteriorated over time as the lab was sold out to a Paris-based chain of labs and management was taken over bit by bit by the Parisians. So, in early 1999 I started thinking of moving on and decided in fact to return to the UK. I spent a couple of weeks' holiday based with a friend in Manchester in February that year but failed to secure anything viable as far as housing and work were concerned, so I had to return to the lab in Marseille, rather depressed in fact.

Then there was a chance meeting with fellow expat Chris Cartwright, who lived at the time in a place just outside the town of Chinon in central France. I moved in with him later that year and we stayed in that house until early 2004. Apart from the fact that it was on the banks of the River Vienne, which tended to burst its banks regularly, meaning that we had to go shopping by boat when that happened, the place was idyllic. It was out in the countryside, nice and secluded, yet broadband Internet was available (essential!).

Shortly thereafter I started looking for work in the area and came eventually to the conclusion that I wasn't going to work unless it was for myself. Then started a 27-month battle with the bureaucracy (that I wouldn't have won without the help of the British Embassy) to secure a residence permit. Ten years earler I had been misinformed by the police in the town where I lived at the time, and told that as an EU citizen I no longer needed a residence permit. It turns out that I did. In late 1999, France was about the only EU country still requiring a residence permit of EU citizens. Anyway, once that problem was solved in early 2002, I was able to set up shop as a self-employed Unix systems administrator and start trading.

The flooding and the mere fact that any shopping, how ever trivial, meant taking the car annoyed Chris more than it did me, and the rent was pretty expensive, too, so we had to move out. We moved out from there between January and March 2004 (the river flooding for 6 weeks during that period certainly didn't help) and into a smaller place that was right in the town centre.

The town is picturesque, even if the narrow, medieval streets either side of which the tall houses sometimes almost touch at the top can make one rather claustrophobic, and the flat itself is very pleasant except for one detail. The flat in question is the main flat in the building, and there are about 8 low-cost studios and flats behind it, which attract a sometimes rather colourful clientèle. We shared the same entrance and corridor with the other people, who would often come home in various states of intoxication in the early hours of the morning and make enough noise to make dead bodies pray for earplugs. Plus the kind of people attracted to that kind of price range accomodation is invariably a rowdy bunch with no manners and an aggressive attitude... One incident in the Summer of 2006 involving one of these rowdy tenants is, I think, what made something snap inside me, and by August 2007 I just couldn't bear the place any more.

Not only that, but I also realized that there was no way I was going to be able to expand my business the way I wanted to in France because of the endless miles of red tape and the exorbitant taxes. Also, quite simply, I think I just felt homesick in a way even if the UK has changed dramatically since I last lived here.

In September and October 2007 I flew several times from Tours (nearest airport to Chinon) to Manchester in order to meet with a friend here in Horwich, which is a few miles to the West of Bolton, itself just Northwest of Manchester. We hit it off and have been sharing this house since late October 2007.

I am now doing the same job, working as a self-employed Unix sysadmin here in the UK, which is where I've come to realize that I've wanted to be for the past decade, hence the "Back to the UK!" after more than 24 years in France.