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Do you Skype?

Thanks to technology, you can send and receive messages instantly via a multitude of formats, though nothing will ever replace seeing your loved ones’ faces when they say they love you, when they need to make a life-changing announcement or when they’re living thousands of miles away. It can also be helpful to see the faces of your co-workers when you’re working on an important project together, even if you’re on opposite sides of the planet.

Fortunately, there’s a service for that:, and it’s free. Skype is an online telephone service with a video option that allows you to speak with friends, loved ones and coworkers face-to-face. In many cases, the service eliminates costs associated with international calls, or it can greatly reduce the cost of those calls through a pre-payment feature with lower than average rates. Skype can even automatically transfer calls to your cell phone without costing any minutes on your cell phone bill. And, once you establish an account, you can access Skype from any computer with an Internet connection.

After years of economic upheaval and busted budgets, “free” is a powerful word. For Katherine Popejoy, an assistant professor in UNC Charlotte’s College of Education, the service permits her to conduct once cost-prohibitive conference calls with her colleagues around the globe and across the country. It’s a valuable tool for an education instructor who at times needs to observe students in classroom settings, often in other states. Skype also makes it possible for her to attend meetings she might not otherwise be able to make.

Before Popejoy began using Skype as a productivity tool and cost-saver at work, she and her 19-year-old son, Sam, used it to stay in touch while he was studying abroad and touring Australia and New Zealand with his band. Today, he’s a student at Washington State, and they use it to shop together online and meet each other’s friends. They also talk on traditional phones, e-mail and text, but every couple of weeks they’ll arrange a time to meet online via Skype.

Popejoy says she likes the medium because it deepens the context of their conversations. “For me,” she says, “it’s a personal connectivity tool. It’s more normal, like we’re hanging out and doing things together.” Plus, she admits, “I can put the laptop on the counter in the kitchen while I’m making dinner and it’s almost like he’s there.”The two of them have used the service to shop online for dorm supplies, since it allows them to look at each other’s computer screens and share websites. It’s also allowed her to catch a glimpse of her son’s friends. “I can see the kids he’s talking about and they’re like, ‘Hi Sam’s mom!’”

However, as the saying goes, sometimes you get what you pay for. At times, they’ve experienced connectivity issues, like when many people are online at the same time in Sam’s dorm. The more people on the network, the slower it becomes which makes it difficult for them to see each other using Skype’s video feature, which might freeze, though they’re still able to hear one another. So when they’re looking to connect face-to-face, they’re sure to choose a time when there are likely to be fewer people online.

Mallory Caserio, a junior at UNC Charlotte and a member of the college’s ROTC program, used Skype to keep in touch with her boyfriend while he was stationed in Kuwait. (He’s recently returned.) Though she wrote him letters every day, she says, “I can’t imagine not being able to see him while he’s gone. It definitely made me feel closer to him, but,” she adds, “if he wasn’t able to get online, it kind of worried me a little.”

She and her mother, who lives in Colorado, use Skype to stay in touch with each other and her father, who is currently stationed in Afghanistan. However, because he’s in a remote location with iffy Internet service, they can’t connect as much as they’d like. But when they do, the service offers a huge sense of relief; being able to see him and know that he’s alright makes all the difference to their family. “For my little brother,” Caserio says, “having that ability to see my dad on Skype helps a lot.”

Caserio says she was the first in her family to use Skype, but before long, her parents and even grandparents were fans. “Now we’re a family of Skypers,” she says. A few months ago, her aunt organized a family conference call via Skype so she could tell them all she was expecting a baby.

Both Popejoy and Caserio say the service is easy to use, even for their elderly family members wanting to keep up with grandchildren. “It’s been something we enjoy using as a family,” says Popejoy. And, since it’s free, even non-tech savvy people are giving it a try.

Skype tips You’ll need a camera to use the video option.

Broadband isn’t required, but it’s advisable for the video feature.

You’ll also need speakers or headphones.

Don’t be afraid to play around and get used to the options.

Before your first call, do a test call to check signal strength.

Allow Skype to connect to your digital address book to find friends who also use the service.

Be sure to share your user name with the people you’d like to call.

If you don’t want any calls, set your Skype status to “away” or “invisible.”

For dial up connections, you can place voice-only phone calls.

Check with your cell phone provider about using Skype on your cell phone.