Help my family stay in touch with a deployed dad
April 14, 2012 8:48 PM   Subscribe

I need updated info on the best way for a deployed solider in Afghanistan to send and receive calls from the US. He is taking a macbook. Do we buy a GSM cell phone, use Google voice, skype or something else? I am willing to spend $50-100 per month for options. He is starting at Bagram AFB but will move around some. He will be deployed for 6 months starting in May. There will be a period in the summer where the kids will be at camp and will only have access to a phone. Thanks.
posted by MimiC to Technology (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
When my husband was deployed, he was constantly on Bagram. We used Skype pretty exclusively for voice/video chat, and he was able to access Facebook while he was in the office.

If your soldier is moving around, but still has internet access, you can drop some money into Skype so he can use the laptop to call your phones. We didn't do a ton of that because we kept to a pretty tight schedule, but it worked during those times when I was out or otherwise unable to access my computer. He'd just call my cell.
posted by ArsncHeart at 9:20 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think Skype is probably the best way... we tried Google Voice but didn't find it as useful.

If he's moving to place with spotty internet, you should think about getting him a reloadable phone card, as a just-in-case.
posted by spunweb at 9:39 PM on April 14, 2012

On a MacBook, use FaceTime to call to other Macs, iPads, iPhones, etc.

You can also have phone conversations from inside Gmail (it's the gChat voice thing, not Google Voice). Look for the "Call Phone" button at the bottom left. Works best when using Chrome.
posted by w0mbat at 10:06 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I live on one of the fobs in Kabul, but I spend a fair amount of time at Bagram. Here's the deal. There is free civilian internet service at the MWR (behind the chow hall), Ed Center (across from the chow hall, computer lab open til 0200), and maybe a few other hot spots. There isn't regular civilian internet in the tents/b-huts/barracks, I don't think, unless you buy a monthly subscription to SniperHill or whatever. This can cost $90/per month, and opinion is divided on whether it's worth it.
Whether free civilian or SniperHill, most people use skype pretty extensively. Video skype is kind of hard because our internet is slow and clogged, especially in the evenings. Might be better by the time your soldier gets here, though. A lot of people log on during your mornings, and just hang out with the family - see the kids have breakfast and get ready for school, etc.
Also, living in a tent or b-hut - he will probably want to message you rather than talk - everyone hears everything and he won't want 7-12 other dudes knowing his business.

Other options - when he gets here he can get a Roshan phone and SIM card, and it isn't as expensive as you'd think to talk on the phone. But the connection is often lousy.
Another option: some of my friends use an internet app that lets them text for free anywhere in the world as long as they have an internet connection. That's cool because it's low-key and you can keep in touch during the day.
Facebook: technically, we aren't supposed to use Facebook on our NIPR computers. That's all I will say about that. We can go to Facebook on our civilian network.

One thing you want to be aware of: connections are incredibly bad and slow, and it gets really annoying to try to talk on a bad connection. You get echoes, dropping, lost messages, etc. Texting is often the better option.
A final thing - time zones: we are 8.5 hours ahead of you. We have clocks in our office with local time, europe time, and EST. It is very helpful and you might consider getting an Afg. time clock for your kitchen or whatever.
Is this his first deployment? Most people have been here multiple times, and they will be happy to share their knowledge about all this stuff.
Anyway - good luck, soldier. b safe.
posted by annabkr at 1:06 AM on April 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

We've only done this with my husband on a ship, where the internet access can be pretty flaky. But we've relied on AIM (back in a day...) and now Google chat. I have google chat on my droid phone, so he send me a few messages and I can get them on my phone wherever I am at the moment. We'll usually arrange longer chats when I can be on my laptop that way.

Also, don't forget that email can be pretty awesome. I like like to pull out his letters and re-read them when he's not available to chat, and re-reading letters is far better than re-reading chat transcripts. ;)

good luck with it all! the time can seem ridiculously long before it starts, but it WILL go by much faster than you might imagine.
posted by lyra4 at 3:14 AM on April 15, 2012

First off good luck over the next 6 months, I have been on both ends - I was deployed and have had two brothers deployed to Iraq and Afganistan. The big thing (mentioned before) is that communication accessibility VASTLY differ between which base/FOB your at and what level "on the road" is being lived so you can get daily calls on Skype to only letters (my brother in marines lived in an HUMVEE for 2 months strait with not so much as a shower)...

What I would recommend is fully fund the Skype account to make calls (they have plans that are $7/month call back home as much as you want), and if there is good wifi you're money. After that, the bases have services to call home that can be prepaid (depends on which base). The local cell phone/Internet service may work, but you won't know thru til he gets there).

One good resource is the Family Readiness groups (each service has a different name) which will be a great source of information on info like this. My mom followed them on FB while my brother was deployed and was a fount of info.

Good luck!
posted by aggienfo at 3:53 AM on April 15, 2012

Best answer: Skype with a backup phone card in case the network goes down, plus an Afghan cell once he gets there (as mentioned previously, readily available and fairly cheap for international calls-- services are Roshan and Etisalat).

A note on opsec/persec: obviously, none of these options are particularly secure, but especially not Etisalat or Roshan. Fine to call home and chat, but definitely not to discuss anything sensitive at all. You also might consider anonymizing this question or removing some detail from your profile here.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:09 AM on April 15, 2012

On the US side, are you within local calling distance of a military installation? (Or is the summer camp within local calling distance of one?)

I used to work as an operator at an installation, and we forwarded morale calls from deployed soldiers to local numbers all the time. Because the soldiers use DSN to make the call, it doesn't cost them anything.

Here's how it works: the soldier uses DSN to dial the number for the morale system on the installation. An automated system lets them dial or say a local number and their call gets forwarded. If the connection isn't that great, and it is during operator desk duty hours, they can go over to a real person to get connected.

Here is the DSN directory for the continental US so you can look up installations. Or if you know what is near you, try searching their website for an operator number. At the one where I worked, dialing the operator number (even from a regular phone within the US) gave you an option for speaking to an operator or doing a morale call.

If you do not live within local calling distance from an installation, you could try using Google Voice on the US side to get a number that is local to one. I did that when my husband deployed because all I had was a cell phone from back home, nowhere near the installation.

Oh! Now that I think about it, it can work the other way too. If your soldier has a DSN number, you can call in to an installation's operator and ask to be transferred to that number. I used to do that for people pretty frequently. Again, it just has to be done during the operator duty hours.

So if your FRG doesn't have that kind of info, definitely search the installation's website for an operator number and ask them. Connecting soldiers with their families back home was one of my favorite parts of the job. They should be able to tell you their duty hours, give you tips specific to their installation, or help you find closer installations for other family members or the summer camp.
posted by scarnato at 6:53 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the info.
posted by MimiC at 3:54 PM on April 15, 2012

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