Going Online on the Road
by Jan Davis Tudor
When I'm outside my own country, combining work with pleasure is not a problem—when I do that, I am able to stay longer! While trying initially to run my independent information business while on the road, I found that having access to a cyber café wasn't enough. In order to communicate with my clients in a cost-effective way, perform projects successfully from beginning to end, stay in touch with my bookkeeper and administrative assistant, and do my banking, I needed to find and implement a few good electronic tools and programs. Luckily I've found some good solutions ONLINE FOR WORK AND PLAY.
I have accounts with two Internet service providers (ISPs): AT&T Broadband for use while I'm at home in Portland, Oregon, and Earthlink for dial-up access while on the road. I selected Earthlink because it has hundreds of local access numbers in cities and countries worldwide. Whether I'm dialing up from a friend's home or a hotel, it is nice to not have to pay extra for 1-800 Internet access or a toll call to nearby city. And while many of the higher-end hotels in the U.S. now have DSL or cable modem access, the majority of the places I stay do not.
Before logging on, it is always good to find out what constitutes a "local" call from the place where I am staying. The first time I spent an afternoon online at my dad's house in Idaho, I racked up a significant phone bill because I assumed that Coeur d'Alene, the closest town with an Earthlink number, was a cheaper call. But, in fact, the Spokane Washington, Earthlink number is the cheaper way to go. Calling Coeur d'Alene is considered an intrastate call, with fees up to 14-15 cents a minute, while calling Spokane is a long-distance call, with a rate of 7 cents a minute.
KNOW LOCAL PHONE CHARGE CONVENTIONS
A world of caution while using an ISP in another country: While in Madrid, Spain, I had a local Earthlink access number to use, but could find no one at the hotel who could tell me if I would be charged a per-minute fee for the local call, as is the custom in many hotels. I found that out in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From the hotel I used the same local access number of the ISP I was using at the local office where I was working. Yet, when I checked out, I was confronted with a $90 phone bill because of per-minute charges!
However, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I was able to use a local access number from my hotel room without worrying because each local call was only 60 cents with no additional hotel charges. Yet what I didn't know was that Earthlink charges $0.15 per minute for international roaming. Because I had spent a total of 4 hours online, this seemingly insignificant charge added $24 to my monthly Earthlink bill. But I certainly didn't mind paying for the convenience of logging on from the comfort of my hotel room. In the U.K., the Earthlink access number is toll free. However, more and more hotels are adding the charge to your hotel bill.
While on the road I use the AT&T Broadband Web site [www.attbi.com] to send and retrieve my e-mail.
FAXES FOR FUN AND PROFIT
I got a chuckle and some affirmation about still using faxes when I read a recent article by Monte Enbysk titled "Fax Machines: Endangered? Yes. Extinct? No." [www.bcentral.com/articles/enbysk/165.asp]. Several of my clients prefer to send me a fax with their project requests, rather than the telephone or e-mail. This really isn't surprising, given the fact that about 90 percent of businesses in the U.S. still have fax machines, according to Enbysk.
In order to retrieve my faxes while on the road, I use eFax [www.eFax.com], a free Internet faxing service from J2Global Communications Inc. Before leaving town, I set up the "call forwarding" feature with my local phone carrier by simply forwarding my fax number to my dedicated eFax number. Any fax sent to my regular JT Research fax number is automatically forwarded to my free dedicated eFax number. eFax.com then processes the fax and e-mails it to me as an attached file.
Granted, this isn't exactly free. I pay Qwest, my local telephone company, $2.50/month for the ability to forward calls. And because my free eFax number happens to reside in California, I am charged a long-distance call for each forwarded call. But I have such a good long-distance rate through MCI that each call is just a few cents, depending on the length of the fax. If I received a lot of faxes, however, I would consider paying $9.95 a month for an eFax Plus account, which would provide me with a local fax number.
In order to open the attachments, I had to download the free eFax Messenger software. When I'm in a cyber café and a fax arrives in my mailbox, I have two options. I can download the attachment onto a floppy and open it up on my laptop back in my room. Or, I can ask the café manager if I can download the eFax Messenger software onto the PC I am using. I did this in Morocco. Since I had been visiting the same cyber café for several weeks, the manager didn't have a problem with me downloading the software on a designated machine. You may not encounter such a trusting person in your travels.
Now sending faxes is another story. A couple of times I have had to fill out forms e-mailed to me in PDF format and fax them. If I had the Adobe Acrobat software, I could use it to fill in the form, resave it, and e-mail it back. But it is not all that easy—this is not like filling in a Word form. Adobe is a graphics program.
Another time I had to fax a document when my client needed a signature. In my opinion, faxing is still the easiest way to send and receive signed documents. I know that the ability to send a digital signature exists, but I haven't approached it yet. Still, while there are a lot more steps required to send a fax via the Internet, it can be very expensive to send a fax through the traditional machine. In Morocco I was charged anywhere from $5-7 a page!
In the past, I hired someone to check my voice mail, follow up on calls, and e-mail me the outcome. The next time I'm out of the U.S., I am going to use J2 Global Communications' voice-mail service, jConnect. I heard about this service (literally) by listening to a gentleman listen to his voice mail messages while in a cyber café in Mexico. Because he told me he loves the service, I gave it a try.
The free service works just the same as the eFax service, which isn't surprising since both are owned by the same company. I obtained a free jConnect voice mail number, to which I forward my JT Research calls while I am away. When a call comes in, jConnect saves the message and e-mails it to me as an attachment, which I open with the same software I downloaded to open my eFax documents. I can then listen to the message over my computer speakers and store them in my e-mail. Since my jConnect voice mail number is a local Portland number, I am not charged any toll other than the $2.50/month fee that Qwest charges for the forwarding service.
With this free service I can then listen to my client's messages and e-mail my assistant with instructions or e-mail my clients directly. jConnect also provides the ability to for me to record and e-mail voice mail messages for $4.95 a month, but I haven't tried this yet because my clients would need to have the Messenger software downloaded on their computers.
KEEPING TRACK OF CASH FLOW
No need for my cash flow to suffer while on the road. QuickBooks, the program I use for bookkeeping, has a built-in online billing feature that allows me to e-mail invoices, statements, and estimates directly to my clients. In fact, I found that I was paid a lot quicker when I e-mailed invoices rather than sending them with the final hard copy of the report because the client often left the invoice in their in-box, or worse, filed it away with the supporting documentation I sent. I can also have QuickBooks track outstanding invoices and send custom reminders for $14.95/month, but at this point I have my bookkeeper do that.
A new QuickBooks feature that I haven't looked into yet is the merchant account service that is integrated with the software program. I currently accept Visa and MasterCard with Key Bank Merchant Services, but my assistant has to process the transactions while I'm on the road. If I used QuickBooks' Merchant Account Service, I could accept payments online by having my clients enter their credit card information directly into QuickBooks' secure payment system.
I love online banking. I bank with Key Bank, a community-focused bank located in 13 U.S. states. Its online banking feature is excellent and allows me to access my account and/or pay bills from anywhere I have an Internet connection. Though I now have a bookkeeper to pay my bills, in the past I successfully paid my bills while in another country. My assistant faxed me my bills, (which came as eFax attachments!) and I paid them with Key Bank Online Banking.
Here is one problem I encountered once with online banking: In Morocco, I couldn't access my account for some unknown reason. The number provided to use for help was a 1-800 number, which is useless from Morocco. I then went on the bank's Web site to find a number to use outside of the country and didn't find one. I sent e-mail but never heard back. So, I simply couldn't use my account unless I called someone in the States to call customer service for me. When I returned to the States I called the bank to regain access and I was informed that I had entered the wrong password. When using keyboards designed for non-English language users, it is much too easy to hit the wrong key. The bank has a default cut-off of one misspelling and you're out of luck! I better be careful next time!
I back up all of my files regularly onto an Internet-based hard drive called Ibackup.com [www.ibackup.com]. The service is great because it allows me to store files from my home computer, access them from anywhere, and share them with other people if necessary. I can't count how many times I've accessed my files on Ibackup while on the road. Plus, once I finish a project in a remote location, I immediately upload it to Ibackup.com.
Subscription plans are based on storage space needed, for example, 500 MB for $108/year. The price is well worth it. In the past I've used the free Internet-based hard drives, but these were tedious to use and one of them virtually disappeared after I spent hours uploading my files one by one. With Ibackup.com's Idrive, my account becomes a local drive on my computer. This saves me a lot of time because it allows me to drag-'n'-drop, open, edit, and save entire folders of files in my Ibackup account as though they were on my local computer. And, with Ibackup.com I haven't found it necessary to use a program that allows me remote access to my office PC, such as GoToMyPc [www.gotomypc.com].
I haven't begun to tap into wireless networks that may allow me to access my e-mails, voice mails, and faxes, while also letting me do my banking and bookkeeping. And I imagine there is a lot more I could be doing with my Palm Pilot. Maybe during my next trip I'll observe a traveler running an online search via a wireless device and I'll learn from her. In the meantime, I'm happy with my collection of useful, affordable, reliable, and easy-to-use tools that allows me to convert my at-home business to an away-from-home business.
Jan Davis Tudor [firstname.lastname@example.org] is a world traveling independent information professional specializing in business and company valuation research and principal of JT Research.
Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to email@example.com.