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As more and more expats work from home in France, Robert Scott looks at the some of the most efficient and cost effective way of setting up office.For years the problem of the internet connection not working, the photo copier running out of ink, or the fax breaking down, wasn’t really mine, thank God! At a real office, there’s always someone to take care of it. But recently I took the best decision of my life which was to close my office down and to work from home.
Sheer bliss, I can confirm over a year later: Flexible working hours, comfortable surroundings and at least an hour’s saving of walking back and forth from work. And of course enormous economies.
Well that’s the upside. The down side is that suddenly you find yourself responsible for all the equipment and if it doesn’t work properly, the home office turns from a dream into a nightmare.
To begin with I moved all the equipment from the office to my house: computers, a heavy duty printer which could deliver dozens of pages a minute from a network of 20 computers. And there was the fax, which could at the touch of the button (if I only knew which one) deliver a fax in the middle of the night to hundreds of recipients.
Choosing a supplierNone of the equipment worked very well when it was in the office and it certainly didn’t work any better in my home. To boot they were ugly and cumbersome. Anybody who has complained about things that don’t work and tried with the help of a hotline to get them fixed will know that in France you either get resigned to things not working properly or you die from mental anguish or exhaustion. That’s without mentioning bankruptcy after repeated calls to customer service hotline where you’re made to pay a premium rate to complain about somethingwhich doesn’t work. I have often wondered whether some of these companies make more money out of the hot lines they run than the goods they sell. Anyway faulty products=big bucks in France thanks to these help lines.
It wasn’t until the ageing fax machine started to shred anything that was assigned to it, that I was forced to look into a new solution. My first reaction was to call office suppliers who convinced me quite quickly that I would have to buy a new one. The conversation turned to the possibility of replacing the fax, printer and photocopier all in a one go. But they couldn’t deliver for at least 48 hours, so I decided to check out the FNAC. After all it was a ten minute walk away and if it needed to be repaired it would be an enormous plus to sprint over there with it rather than to lug it off to the distant banlieue.
Printer, scanner, fax and photocopier all in oneI found a good selection of models at the FNAC and was astonished to see that for €350 you can get the fax, printer and photo copier and scanner combined. Twenty minutes, and a 7 euro taxi ride later, I was chez moi with a new office: the HP 6110, which I could hide behind a chair in the drawing room. It would be too good to be true if it actually worked once, let alone on a regular basis. One friend had already pessimistically pointed out that the disadvantage of a four in one machine like this is that if one part breaks down you’re left with nothing while the machine has to go off to be repaired.
Shock horror the following day when after a simple 5 step installation process, the machine printed out its first page. To date it’s worked impeccably, photocopying, printing, faxing. And a great plus: it doesn’t consume much ink, and a colour cartridges costs a modest 12 euros!
Email to fax, fax and voice mail to email, fax to email and smart numbersEmail to fax, fax and voice mail to email, fax to email and smart numbersIf you can’t lash out €350, don’t worry I have since found that there is another far cheaper solution to the fax machine which is an option worth having even if you do have the fax machine. Of course most of us can easily send and receive faxes from our computers via a dial up modem, but who wants the telephone line jammed up and for those of us with an ADSL line sending an email which gets transformed into a fax is a brilliant idea. I looked at what several companies had to offer and ended up selecting PUMA, which allows you to send emails every where. It is quick, reliable and cheap. (http://www.pumafax.co.uk)
Email to fax is handy, but fax to email is also useful, especially if you’re traveling a lot and you need to receive faxes. Having looked at what’s on offer, I chose Team Phone, a company in London (http://www.teamphone.com) which offers a smart number which has an enormous amount of flexibility. It can accept voice or fax communications, which you can receive online if you chose. This means that if anyone leaves a message on the answering machine or sends you a fax, you can pick them up as emails. What’s more communications can be routed to the number of your choice, which could be your home, your mobile or a temporary location. Programming it is so simple – just call the number allocated to you and follow the instructions. For £60 a month you can have a phone number in London which is quite a plus if most of your customers are English. The cost of transferring calls to France is free!
Internet providers, ADSL and WIFISo that’s one major problem solved. Just as important these days is the internet connection.
For three years I had a marvelously cheap and reliable connection from a company that was so inefficient that it never sent a bill. But since we never knew who they were, it led to an unpleasant surprise when we eventually got cut off. After several days of wondering why there was no internet connection, a France Telecom specialist was able to give us the name of the provider (Nerim). Desperate to be reconnected we offered to pay three years of unpaid bills. Needless to say we had to sign a fax to pay the arrears before we were reconnected. But inspite of several phone calls, the fax never arrived and I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be better finding a more reliable provider.
A quick glimpse through some web sites gave me the idea of subscribing to Wifi (connecting to the internet – or rather to your router which is connected to the internet) by radio waves. This means that you can use your computer anywhere in the house, even if you can’t plug into your modem/router.
Club-internet, France Telecom, Tiscali and WIFII looked at club-internet and tiscali as they both seemed to have reasonable offers. The problem is that the offers are never very clear and if you have to ring to ask a question it already begins to cost you a lot of money!
Tiscali is better equipped for Mac users, so I chose them. Club–internet told me it’s possible to use their solution but it would need the help of their hot line (I saw wads of euros evaporating at that moment and turned it down).
Well thanks to my press contact at Tiscali, the routeur and the key arrived almost instantly. But that was the only good news. I wasn’t told that Tiscali had to tell France Telecom to register the new co-ordinates of my new provider and that this could take up to two weeks, although there was no reason why it should take more than a couple of hours.
Meantime I had no internet connection, except by using the modem/ telephone line. Perhaps a few gentle reminders to France Telecom could speed things up a bit? Forget it: one employee openly admitted that as we weren’t using France Telecom as our internet provider there was no reason to transfer us in a hurry to another provider! The bureaucracy got the better of me, and two weeks later, the connection was finally made. My frantic phone calls, my appeals, were all made with wasted breath.
Now the nightmare began in real. The instructions looked a doddle. Insert CD Rom and follow them. Sadly it didn’t work like that at all, because the number on my key (the thing you put in your computer which should communicate by radio waves with your router) did not have the same number as the one programmed on the router! The hotline was easy to join – a surprise in France, even when you’re paying a small fortune. After many hours on the hotline, I was forced to reprogram the router!! Well two days and nights of fiddling around and endless calls to the hotline bought bliss: my wifi worked and one other computer was connected to the router by Ethernet and another by UBS. Bliss not complete sadly because I can’t use the computer around the house as the ads let you fondly imagine. The radio waves travel through one wall, max, and sometimes the connection is good, sometimes it is useless. And by the way keep a good distance from your microwave because they work on the same wave length!
Unfortunately the saga doesn’t end here. Before a month had passed, the wifi no longer worked. The other computer didn’t connect either, so it had to be the router. Pack them up and send them off to us, the help line advised (after another 80 euros worth of hotline bills) and another 8 hours down the drain. A week later a new router and a new key, and we start the installation over again. This time it will be simple, I say. “I’m an old hand, I could get a job on the hotline, by now” I’m actually looking forward to installing it. The satisfaction of getting it right immediately. But my hopes are dashed. After several abortive attempts to make it work, we end up having to reprogram the router again. Tiscali must be delighted, another wad of euros is credited to their account. Hooray, It’s working!
The WIFI dream turns into a nightmareBut the story doesn’t end here either. A month or so later, I try to reconnect to the internet an hour after I have last used it. Nothing, but nothing has changed. Nobody has even been there to be able to touch anything. More calls to the hotline: send back the key!
Luckily I’m heading off on holiday for two weeks, so the prospect of parting with the key and awaiting the new one is not so awful. The new key duly arrives. The bad news is that I have to start from scratch with the installation…..the good news surely will be that this time, everything will go to plan, and I’ll be connected within 15 minutes. Twenty four hours later and another wad of euros credited to the hotline, (during which I realize I'm more experienced by now than the people trying to help me), I am told to call SAGEM who are the manufactures of the router to download some software which should make everything work.
I end up talking to a technician there, who after a few minutes, confirms that the problem is that the router is not working, and tells me that the guys at Tiscali should have spotted that two weeks ago and 10 hours of hotline calls ago. Two days later the technician from Sagem, having heard the story of my plight is at my apartment with a new router. My wifi works once more!
Unfortunately the story end on a sad note: the wifi packs up again and I resign myself to connecting by Ethernet (a 50m long cord is cheaper, more reliable and less stressful than wifi!). But the end of the story makes even more dismal reading……The ethernet connection become so slow that we can’t pick up email or connect to the internet any longer. Tiscali tell me that if I send them a letter they will tell me what’s wrong within two weeks, then I suppose they will tell me how they will resolve it. Meanwhile France Telecom tell me (rather smugly) that our connection is slow because they (ie France Telecom) are “regrouping” Tiscali’s lines. The moral of the story is if you can’t beat them join them. France Telecom is the only operator who can hope to control its destiny, so however much you like the idea of supporting independent operators, unless you thrive on nightmares, France Telecom is the only sensible solution in France. And what’s more the hotline/technical support is free!
Out of the office……away from home: wanadoo, AOL, blue tooth, Nokia 6600Of course out of the office an internet connection can be just as important, and after trial and error I have come up with some solutions which may be helpful. Firstly for a dial up connection in France wanadoo (www.wandoo.fr) is easy to install and reliable for both PC and Mac. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, using it abroad is complicated and not worth the while. Considering their international presence, it’s quite surprising that such a large company can’t get themselves organised for this. Surely it should be easy to connect in the UK since France Telecom owns Orange!
If you’re traveling abroad the best solution still seems to be AOL which is adapted to PCs and Macs. You can take a free month’s trial subscription which should cover your trip abroad. But do check which countries it works for and remember to note carefully how to cancel your trial period! The reason you will probably cancel is that AOL is a disaster in France. I found myself being cut off every five minutes. I’m told that the reason for this is there are too many people trying to logg on at the same time and the only way to allow everyone on is to keep cutting people off!
A rare pleasant surprise - but only just - is blue tooth, the best way for the moment of connecting whilst traveling. For example on trains or in airports if you want to connect your portable computer to the interent using your portable phone. I recently bought a nokia 6600, solely for its Bluetooth feature. You can imagine my dismay therefore when I unpacked it and read the blurb, which said the bluetooth function was only compatible with a PC.
Another call to Nokia in Finland, seemed to confirm my worst doubts, I had just spent €400 on something which was useless. For once France Telecom turned out to be saving grace. Somehow (please don’t ask me how) - I got connected to a bad tempered but efficient woman, who explained step by step how to set it up. The blue tooth works beautifully and I take great pleasure in being able to connect from my portable computer wherever I am providing of course that my Nokia 6600 has a signal.
On the subject of the Nokia 6600, the email works well, but the rest of the functions are nothing to write home about. The large screen and the internet connectivity which should be a major plus are of limited value since very few websites are in the correct format to be viewed. A further disappointment is that the phone seems to have a very poor signal, which means that there are many missed calls.
A digital camera: The Olympus C-450 zoomThere is one other accessory for the home office which is fun, reliable, easy to use and easy to install, and very useful: the numeric camera. I recently bought an Olympus Camedia, digital camera C-450 Zoom. The reason I chose the Olympus is that it has a piece on the side that you can slide over the lens when you're not using it. This means you don't need to put it in a case, which makes it far more handy. It comes with easy to follow instructions and a CD rom which instantly installs the software. All you do after that is to plug the computer into the camera. The photos you take are automatically transferred, you can then print them out, email them as attachments to friends or edit them using the user-friendly guide. Otherwise copy them onto a CD and send them off for processing! I'm still looking for an internet site to send to for processing which is compatible with Apple Mac. Any ideas?
If you have had good or bad experiences with equipment for a home office and would like to write about them, please email us at email@example.com
Slashing the phone bill: SKYPEThe best news for expats is Skype. We are all fed up with being ripped off when we make international calls from France, but with the arrival of Skype, telecom companies are going to find it increasingly difficult. By the way I recently tested out some telephone cards and really I am convinced that many of them are a rip off. Who can check whether you really do get how ever many minutes are offered for a certain destination?
If you do have a card perhaps the one on sale at The Post Office is less likely to be a rip off (though not necessarily). It is called Kertel and a definite advantage over other cards is that you can recharge it, therebye allowing you to keep the same access code. The only potential drawback is that you have to go to the Post office to buy a recharge.........so the usefulness all depends on how close your nearest post office is .....and how long the queue is. The other card I can recommend is the the Tele 2 card because you can register your access code which means you do not have to put it in for each phone call. This a great advantage, so even if the card works out to be more expensive ( who knows anyway?) it does save a lot of time and frustration!
So back to Skype. Unfortunately you are not quite ready to throw away the phone cards or rip up your contracts with cheap phone companies, because the quality of Skype has not yet reached the stage where it is consistantly good enough to be sure of having a pleasurable or successful conversation with someone and unfortunately the qulity of calls from France is notably awful.
There are three ways of using Skype. If the person you want to communicate with has registered with Skype you can make a free phone call over the internet using it. All you need is a computer with broadband internet access, and the Skype software which you download from the Skype site (www.skype.com) for free. It coud not be simpler. You can also send MSN to any registered user for free.
You can use Skype to telephone non registered users, but you have to pay. The good news is the calls are mind bogglingly cheap, but the bad news is that you can not count on the quality, so for example making a bank transfer using it, is a fairly hazardous operation. Another drawback is that the already questionable quality is significantly reduced if you do not use headphones. So if you do not like the telephone operator look, it might not be for you. Wifi earphones (earpieces) sound a brilliant solution. They should mean that you can use Skype without sitting at your computer ( though obviously you still have to be in a close radius to it!). But having tested the Nokia earpiece and the Sony Ericsson one, I am not convinced that it is really worth while. By the way on this subject: the Sony Ericsson earpiece had to be returned three times for repair (at which stage I had to give up on it!) making the Nokia earpiece a clear favourite.
Wifi mobile phonesPlease forgive me if I sound a bit negative about Skype. I certainly am not. It is just that the potential is so huge, but the truth is that for the moment it is not up to scratch. You cannot count on it when it comes to an important communication. So you could end up wasting time. However we all have plenty of occasions when we want to chat cheaply and if the quality is not impecable it does not matter. So for the moment Skype is perfect for that.
But the most exciting thing will be if we can successfully use Skype on a mobile phone, meaning that you can make free international calls from your mobile phone, as long as you are, of course, within the radius of a wifi borne.
Nokia have recently announced the launch of some new models which include a wifi function, so we tested the E61.
The Nokia E61 is a 3G handset with quad-band GSM support, WiFi and Bluetooth. There's a superb 320x240 pixel display in 16 million colours, combined with the Symbian Series 60 OS (version 9.1). Navigation is through a Nokia-style mini joystick and softkeys, making it pretty familiar for Nokia users. The qwerty key borad means that you can text and email very rapidly with the fingers from two hands and that even accents (useful if you’re in France) can be found directly on the keyboard. The phone is very slim and light for such a powerful device, but nevertheless it is bigger than most portable phones.
I was originally interested in the Nokia E61 because I thought it would be a real plus to be able to connect to the internet via wifi, because we all know how expensive these connections are using a mobile phone. As it happens the WIFI feature turned out to be almost useless. Not only was it difficult to connect: (who wants to type in a 35 character WEP code for each connection?) but it is also expensive. When I was travelling, I discovered that there are very few free hot spots these days, which means that it's not worth connecting unless you're going to be using them for at least an hour. At this point texting and email looks a lot more sensible.
I think the real selling point about this phone is connectivity (forget the WIFI aspect for now). I was traveling for three weeks in Italy, France and Greece and I was able to send and receive texts and emails the whole time. For email the Nokia is on a par with the Blackberry in so far as you chose to be notified when each email arrives or to just download email when you connect
The other great feature is the internet. It's the first phone where I have managed to make transactions as well as consult the orders on the website I manage. I even managed to put something up for sale on ebay! It's not just the size of the screen which makes this possible, it's the way it allows you to navigate
The phone includes all the major applications needed to run an office.
Software support on the E61 allows you to view and edit Microsoft Office documents, view Adobe PDFs and even work with ZIP files. The Symbian Series 60 OS is also expandable, so you can add more applications. The E61 also has a comprehensive set of PIM applications preloaded, and it comes with just about everything you would expect from a device of this type.
Although you would have to be patient to type out a document, you could easily blue tooth them to the phone, after that it's easy to edit them and use them as email attachments. If you have a subscription to an email to fax and a fax to email, you can also send and receive faxes at the touch of a button. It’s useful too that you can receive an email while you’re on a phone call ! The only negative point I found with the phone is that its reception is poor. In places where the reception is generally poor, the Nokia E61's reception is even worse, which is quite annoying.
There's no camera on the Nokia E61 which seems a bit disapointing now that we’ve become used to them. But many businesses have serious issues with digital camera proliferation, especially in sensitive commercial environments, so for business reasons it’s perhaps a plus. To its credit It does come with expandable memory using miniSD cards (and there's a decent 75Mb of internal memory too). The Nokia E61 is quite a capable multimedia device, with support for MP3, AAC and Real Video and Audio. As the E61 is a 3G device, it can also download a variety of streaming multimedia.