On the phone, on your PC
This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 3, 2006
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is all the rage now, with companies like Vonage running massive ad campaigns to encourage folks to switch their phone usage to a broadband-based service. Even some traditional long-distance phone companies are starting to offer VoIP services, with Verizon now offering VoiceWing.
Of course, many folks with cable television have had the option of cable-based telephony service for years.
What is different about VoIP, though, is that it is aimed mostly at long-distance usage whereas the cable service was a full-replacement option. VoIP cannot replace local telephone service for those of us with DSL as DSL needs a phone line to run in the first place. (Of course, VoIP works over cable Internet connections as well, and, one would assume, satellite Internet connections like those sold by DirecTV.)
It does seem odd and a bit unfair for the telephone companies to have to compete for your long-distance business with companies that run their service over the phone lines that are maintained by the phone companies. Then again, AT&T and the Baby Bells have been soaking the rest of us via their monopolies for many years.
To be able to talk over the Internet isn't anything new any kind of data can be transported over the Internet, and it's no great feat of engineering to convert audio to a digital format. Online gamers have had various online talking protocols for years.
What's held it back is the limitations imposed by the dial-up Internet connections most of us have had through the years as well as the limitations imposed by the slower personal computers we used in the past.
Today, with home PCs and Macs more powerful than an earlier generation of mainframe computers and more and more folks having home broadband Internet service, the hardware limitations have largely been overcome.
The challenges now with VoIP are mostly in the arena of connectivity with the existing global telephone network and economic/legal.
For VoIP to really take off, people have to be able to call their non-VoIP friends and take calls from them. Vonage, VoiceWing and others that actually have your existing telephone handset plug into a modem-like device that plus into your computer solve the issue of connecting to the larger telephone network for a price.
These services use their servers to serve as a bridge from the Internet to the standard telephone system you can use your phone with these services to call any phone in the world that you could call on your standard land line or cell phone.
The economic and legal issues will sort themselves out in the years to come.
Most of the VoIP services seem to be competitively priced with standard landline service in the $20-$25 range.
But if you don't want to abandon your existing phone service, but would like to be able to talk to friends or family in distant cities without the expense of long-distance charges, there is another alternative out there: Skype.
Skype uses proprietary technology, not VoIP.
More importantly, Skype is a peer-to-peer voice package which means that to make a "call" to anyone else on the Internet, you don't need to go through Skype's servers, or pay Skype a fee.
In other words, for the price of a decent PC headset (around $30) and a free download, you can talk to anyone else in the world with an Internet connection (and a pair of headphones and the same free download).
For those who want to use Skype to call out to the regular telephone network (or to receive calls from it), Skype also offers monthly subscription plans, including voice mail.
Having downloaded Skype and used it several times to talk with a friend in Europe, I can vouch for its clarity and ease of use. You can even chat and send attachments (photos, MP3s, etc.) to each other while talking all from within the Skype client. The client is easy to install after downloading, and has a very intuitive interface.
And you sure can't beat the price. Before I got Skype, I called a friend in Ireland over the holidays. We talked for just under an hour, at night when prices are lowest my bill from AT&T was $130!
Talking over Skype costs me nothing; the voice quality is just as good as the AT&T trans-Atlantic call to Ireland was, and in some ways making a call with the headset is much more comfortable and conducive to a relaxing conversation than is holding a phone up to your ear for an hour.
Now, this good audio quality comes with both users having broadband connections. Were one of the connections dial-up, it is likely the quality would have dropped dramatically.
Still, for talking to friends and family far away, Skype is an option well worth considering.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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