Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Hot on the Web

Voice calls over the 'Net

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 4, 2004
(Issue 2223, Beyond High School)

It seems an odd development. Or perhaps we've simply come full circle.

But here were are, some 15 years into the Internet Age, and the latest online rage is the use of digital phones to make voice calls over the 'Net.

Including long-distance calls using your existing data connection, thus incurring no toll charges.

Which easy to understand from a technology standpoint. Digital audio is no tough trick – converting sound to bits and bytes and moving them over the 'Net is old hat for online gamers.

And in fact, online gamers have been talking to each other in-game for years now.

But what started out as geeky – wearing a headset with a built-in mic plugged in to your soundcard – has now become mainstream.

The latest Internet phones look like your traditional phone, and plug into your router or hub rather than your soundcard. It is, in fact, it's own specialized computer, performing the same functions that your soundcard and network adaptor perform in your PC or Mac.

And just as on the regular 'Net – ftp or Web or e-mail – making a connection to another computer has nothing to do with geography. Logging into a Web site physically located in India or New Zealand is no different than logging into a Web site housed on a server down the street.

And so it is with Internet phones – two people using Internet phones can talk to one another from any point on the globe.

Ma Bell's nightmare?

That can hardly comfort the suits at the phone companies. The baby bells have been losing business to the cell phone companies for years; of late, many cable TV providers have also begun offering local phone service through their connections.

Now, the Internet phones can't call a regular land line or even cell phone without an intermediary service; the cable companies provide that service to their subscribers, so that if you have your local phone service through your cable, you can still call folks with traditional phone access, and vice versa. The same limitations apply with Internet phones, and so while you can call anyone else with an Internet phone no matter where they live, calling your neighbor across the street won't be possible if they have a traditional (or even cable!) phone if you don't subscribe to one of these universal access services.

Still, it doesn't seem particularly fair that the local phone companies have to provide their DSL competitors a subsidized price if that access can now be used to compete in the voice arena.

When the phone companies proposed charging separate rates for Internet use vs. traditional voice use, the suggestion was rejected as being patently unfair to consumers. If you're renting a phone line, why should it matter how you're using it?

But using an Internet account to make voice calls seems a different animal.

If the baby bells were far too slow on the uptake to see how high-speed access would take off, they can hardly be blamed for resenting a new form of competition that they're expected to underwrite.

Security issues, too

Since your voice has to be digitized before being transmitted over the 'Net, the various phones use various scrambling technologies – not all of them compatible.

Law-enforcement agencies also have concerns about whether they'll even be able to get a court-ordered wire tap with some of the new technology coming down the pipeline.

Without built-in backdoors, or at least industry cooperation with the government in building descramblers, the fear is that terrorists, child pornographers and others will be able to communicate freely over Internet phones with no way of monitoring them the way we can now with cell phones and land lines.

Libertarians and privacy fundamentalists argue that this would actually be a good thing – that a little terrorism or kiddie porn is a small price to pay for our privacy.

The rest of us, though, might have second thoughts about that – might, in fact, think that a little loss of privacy is a small price to pay for putting child molesters and killers behind bars.

As to the argument that making industry cooperate with the government will slow down technological progress to the point that other countries move ahead?

No other nation on earth has the same fixation on "privacy" as the United States; in Europe and Asia, the governments get cooperation on security issues as a matter of course. Sharing decryption information with the government isn't going to slow Internet phones down one bit.


Finally, Eric Welch wrote in to correct an error in a recent column on multimedia. While Real and Microsoft charge you to use their streaming media servers, it seems the Apple QuickTime Streaming Server software is free at this time.

Of course, you'll need a Mac server to run it.