Tech Talk: Internet phone service

“Talk is cheap; it takes money to buy whiskey.”

My father liked to cite that bromide whenever the conversation got too theoretical for him. It was his way of saying, “Let’s get real.”

But the saying is wrong. Talk is not cheap, as even the quickest glance at a telephone bill can attest. In addition to the charges for making (and receiving, if you have cellular service) calls, the telephone has been discovered by the taxing authorities. Taxes, fees and charges on my home phone boost the basic cost by 70 percent – even before I make the first call. Internet service usually is extra. Other services, such as caller ID, might add still more.

I stopped looking at my home phone bill a long time ago. It just made me mad, and there was nothing I could do about it short of pulling the plug.

Then I discovered Internet phone service through my computer. If you keep back copies of Rural Builder, pull out the July 2003 edition and mosey over to Page 19. The column explained how to set up digital phone service with both voice and video. Video conferencing had arrived, albeit with a few rough edges.

Things changed since 2003.

The handful of companies that offered digital phone service over the Internet has grown to several hundred, the cost of making and receiving calls is approaching zero (assuming you already have Internet service) and the rough edges are a little smoother. If you’re still plunking down $75 a month (or more) for residential service, you ought to check out the latest Internet-calling options. If they work for you at home, consider extending the technology to your office. If you do, you won’t be a pioneer any more.

Consider: Skype (skype.com), one of the leaders in Internet phone service and a subsidiary of giant eBay, reported in August that it has more than 220 million users. In January, Skype said it counted nine million users online at one time.

Setting up the service also has gotten easier. The only hard part any more is figuring out which of the bewildering number of options fits you best. For example, if you want 911 service on your Internet phone (as you probably have on traditional phones, you have a choice of more than 300 carriers. For a linked list, see www.voip911.gov/VoipProviders.html. The Federal Communications Commission publishes an advisory on 911 service over the Internet at www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/voip911.html.

With such a range of options, let’s start with cost-free calling. You probably already have a recent computer with a fairly fast Internet connection (preferably 256 kbps or better), but if you don’t, you’ll need to upgrade. If you want to do video conferencing, you’ll also need a pair (one for each end) of Web cameras at $10 and up for each. And you might need a headset (also $10 and up) to connect with your computer. Finally, there’s the cost of the service, which starts at $15 a month. Vonage.com charges $50 a month for its small business premium unlimited plan.

Some vendors will include some of these extras. Others offer a package deal. For example, Apple bundles everything you need into its current generation of Macintosh computers.

With Skype, you talk and listen through a headset or similar device. Vonage enables you to make calls from your regular phone. Just plug your modem and your regular phone into an adapter box.

With iCall.com, you can make calls from your computer to standard telephones.

Both sides of the call must have Jajah to make free calls over standard telephones, and there’s no special equipment or no monthly fees. The catch is that you need a Web browser to initiate a call. You enter jajah.com and type in both phone numbers. Jajah will call both numbers and connect you. The system works with both landlines and cellular phones.

If your have a T-Mobile cellular phone, check out HotSpot@Home. The service is complex, but it permits unlimited free calls under some circumstances.

PhoneGnome is even more complicated with three plans to choose from, but it might be worth it to use your regular phone, a $6 a month service fee or free calls, depending on what plan you choose.

The digital phone system generating the most buzz – Ooma.com — wasn’t shipping at this writing, but was due to be released early this fall. Its business model, which is aimed at small companies, is unique in the field. In place of a monthly service fee, you buy an Ooma hub, initially for $400, later for $600. For extension phones, add $40 for each minihub.

But once you have purchased the box, you pay nothing more to Ooma. Sales literature indicates that you could cancel your phone service entirely, and Ooma would issue you a new phone number. Although the box is expensive, the payback looks impressive for anyone running a phone bill of $50 a month or more.

Ooma, like some other digital services, offers free voice mail, call waiting, call answering and similar functions, although not 911.

Ustream.tv lets you set up a Webcam, perhaps on a construction site, and broadcast free all day.

Some of the same players identified in the 2003 column, including Microsoft and Yahoo, are still in the game and warrant consideration. Microsoft’s service is now called Windows Life Messenger. If your children (or you!) have Microsoft’s Xbox 360, you might have a head start on video conferencing. It offers free video service with its Xbox Live Vision camera, which costs about $40 and requires a gold-level account for $8 a month.

As impressive as digital phone service has become, some rough edges remain. Foremost among them might be the risk that the service you choose will fail. Exhibit A is SunRocket, which was among the largest Internet phone carrier. It stranded some 200,000 customers when it shut down abruptly.

Digital phoning is still a young industry, and some consolidation is inevitable. If a vendor that requires special equipment such as the Ooma box fails, you could lose your investment and also have to scramble to find new service in a hurry. And since most digital phone services work through a computer, you could be shut down in an electrical power failure. Landlines do not require electrical power. Check also to make sure that the vendor can protect its audio or video streams so they can be received only by sources that you authorize. Otherwise, you might be broadcasting to the world.

Calls over the Internet work differently than calls over landlines, sometimes resulting in awkward delays.

Be sure to check out a carrier’s policy on call pricing for frequent destinations. Some carriers charge for calls within the United States (often in lieu of monthly service fees) and most charge for international calls, although rates usually are much cheaper than conventional carriers. Vonage, for example, advertises free calls to France and the United Kingdom and 1 cent a minute to China and Mexico City. Ooma said it will allow international callers to pay by credit card.

And what about those taxes? Digital phone-calling has been remarkably free of governmental pocket-picking – so far.

If you have tried a digital phone, I’d like to hear about your experiences. You can contact me at owitte@siu.edu or by mail through this magazine. n

Oliver Witte teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University.

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