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TECH Q&A

What is this VoIP I keep hearing about?

By Winston Smith , Roswell, New Mexico

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What is this VoIP I keep hearing about? Is it some government agency like the FBI? The CIA? The IRS? Should I be worried?

Expert Bio Picture

Tech Expert Chris Pirillo President, Lockergnome.com

Expert Answer:

Dear Winston,

Put the tinfoil hat away, friend. VoIP is simply the acronym for "Voice over Internet Protocol." Even more simply put, it's telephone service through your computer.

Like mobile phones, this is yet another consumer option that's likely driving your traditional phone carriers like Ma Bell crazy. Most people -- myself included -- feel this is awesome.

Ever get a phone bill that cost you more than a month's rent? Maybe back in college you had a girlfriend in a foreign exchange program half the world away; the decision to forego eating in order to afford a ten-minute conversation every week was another regular lesson in scholarly suffering. I like to think that it was the inventive spirit of geeks too sick of slurping dime store ramen noodles to take it anymore that spawned the technologies with the power to make phone company price gouging a thing of the past.

So VoIP's not a government agency. It's not even a proprietary technology; you can take a break from your land line and still have your choice among several services before deciding if it's right for you.

Skype is a popular VoIP service that allows free calling from computer to computer or low-fee computer to phone connection. There are even Skype hardware devices that allow you to use a "real" phone to call other "real" phones.

Gizmo5 (the service formerly known as Gizmo Project) similarly offers the ability to call other Gizmo5 users for free. It also lets you IM from your mobile phone without the usual text-messaging fees and allows for file transfers.

I use Vonage because it gives me the ability to send voice mail in e-mail, which is extremely convenient. It charges a flat fee for unlimited calling.

Then there's this magicJack device that everybody seems to be raving about. Allegedly, magicJack is easy to use -- plug it into an open USB port on your computer, then plug your phone into that. You get charged one low fee per year and, if it's as amazing as everyone says it is, I predict that magicJack will likely take off with the proliferation of broadband.

Despite its bold innovations and seemingly countless applications (from everyday conversation to medical examination to gaming), VoIP technology isn't a perfect system in all situations. With an infrastructure less tried-and-true than that employed by traditional phone companies, the occasional snag is inevitable.

Emergency protocols (i.e., 911) can't currently be easily traced or utilized through VoIP, but this is the sort of hurdle that will just make some brainy geek employed by some VoIP company learn how to jump better.

Like VoIP itself, the solution will come. Like the inevitable demise of the way the phone company used to do business, it's just a matter of time.

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