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Go Wild... for Free!

Stop me before I call again. Almost every day since January I've been holding 30-to-45 minute phone conversations with friends in New York, Seattle and San Francisco. For good measure I've chatted up strangers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Belfast. In the real world, my problem would be: where can I flee before the phone bill arrives? But the world I'm in is the Wide Web variety. Here I worry I'm trying the patience of those I've been repeatedly ringing up.

My power to annoy comes from the Internet, and frankly I'm abusing it. Not that I'm one of those scofflaws who used to steal long-distance calls by blowing into the receiver with a whistle out of a cereal box. I just don't like paying IDD rates, and I am doing something about it by using Web services that offer free or near-free calls. All it takes is a PC, a microphone and a headset.

And patience. Web-based "IP telephony" companies are multiplying, but they are not as convenient as picking up the phone and pressing buttons. I use Firetalk and Dialpad. The former ( requires both you and the people you want to call to have a PC, and you have to download special software. You can talk to anyone anywhere in the world, as long as they are properly equipped. A control panel on your screen lets you compile a directory of users and indicates when they're online. To connect you click on a button beside a name. If your target isn't available you can leave a voice message.

Calls are free, since the company hopes to make money by selling advertising. Oddly, the most popular feature on Firetalk seems to be forums. These live-voice "chat rooms" let you interact verbally with complete strangers on topics such as "games," "technology," "Arabic clean and decent" and "Arab love room." There seem to be lots of participants from the Middle East.

Most of my friends in America don't have Firetalk, and some don't have computers. I can still reach them over the Net via Dialpad (, which offers free calls to any phone in the U.S. - nowhere else. Using it is a no-brainer: log on to the site and register as a member, wait for the image of a dialer to appear on your screen and start pressing numbers. If I called the U.S. east coast through my phone company, the lowest amount I'd pay for a 45-minute conversation would be about $60. The same call through Dialpad comes to 25 cents, factoring in my monthly Internet subscription rate. Oh yeah, a headset cost me $4.33.

Not that there are no problems. The No. 1 phrase in a webphone chat isn't "hello," it's "can you hear me now hear me now?" The connection quality can vary wildly. I get echoes, tinny voices and occasionally I could swear the person I'm talking with is eating a cardboard box. Words and sentences occassionally vanish. Once a friend told me I sounded like Darth Vader on helium.

I'm looking forward to the day when I will be able to ditch the PC and make Internet calls with an ordinary phone. Meanwhile, I wouldn't use IP telephony to make crucial calls: declarations of war, or love, or instructions to stockbrokers. But I won't stop using it. Apart from a lingering fear that I will someday receive a huge phone bill - delivered by a squad of door-kicking policemen - I get huge satisfaction from knowing that I can annoy just about anyone I want for as long as I want, all for pocket change. I need never fear the phone company again.

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