Calling all long-distance callers -- Hold the line!
By John Pavlik
Special to CNN Interactive
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
(CNN) -- I amazed my Aunt Glenna in Milwaukee a few weeks ago when I called her in the middle of an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.
Since I rarely call her, she was surprised by the simple fact I was on the phone. And it was not a weekend or in the evening when the rates of many long-distance phone carriers are often cheaper. I think she was worried something might be wrong.
Then I told her I was calling over the Internet. I explained how "Voice over Internet Protocol" (VoIP), or Internet telephony, enabled me to call her from my computer and allowed her to receive the call on her regular phone.
I explained to my Aunt Glenna how "Voice over Internet Protocol" (VoIP), or Internet telephony, enabled me to call her from my computer and allowed her to receive the call on her regular phone.
I explained that the call did not cost my office or me anything, and how I could call her anytime and talk as long as I wanted with these Internet calling services.
I think the "free" part got her attention. We are related, after all.
Free to a good home
How much was your last long-distance phone bill? I have almost stopped making conventional long-distance calls at home. Really.
I do not want to call at cheaper but less convenient times, or to pay a monthly fee for a long-distance rate plan, or to dial some odd series of numbers before the actual call.
Bottom line, I just do not like to pay long-distance charges. Where was voice over Internet when I had that ill-fated long-distance relationship in college? It might have fared better if the likes of www.dialpad.com or www.net2phone.com had been around.
At the office, I use VoIP regularly for long-distance calls. On the road, I use my cell phone, which includes 1,000 free minutes a month of long-distance calling.
At home, I often just use e-mail. I use VoIP there, too, though it can be a little unreliable because I do not have a high-speed connection at home, and the calls take up a lot of bandwidth. It is too expensive and difficult to get a Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL, in New York City from Bell Atlantic, and cable modem is not yet available in my apartment building in Manhattan. We do have three phone lines to relieve the phone line congestion of the Internet age.
There is no problem with family buy-in in the Pavlik household: My wife, who works at Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, uses VoIP at home and office as much or more than I do.
To use these kinds of free or low-cost calling services you need the following basic equipment: a computer with a sound card, microphone and speakers, and an Internet connection -- the faster the better, because of the bandwidth needs.
I am not sure that Columbia's network administrator thinks my infatuation with VoIP is a good thing, because of the added burden on the network. But at home we are paying our Internet service provider to worry about that.
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I am also not sure what the long-distance phone companies think of these cheap Internet phone services. Well, except every day there seems to be another headline about some telecommunications company doing some big Internet-related deal. How much longer can they bank on consumers paying for long-distance phone calls? AT&T, for one, has announced it plans to offer VoIP services over the cable television systems it recently acquired.
Speaking of money, Dialpad says it makes it from the advertising on its Web site, which you must visit to make a call. Many of the other VoIP services are relying on a combination of small usage charges and advertising.
Quality needed for quantity
Privacy is a related concern with Internet telephony.
Most VoIP services require you to register with the site, and that means at least some personal information is being stored with them. Read a site's privacy policies before deciding to use its services.
Then there is the privacy of your Internet call itself. Since your call is converted into digital bits, eavesdropping on VoIP calls is even harder than tapping into a conventional phone call.
Dialpad collects information from user sessions with "cookies," the software programs that gather information from your browser. The cookies collect information about your session, but the information is deleted when you exit the Dialpad site. And Dialpad does not save the "bits" or content of your call.
Bandwidth is probably the biggest hurdle to Internet calls for most people. If you do not have a fast Internet connection, such as an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) line, a cable modem or DSL, you probably will not want to rely on Internet telephony for important calls. It will take too long and may not deliver all the bits.
After getting a grip on the technology, you may find as I have that the cost savings of VoIP calls over conventional phone calls can really add up.
Another quality issue involves your computer's sound card, and whether it is "half-duplex" or "full-duplex." I have several different computers. One in my office has a full-duplex sound card, and another has a half-duplex sound card. At home I have two computers, both of which have full-duplex sound cards.
A full-duplex sound card lets your computer make calls as if it were a phone: You "dial" the number with your mouse, the number "rings" and you talk. A half-duplex sound card makes your computer work more like a walkie-talkie, where you click your mouse on a button in the program to "toggle" the talk/listen switch.
All that clicking can be annoying and will probably discourage you from making VoIP calls. You will know quickly whether you have the half-duplex sound card. During the account set-up with a site, you will likely get a message saying as much, and when you make a call you will be able to hear the person on the other end but they will not hear you until you use your mouse to toggle.
You may also find using VoIP less convenient because you need to be connected to the Internet first. That is one of the barriers for me at home, where I have a dial-up connection and so use VoIP less often.
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That is not a problem if you have an "always on" connection, standard with high-speed services. But if you have to dial your Internet service provider, log on and go to the appropriate Web site to make a call, you will likely find it easier to just pick up the phone and dial directly. You can also buy a special Internet telephone, made for making VoIP calls.
After getting a grip on the technology, you may find as I have that the cost savings of VoIP calls over conventional phone calls can really add up, especially if you are calling internationally, and may make it worth it to switch.
Who knows? Aunt Glenna may finally get a computer.
Dr. John V. Pavlik is executive director of the Center for New Media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where he is also a professor. He writes frequently on new media technology, journalism and health communication. His latest book, "Journalism and New Media," is forthcoming in 2000 from Columbia University Press. Pavlik is married with two children; the family lives in New York.
TRUSTe: Building a Web You Can Believe In
IP Site: Online Resource for Internet Protocol Telephony Service Providers
Federal Communications Commission
What Is: Voice over Internet Protocol
Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
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