The Internet Telephony Revolution: Anyone There?

I’m in a foul mood. I’ve been trying to use the Internet to make overseas phone calls, and I’ve wasted huge amounts of time accomplishing very little.

I’m not sure exactly where to start in describing the mess around Internet telephony. All I can say is that if what I’ve experienced represents what all the hype has been about, then the established telecom companies like AT&T and MCI WorldCom have very little to worry about. In fact, I’d suggest that the way in which the small and large companies in this emerging industry are going about educating the public on Internet telephony is a classic example of the Internet’s overall problems in the areas of customer service and the setting of expectations. If you’ve ever found yourself in a closed-loop situation, either on the Internet or on corporate voice mail, you’ll appreciate the problems I’ve encountered in trying to make telephone calls on the Internet.

It all started with my desire to find a cost-effective way to telephone my daughter, who is spending several months studying in Spain. I decked myself out in earphones and a microphone so I could make PC-to-phone calls. If you check around the Web, it doesn’t take long to find much hype about free and/or low-cost Internet-based calls, some as low as 3.9 cents per minute from the U.S. to overseas. Some of the sites claim to have millions of users.

I thought I’d begin with a software program from Net2Phone, one of the major players in this arena, that I had somehow loaded onto my computer months ago — perhaps when I downloaded Netscape. I make the association with Netscape because when I tried to log on to the Net2Phone software, I was taken to http://net2phone.netscape.com. There I was supposed to register, which I did. But registering turned out to be different than establishing an account. I was directed by the site to find my account number on my Net2Phone software, but the account information portion of my pulldown menu wasn’t highlighted.

Finally, after much back-and-forth toggling between the Web site and the software (my first closed loop), it finally occurred to me that possibly Net2Phone and Netscape had parted ways since I downloaded my software. Sure enough, when I went onto Netscape’s home page and searched for Net2Phone, I discovered that, while it was reviewed, the “Partner Search Results” listed two other companies as Netscape partners. It sure would be nice if Netscape informed people who came to the old partner site that things had changed.

I didn’t want to give up entirely on Netscape, so I went to one of its new partners, one known as deltathree. The rates from the U.S. to Spain looked very attractive — 8 cents per minute regular and 25 cents per minute to connect to a mobile phone. (Most of the sites have a higher rate for calling cellular phones in European countries; if they don’t, they just don’t connect you.) I went through its entire application process, including setting up a user name and PIN, only to be told at the end, “Sorry, but we cannot process your application at this time.” I repeated the same process the next day, and it worked; so maybe all that time wasn’t wasted, though I hesitated immediately throwing money into its system, based on the previous glitch.

At this point, I decided to investigate some non-Netscape-related companies and discovered something called HotTelephone.com, which advertises free domestic calls and free service to many European countries, including Spain. I signed up, plugged in my speaker and microphone, and began dialing. I had better results than I did with Netscape’s partners but nothing to write (or call) home about. After many false starts (“Gateway busy”), I was able to connect to a faraway U.S. relative, but the call kept getting disconnected every few minutes. However, I could never connect to the landline in Spain, despite repeated attempts (and much wasted time); for the cellular number, I was referred to a HotTelephone partner, HotTeleLink. There I had to set up another account and put some money in the till to cover the charge of overseas calls. Could it be that the free service is made intentionally bad so that you’ll sign up for the paid version in hopes of getting better service? I can’t imagine an online company attempting a trick like that!

Learning my way around HotTeleLink was no walk in the park, either. I finally filled up my account with $10 worth of service and set about making calls. After entering the number they wish to call, callers are given a choice of using “PC2Phone” or “Phone2Phone.” These are the instructions: “To place a call, you are required to fill out the information for the top field only — if you are calling PC-to-phone and every field except the extension field, which is optional — if you are making a phone-to-phone call.” I had to reread the instructions three times before I thought I understood, but even now I’m not certain. I’ve never been able to make the PC-to-phone work, but I did make the phone-to-phone work a few times for the landline in Spain, though not to the cellular phone.

My next stop was again with the big guy, Net2Phone. Maybe now that it was free of Netscape, it would work better. I downloaded its updated software, signed up for an account, and presto, I actually made a domestic call. Phone quality was about 85 percent normal. Unlike with HotTelephone.com, I wasn’t disconnected. I wanted to sign up for international service but hesitated because Net2Phone didn’t show a separate charge for calling a cellular phone in Spain (or elsewhere in Europe). I couldn’t face the prospect of trying to obtain feedback if I discovered after paying my money that the cellular connection didn’t work.

I suppose the bottom line in all of this is that the Internet as long-distance telephone device is as much a can of worms as the real telephone. OK, maybe you don’t have “slamming” in the online arena (at least not yet), but you can drive yourself crazy figuring out where you’ll get the best value — the best combination of cost, convenience, and quality of connection. Part of the problem is that the companies simply fail to explain their services clearly — what you have to pay for and what you don’t have to pay for, how to make the technology work, and what to do if you’re unable to make the service work to your expectations.

The other day, when I was in a hurry to call Spain, I tried my HotTeleLink account but nothing doing. I got no connection — neither PC-to-phone nor phone-to-phone — and no explanation of problems. I went back to my old-fashioned telephone, where I connected immediately. I think I’ll wait for the Internet-telephony revolution to get to the marketing communications phase before I become a devotee.

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