The VoIP Heard Round the World

by Nate Heasley for Digital Living Today

Voice over Internet Protocol telephony (a.k.a. “VoIP” or “IP Telephony”) is the best way to put a big dent in your phone bill and make your long-distance provider really nervous at the same time. VoIP works by using your Internet connection to transmit your voice to another PC or telephone anywhere in the world, avoiding most or all tolls and tax. Since most of these services are free, combined with a free Internet provider, such as www.freewwweb.com or a similar service, you really can have true freedom of speech!

IP Telephony works by breaking up your voice transmission, either from your computer or directly from your phone (more on that later) and compressing into a series of datapackets. These packets are then routed over the Net, and reassembled at the recipients computer, or piped from the Net to a local phone line to your recipients telephone. There are essentially three kinds of IP telephony services available: PC to PC, PC to telephone, and phone to phone.

PC to PC is where IP telephony started a few years ago. By using software provided by companies like VisiTalk (www.visitalk.com) and MediaRing Talk (www. mediaring.com), you can talk live with anyone else whos online. These programs are free, and only require a quick software download (as well as a PC microphone and a soundcard). They are limited in that the person you are talking to must have an Internet connection (and often the same telephony software), but they open up a new way to chat on the Net, either with friends or people you don’t know with similar interests. Most sites offering PC to PC conversations allow you to find random people to chat with much like a conventional text-based chat room.

PC to phone is where most IP providers are focusing their efforts. Leading the pack is DialPad (www.dialpad.com) – a free service that lets you make phone calls from your PC to any telephone anywhere just by visiting the DialPad website (and filling out an annoying survey). There is no software to download, since the calls are made through a Java applet. VocalTec Telephony Gateway (www.vocaltec.com) also offers PC to phone service, as well as lots of features that make it great for business use. DeltaThree (www.deltathree.com) offers Web-based calls from their site for free, and additional services for a monthly fee.

Phone to phone connections are the latest step in the evolution of VoIP. Using a special device like the Yap Jack from Net2Phone (www.net2phone.com) or the Aplio phone (www.aplio.com), you can cut out the computer entirely. The Yap Jack works by plugging directly into a regular telephone, and then after it is programmed with your Internet provider’s information, it can make long-distance calls to anyone anywhere – even if they don’t have a PC. Calls are billed per-minute, at very low rates. Calls to another Yap Jack are free (Net2Phone and VocalTec also offer VoIP phone cards that can be used from any phone, at low per-minute charges). The Aplio phone works the same way as the Yap Jack, though calls can only be made to another Aplio. Calls from the Aplio are always free to anywhere in the world. There is a LAN Aplio phone too called the Aplio Pro for local network use (such as in an office). Both Aplios offer decent sound quality (think: International phone delay) and upgrades to the hardwares built-in software.

All of these services use the Internet to transmit your voice, and as a result, the quality suffers. The compression and transmission of your voice causes occasional delays or echoes in the conversation – this ain’t no “pin-drop” connection. Sometimes you may not even notice that the call is being made over the Net, other times, the echo is so bad it is almost unintelligible. Internet Protocol telephony has a long way to go before it is on par with plain-old phone connections, but it has come a long way since it was first introduced in the early 90s. If you’re the sort that likes to chat with people on the other side of the world, for hours on end (did someone say: long distance relationship?), VoIP may be just the thing to keep you from having to take out a second mortgage on your home just to cover your phone bill.

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