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Computer, Internet Promise Cheaper Phoning

The long distance phone wars are heading into cyberspace.

Thanks to the convergence of telephone and computer technology, it's now becoming easier and cheaper to make long distance calls by routing your voice over the global network of the Internet.

Depending on the method you choose to use, the initial investment can be minimal or substantial. Some hardware/software solutions require the installation of an interface card into the computer, and this can set you back a couple of hundred dollars. An alternate method requires a special "ethernet telephone" provided by the telephone service provider and can eliminate the need for the PC hardware.

The first solution works best when the person you're phoning also has the equipment, though you can get around that by subscribing to a "gateway" service that receives your calls over the Internet and transfers them back to the regular telephone network. It's also best when the "callee" is also online - otherwise you - or your computer - may have to make a short long distance call over the conventional network to prod the person into logging on.

The "ethernet phone" is part of an entire local/long distance service combination that, for a flat monthly fee, gives you virtually unlimited calling to anyone on earth who also subscribes to the service, with cut rate calling to people outside the network.

Both of these concepts use the Internet as the vehicle for carrying your voice - and to the Internet distances are irrelevant. This is why you don't pay any extra to surf a site in Hong Kong than you do to visit the virtual home of a local business.

When you place a call, your speech is digitized and compressed, then transported over the Internet. When the digitized signal nears its destination, a special "gateway" operated by the company handling the call changes it so that it can be recognized by an ordinary phone. The call is then completed through local phone lines. -

Despite having to go through all that rigamarole, voices come through loud and clear.

As with everything, there's a catch, though. If your Internet connection isn't fast enough, there can be delays in the signal that will make you think you're talking to somebody on the moon. A 56K modem is barely adequate for PC-to-voice, and to make it really shine, you need a high-speed connection using a cable modem, ADSL or a T1 line.

Still, the medium has potential, and offers consumers yet another choice - and that's not a bad thing.


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January 31, 2006