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I Think That's Your PC Ringing

Your eyes locked across the rows of business class on an all-night intercontinental flight. Over small bottles of liquor, love arced through the recycled air. Cupid set the mood; it could be up to Internet calling to keep that spark alive.

It's time to rediscover Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP. A few years back the same kids that populated the ham-radio shack in college figured out that with a PC, an Internet connection and some software, you could stick it to The Man and get a free crackly phone line across the world.

Today, that line's much clearer and the phone call isn't totally free, but you have several plans and technologies from which to choose. If you've got heavy calling to make to faraway places, you'd be crazy not to take a look. If you're just curious about how it all works, the technology is easy to set up and you'll be calling in no time, but you probably won't give up the convenience of your plain old telephone.

VoIP calls bypass some or all of the expensive switching fees of the local and long-distance network operators by sending calls over the Internet. Consumers can talk over the Internet three ways: from a PC to another PC user, from a PC to a phone user, or phone to phone. The phone-to-phone calling is not sufficiently novel for our purposes -- customers call an 800 number using services such as Dialpad and Net2Phone and get cheaper rates by being connected through IP networks. We're interested in the calling you can do from your computer.

PC-to-PC calling is the cheapest option, and you might just be set up to do it already if you use AOL (AOL) Instant Messenger version 4.0, released in April 2000, or more recent editions that come with AOL Talk. When you initiate an instant message with a friend, you have the "talk" option, which patches you through for free to anyone using AIM. The quality is so-so, with some crackling and a muffled sound to the call, but the price is right.

Desktop Dialing
Using your computer for voice communications
Calling Method Pros Cons
AOL Talk and Windows Messenger (PC to PC) They are free, and come with the IM you already use. You get what you pay for in iffy quality.
Dialpad (PC to phone) The software is only 300 Kb and is the easiest to get running Calling rates are a little higher.
Net2Phone (PC to phone and PC to PC) Domestic rates are cheaper and the sound quality is great. At 1.87MB, the download is a little hefty.

PhoneFree is another PC-to-PC option that requires you install a 1MB piece of software, but offers you voicemail and combined voice and video calling. You will quickly become a connoisseur of "hops," the number of transfers your call makes along the Internet; the more hops, the longer the delay between when you speak and when the other end of the line hears your words. It's similar to, but shorter than, the delay on a satellite phone call.

Microsoft's (MSFT - Get Report) Windows Messenger supports PC-to-PC calling as well, and Windows XP also allows users to select one of the three PC-to-phone calling options below.

You'll be paying for PC-to-phone calling, so it's time to get picky. There are a number of services, led by Net2Phone and Dialpad, which you may have heard of, as well as iConnectHere that offer a good discount from average long-distance rates. Rates can still be pricey -- IP carriers have to negotiate with local phone companies to get the call switched to its final destination.

Dialpad was our favorite because of its slim, 300 Kb Java applet and the ability to work on PCs and Macs. In 10 minutes we'd started annoying our friends and co-workers. For comparison, Net2Phone had a 1.87 MB download and the iConnectHere service had a 1.35 MB initial download, as well as several other downloads to enable voicemail, faxing capability and viewing.

Net2Phone had the best sound quality of all our tests and some of the best rates. Be warned that these services can have wildly varying rates on international calls -- one will have bargain rates in Australia, while another has the cheapest to India. You'll want to look up your region of interest on each site if you're going to get serious.

Domestically, Net2Phone gives users 2 cents a minute calling in the U.S. iConnectHere offers 400 minutes for $1.99 a month (a half-cent per minute) and 1,000 minutes for $10.95 (about one penny a minute).

If you're looking for instant gratification, the iConnectHere servers can take some time to catch up with your registration. Dialpad USA currently offers unlimited free domestic calls, but on Nov. 28 all that will change and users will get 400 anytime minutes for $9.99 a month, or a 2.5 cents-a-minute rate. Calls over the 400-minute mark will cost 2.9 cents a minute, a rate equal to the per-minute price international Dialpad subscribers get when calling the U.S. EarthLink (ELNK - Get Report) offers this service with the EarthLink brand to its customers.

Before you pick up your laptop and start shouting into its various orifices, any type of calling from your PC requires, at the barest of minimums, a microphone (you'd better have decent PC speakers). The more quality-conscious will want a headset, ranging from your corner-store cheapie to a top-of-the-line model for $100 or more. Also, the better your technology, the crisper your call -- if you've got lots of bandwidth, a good ISP, a fast computer and a spiffy headset, your call can sound as good as a regular phone call. A sputtering 486 machine and modem connection to an offshore ISP will give you crackling on the line, long pauses in the conversation and an echo.

In these days of austerity, it's time to resurrect Voice over IP calling from the bulging file of gee-whiz technologies that came out of the initial Internet boom. International romance can still bloom in postbubble economy times, through the wonders of technology.

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